Early morning on September 5th security guards burst into the sleeping quarters of Colnbrook detention centre in west London. The guards had come to take thirty two Iraqi Kurdish men away. Barefoot, handcuffed, with the guards swearing at them, the thirty two were taken to RAF Brize Norton. Their threatened forced deportation to Arbil in northern Iraq was imminent. In response, one man slit his throat and up to fourteen others took overdoses or cut themselves in a desperate attempt to avoid "removal". One eye witness described the scene at the holding area at the airport as "carnage with blood on the walls".(1) The Kurds knew the danger of returning to Iraq. They had fled the country years before because of that danger.
The UK Home Office is alone in their view that northern Iraq is safe for Kurds to be forced back to. Amnesty International, the Refugee Council, and even the UK Foreign Office all stress the lethal danger to those entering northern Iraq. (2) But if northern Iraq, like the rest of the country, isn't safe; if Saddam's weapons of mass destruction never existed, then why was the war on Iraq waged?
In a speech entitled "A War Not of Conquest But of Liberation", delivered in March 2003, Prime Minister Blair laid out Labour's reasons for its planned war on Iraq. "Our objective is to protect the people in the Kurdish autonomous zone" and, he added, "to secure the northern oilfields" (of northern Iraq/Kurdistan) (3). The latter was certainly true. This article aims to show that the first stated objective - protecting the Kurds - was a calculated lie. That Britain has in fact waged war on the Kurds over eighty years; that this war has followed the Kurds from their homeland to the streets and detention centres of this country.
The Kurds are the biggest stateless ethnic group in the world. (4) This fact is not unconnected to their repeated abuse and manipulation by the imperial powers and their proxies. Britain's record is particularly shameful. Winston Churchill set the standard in 1919 when he told the War Office (referring to the Kurds and Afghans): "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes". (5) Six years later the RAF did just that against the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniya. In 1988 Saddam Hussein took Churchill's advice and killed five thousand Kurds at Halabja using poison gas supplied with the knowledge of the West.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, the UK joined the US in encouraging a Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein. After one month, Kurdish fighters and civilians were fleeing Saddam's (western-supplied) tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships. Thousands of peshmerga (militia fighters) and civilians were killed, hoping for a western military intervention that never came. Over one and a half million people were made refugees. Most Kurdish refugees tried to escape to Iran or Turkey. Over one thousand people died each day as they crowded at the borders, abandoned by their self-appointed "protectors" in the West.(6).
In the following decade, many abandoned their lives in Iraq in an attempt to reach the apparent safety of Europe. No surprise then, that the UK's Iraqi Kurdish population rose from a few thousand in the early 1990's to over 30,000 in 2006. (7) They were trying to escape from an Iraqi state that terrorised them because they were Kurdish; from a civil war between the two main Kurdish political parties during the 1990's; from ethnic tensions deliberately fostered by the Iraqi state and, particularly for Kurdish communists, from repression by Islamic groups.
It wasn't the opportunity to claim UK state benefits that brought them to this country. As one Iraqi Kurdish man explained at a public meeting in Sheffield in September 2005: "I am a solicitor in Iraq, Kurdistan is a rich country. I didn't come here for a £35 a week food voucher." Nor did Kurdish engineers and scientists arrive with the hope of serving kebabs or working in a car wash. It was the chance to live safely, to find asylum in the UK - the country that had claimed to protect them. Most hoped to return soon to northern Iraq, to their families, to their oil-rich and culturally rich homeland. But northern Iraq, like the rest of the country was, of course, never made safe by the West's war and occupation. These refugees were to find that the cynical manipulation that led to them fleeing their homes in Iraq was echoed by their treatment in the UK.
"Protecting the Kurds": Forced Deportation #1
The UK Government is alone in western Europe in carrying out mass forced deportations of Iraqi Kurds. Their first attempt was in November 2005. On that occasion, successful legal challenges limited the number to twenty from an original intention to deport seventy. (8) Then Home Secretary Charles Clarke was forced to admit to a "regrettable mistake" when one man was deported in error after he had been denied access to legal representation. (9) This case prompted High Court Judge Justice Collins to criticise Government policy: "Frankly, the court has got a little fed up with how the Home Office is putting these removals into practice. It is not good enough." (10)
"Protecting the Kurds": Forced Deportation #2
Judge Justice Collins would have, doubtless, been rather peeved with Home Secretary John Reid's handling of the second forced deportation in September 2006. In an unprecedented move, Reid warned the duty High Court Judge that the Home Office would ignore any last-minute applications for a judicial review of individual cases which would defer or prevent deportation.(11) Despite the huge difficulties facing potential deportees in obtaining injunctions to stop their deportation, six of them applied for an injunction, with the support of the Refugee Legal Centre. Of the six applications, five injunctions were granted, halting their immediate deportation.
