UNHCR urges halt to unsafe Iraqi refugee returns

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The UN refugee agency on Friday urged European countries not to send Iraqi refugees back to central parts of Iraq, just days after the official withdrawal of US combat troops.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees made the appeal after 61 Iraqis from Britain, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, were flown to Baghdad airport on Wednesday.

It was the latest in a series of joint flights from Europe this year that have prompted UNHCR protests about forcible returns to unsafe areas in and around the Iraqi capital.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said the agency remained concerned at the "ongoing forced returns of Iraqi citizens from western European countries.

"We strongly urge European governments to provide Iraqis with protection until the situation in their areas of origin in Iraq allows for safe and voluntary returns," he told journalists.

"In this critical time of transition, we also encourage all efforts to develop conditions in Iraq that are conducive to sustainable and voluntary return," Edwards added.

The UNHCR began warning about deportations from northern European countries earlier this summer.

The agency has long recommended that Iraqis should not be returned to five "governorates", mainly in the centre and east of the country, because of serious violence there.

Some of the 61 who returned this week may have been headed to safer areas or returned voluntarily, Edwards acknowledged.

However, the UNHCR fears that deportations from Europe may encourage neighbouring countries like Syria and Jordan, that host hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees despite the significant economic burden, to do the same.

"We're certainly concerned about the message that these returns give to surrounding countries, we do need surrounding countries to continue give the protection that they've offered," he explained.

Edwards declined to say how the European governments engaged in returns had responded to the refugee agency's complaints.

US forces ended their seven-year combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday, prior to a complete withdrawal at the end of 2011.

© 2010 AFP

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