The National Audit Office estimates the cost of each deportation at £11,000. The Home Office was determined to get its money's worth, despite legal niceties. Their response to the successful injunctions was simple: select another five from the pool of around seventy who they had captured and served deportation notices on during previous weeks. This gruesome version of an airline "stand-by" system adds weight to the claim that the Home Office has scant regard for an individual's circumstances in its pursuit of quota-fulfilment.
The forced deportation of September 5th 2006 is significant not just because of its calculated brutality and its attack on the legal rights of detained asylum seekers. It marks a shift in the tactics of the Home Office towards Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers in the UK.
"Protecting the Kurds": Blackmail
In February 2004 the UK Home Office announced its intention to deport "thousands" of Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers. The deportations were to begin in April that year at a rate of thirty per week. Even the Home Office could not claim that Iraq was safe to return to - or that there was a safe route of return - until August 2005. (12) Until then their policy was to encourage voluntary return to northern Iraq, organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). There were few takers amongst Iraqi Kurds in the UK.
From August 2005 letters were sent to all traceable Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers in the UK. The Home Office used these letters to claim that there was now a "safe route of return" to northern Iraq. Casual observers, not directly affected by events in northern Iraq, could have been forgiven for accepting this claim made by the UK Government. However, for Iraqi Kurds threatened with forced "removal" the claim that there was "a safe route of return" was an incredible one. It was not lost on them that the "safe route" included Highway 10 from Jordan to Iraq, a road so hazardous that the occupying US and UK military forces hesitated to use it. Arbil airport in northern Iraq was to be the destination for direct flights carrying those returning to Iraq. In 2005 neither UK nor US military aircraft were prepared to land there, such was the danger.
These Home Office letters stipulated a new condition for the receipt of "Section 4" support. Named after a section of the 1999 Asylum and Nationality Act, Section 4 support consists of a £35 per week food voucher and rent paid on accommodation provided through the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). (13) The ultimatum from the Home Office stated that unless Section 4 recipients agreed "voluntarily" to return to "safe" Iraq they would "be required to leave your accommodation and will not be entitled to any other form of support". (14)
This blackmail sparked nationwide protest from refugee support organisations and from Iraqi Kurds themselves. One man, Naseh Ghafor in Sheffield, sewed his lips up and refused food for over forty days stating, "I would rather die here than go back and get killed in my own country" (15).
"Protecting the Kurds": Kidnapping
Those Kurds who agreed to return voluntarily to Iraq lost any legal right to contest their deportation. They also became immediately traceable to the authorities through the practice of monthly signing at reporting centres. Such centres are usually at local police stations. From late 2005 it became increasingly common for those entering reporting stations never to leave them: except in an Immigration Service van on the way to a detention centre. This practice, had it occurred in Iraq, would have been labelled "kidnapping" by the UK Government. One of the men deported in November 2005, Karwan, was kidnapped in this way when he reported to Dallas Court in Bolton for a Home Office "interview".
"Protecting the Kurds": Creating Destitution
Many Kurds refused to sign the Home Office letter which bound them to return to northern Iraq. Destitution became widespread. In Leeds around 250 Iraqi Kurds lost their homes and all state support between September-December 2005. In Sheffield, about 200 Kurds were forced onto the street with nothing.(16) These "failed" asylum seekers do not have the right to work legally, leading to a boom for employers wanting a desperate workforce prepared to work for a pittance. From summer 2006 there has also been an increase in the scale of Immigration Service raids on those forced to work illegally. (17) All routes, except that of returning to lethal danger in Iraq, are being closed.
"Protecting the Kurds": Bribery
"The Kurd has the mind of a schoolboy...He requires a beating one day and a sugar plum the next." So wrote Major WR Hay, a political officer in the British army, stationed in Arbil, northern Iraq in 1919. (18) Eighty six years later, the UK Government supplemented the beatings of deportation, kidnapping and destitution with a £500 sugar plum. The Voluntary Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme (VARRP) was extended from June to December 2006. Operated by the IOM, the scheme offered voluntary returnees to Iraq a £500 cash "relocation" grant and a further £2500 conditional on strict "reintegration" criteria.(19) Immigration and Nationality Directorate figures show that only 1,020 Iraqi Kurds in the UK took up this offer in the whole period from June 2004 - December 2005. (20)
The latest forced deportation of September 2006 is surely aimed (along with the weapon of destitution) at increasing the number of "voluntary" returns. I met Kawa (not his real name), a local Kurdish man, in the Sheffield restaurant where he worked illegally, and asked him why he planned to return to Iraq with VARRP. Kawa was working twelve hour shifts for £1.50 an hour and sleeping on friend's floors at night. He explained: "If I go back I might die, but here I die every day." He also recounted the story of a man who had previously returned to Iraq with VARRP. After the plane landed at Arbil airport this man was robbed of his £500 (in $US) by a taxi driver. He knew other men who had stepped off then plane at Arbil and were immediately taken into detention by the security forces of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). (21)
"Protecting the Kurds": Corruption and Collaboration
The establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), was cited by the UK Government as a vindication of their war on - and occupation of - Iraq. However, the human rights abuses and corruption of the KRG have been well documented.(22) Ahmed (not his real name), from Sheffield's Kurdish community, described the KRG: "That dictatorship - it's worse than Saddam Hussein's." Why, he asked, did the leadership of the KDP need to travel around Kurdistan in 200-car convoys for its own protection? (23)
The two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have long collaborated with Western governments (and with Saddam Hussein at times) in their desperate attempts to achieve Kurdish statehood, or any form of regional or national autonomy.
Since 2005 there have been regular meetings between senior civil servants representing the UK Home Office, Iraqi Embassy officials, representatives from Iraqi Kurdish community organisations and KRG officials, including members of the KDP and PUK. Publicly both KDP and PUK have opposed forced deportations of Iraqi Kurds from the UK to Iraq. (24) However, at a meeting in March 2006, KDP representatives urged the UK Home Office to continue and to increase deportations of Iraqi Kurds from the UK. Iraqi Embassy officials at the meeting supported this position. (25) In northern Iraq young Kurds are fleeing KRG persecution, corruption and poverty at a rate of 2000 per week. (26) This leaves the area short of labour and potential recruits to the armed and security forces of the KRG and its main constituent parts - KDP and PUK.
The return of political opponents, through forced deportation, from the UK to northern Iraq also gives the KDP and PUK the chance to settle political scores. These two parties, now in an uneasy governmental alliance, spent much of the 1990's embroiled in a civil war between themselves and against communist and Islamic Kurdish organisations. Sherzad Ahmed, an Iraqi Kurd demonstrating against the September deportation, told a reporter: "I don't understand how anyone could think I will be safe if I'm sent back." He explained that his wife had been murdered and his family targeted for their communist sympathies and opposition to the KDP and PUK.(27) The KDP has not condemned the September 5th forced deportation of thirty two Iraqi Kurds from the UK.
With the cooperation of at least one of the two main Kurdish political parties, all the links in the chain of the deportation process have been fastened: an Iraqi Kurdish asylum seeker signs at a reporting centre each month to entitle him/her to Section 4 support. There they can be seized and held by police. Immigration officials can then take them to a detention centre. They are then served deportation notices en masse, denied access to legal support and taken (usually at night) to an airport. When the plane flies to northern Iraq, its destination is Arbil - controlled by the KDP.
"Protecting the Kurds": Abandonment
What happens to people after they get deported to northern Iraq?
According to European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) guidelines "member states should implement an effective system for monitoring forced returns." (28) Questions to Home Secretary John Reid's office have yielded replies explaining that the UK Government has put no such monitoring system in place for northern Iraq (or indeed for anywhere else). Nor, it seems, does it have any plans to do so. Reports about those forcibly deported have come only from the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees and phone contact between individuals in the UK and their fellow Kurds back in northern Iraq.
Recent reports suggest that the September 5th forced deportation was not the last: at least twenty two more Iraqi Kurds were seized through dawn raids and kidnapping at reporting centres in September. There were at least two workplace raids by immigration officials in Sheffield during October. Many of those held are now in detention centres. We can now expect beatings without sugar plums.
The Tony Blair regime is in its final months. Home Secretary John Reid is positioning himself to continue Blair's work. The same Labour Government that launched a war in 2003 against Iraq to "protect the Kurds" has now declared another war: on Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers in this country.
Stuart Crosthwaite, 11th October 2006
The Sun Online, "32 Iraqis are booted out of UK", 7/9/06
Amnesty International, "Forcible return to Iraq would be unlawful". www.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGEUR 450342005
Refugee Council, "Forced removal of Iraqis expected to begin today". www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/news/press/2006/September/20060905.htm
UK Foreign Office, "We advise against all but essential travel to the north of Iraq". www.fco.gov.uk
"A War Not of Conquest but of Liberation", 24/3/03 www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page3337.asp
Kurdish statelessness makes exact figures impossible. A reasonable estimate seems to be 30 million. See D McDowall, "The Kurds: A Nation Denied".
War Office minute of 12/5/1919, quoted in Martin Gilbert, "Winston Churchill" companion Volume 4, part 1.
Precise figures are not available: official figures do not recognise Kurds as a nationality. The quoted figures are arrived at through use of Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) statistics for asylum applications from Iraq along with estimates from the Refugee Council on the number of Kurds in the UK and the proportion of those Kurds who are from Iraq.
See the Refugee Council's "Asylum by Numbers 1985-2000" and IND website.
See also European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) report. ECRE gives numbers of Iraqis (not solely Iraqi Kurds) seeking asylum in the UK as increasing from "about 4,200 in 1989" to "over 41,200 in 2001". www.ecre.org/publications/gmfreport.pdf
Refugee Council, "Response to the Forced Removal of 15 Iraqis", 20/11/05
Daily Telegraph, "Clarke to bring back wrongly deported Kurd", 20/12/05
Independent Online, "Search for Kurdish refugee deported to Iraq by mistake", 20/12/05
Guardian Society Online, "Reid warns judges not to block Iraqi's deportation", 5/9/06
Refugee Council briefing, "Iraq-return and Section 4 support", December 2005 It was also difficult for the UK Government to carry out their policy because before summer 2005 Kurdish members of the interim Iraqi Government were vocal in their opposition to forced deportations from the UK to northern Iraq.
The NASS vouchers (set at two-thirds the rate of UK subsistence benefit levels) can only be used at certain supermarkets and no change is given.
Home Office letter, undated. Copy held by author.
Personal communication to author, July 2005
Leeds Today, "250 Iraqis forced on to the streets", 14/12/05 and estimates made by Sheffield Kurdish Community Centre.
See Committee to Stop Deportations to Iraq (CSDIraq), www.csdiraq.com/archives/000037.html
FO 371/5068, "Note on Rawanduz", 26/12/1919. Quoted in D McDowall: "A Modern History of the Kurds".
European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), "Guidelines on the treatment of Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees in Europe", PP1/03/2006/EXT/SH, March 2006
IND figures quoted on CSDIraq website, www.csdiraq.com/archives/000011.html
Personal communication to author, January 2006 Ominously, all returnees are required to sign a waiver stating, "I acknowledge that IOM has no responsibility for me or my dependents once I return to Iraqi territory and I hereby release IOM from any liability in this respect." See Refugee Council briefing, Iraq- return and Section 4 support, October 2005.
See, for example, Amnesty International's view quoted in The Guardian, "Home Office makes sure asylum flight is full", 6/9/06. Also, ECRE March 2006 report and CSDIraq website, www.csdiraq.com/archives/000043.html & 000054.html & 000039.html
Personal communication to author, September 2006
For example, Kurdmedia, "Barzani slams Britain for returning Kurds to war-torn country", 20/8/05, www.kurdmedia.com/news.asp?id=7534
Personal communication to author, March 2006.
CSDIraq website, www.csdiraq.com.archives/000043.html
Quoted in Independent Online, "Iraq: Deported refugees fearful of persecution on their return", 8/9/06.