Early morning on September 5 security guards burst into the sleeping quarters of Colnbrook immigration detention centre in west London. The guards had come to take 32 Iraqi Kurdish men away. Barefoot, handcuffed, with the guards swearing at them, the 32 were taken to RAF Brize Norton airforce base. Their threatened forced deportation to Arbil in northern Iraq was imminent.
In response, one man slit his throat and up to 14 others took overdoses or cut themselves in a desperate attempt to avoid "removal". One eyewitness described the scene at the holding area at the airport as "carnage with blood on the walls". The Kurds knew the danger of returning to Iraq. They had fled the country years before because of that danger.
The British Home Office is alone in its view that northern Iraq is safe for Kurds to be forced to return to. Amnesty International, the Refugee Council, and even the British Foreign Office all stress the lethal danger to those entering northern Iraq. But if northern Iraq, like the rest of the country, isn't safe, and if Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction" never existed, then why was the war on Iraq waged?
In a March 2003 speech Prime Minister Tony Blair laid out the Labour government'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). The latter was certainly true. But the first stated objective — protecting the Kurds — was a lie. Britain has in fact waged war on the Kurds over 80 years — this war has followed the Kurds from their homeland to the streets and detention centres of Britain.
The Kurds are the biggest stateless ethnic group in the world. 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."
Six years later the Royal Air Force did just that against the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniya. In 1988 Saddam Hussein took Churchill's advice and killed 5000 Kurds at Halabja using poison gas supplied with the knowledge of the West.
After the 1991 Gulf War, Britain joined the US in encouraging a Kurdish uprising against Hussein. After one month, Kurdish fighters and civilians were fleeing Hussein'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 1.5 million people were made refugees. Most Kurdish refugees tried to escape to Iran or Turkey. Over a thousand people died each day as they crowded at the borders, abandoned by their self-appointed "protectors" in the West.
In the following decade, many abandoned their lives in Iraq in an attempt to reach the apparent safety of Europe. No surprise then, that Britain's Iraqi Kurdish population rose from a few thousand in the early 1990s to more than 30,000 in 2006.
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 1990s; from ethnic tensions deliberately fostered by the Iraqi state; and, particularly for Kurdish communists, from repression by Islamist groups.
It wasn't the opportunity to claim British state welfare 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 carwash. It was the chance to live safely, to find asylum in Britain — 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 Britain.
Britain's 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 20 from an original intention to deport 70. 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. 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."
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 that would defer or prevent deportation. 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 each deportation costs £11,000. The Home Office was determined to get its money's worth. Their response to the successful injunctions was simple: select another five from the pool of around 70 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 on September 5 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 Britain.
In February 2004, the 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 30 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. Until then, their policy was to encourage voluntary return to northern Iraq, organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). There were few takers Kurdish refugees.
From August 2005, letters were sent to all traceable Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers in Britain. 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 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 British 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 British 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). 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".
This blackmail sparked nationwide protest from refugee support organisations and from Iraqi Kurds. One man, Naseh Ghafor in Sheffield, sewed his lips up and refused food for over 40 days stating, "I would rather die here than go back and get killed in my own country".
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-in 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 British 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".
Many Kurds refused to sign the Home Office letter that bound them to returning to northern Iraq. Destitution became widespread. In Leeds, around 250 Iraqi Kurds lost their homes and all state support from September-December 2005. In Sheffield, about 200 Kurds were forced onto the street with nothing.
These "failed" asylum seekers do not have the right to work legally, leading to a boom for employers wanting a desperate work force 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. All routes, except that of returning to lethal danger in Iraq, are being closed.
"The Kurd has the mind of a schoolboy … He requires a beating one day and a sugar plum the next" — so wrote Major W.R. Hay, a political officer in the British army, stationed in Arbil, northern Iraq in 1919. Eighty-six years later, the British 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. Immigration and Nationality Directorate figures show that only 1,020 Iraqi Kurds in Britain took up this offer in the whole period from June 2004-December 2005.
The 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 12-hour shifts for £1.50 an hour and sleeping on friends' 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, the man was robbed of his £500 (carried as US dollars) by a taxi driver. He knew other men who had stepped off the plane at Arbil and were immediately taken into detention by the security forces of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).
Corruption and collaboration
The establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), was cited by the British government as a vindication of its war on — and occupation of — Iraq. However, the human rights abuses and corruption of the KRG have been well documented. 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?
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 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 Britain to Iraq. However, at a meeting in March 2006, KDP representatives urged the Home Office to continue and to increase deportations of Kurds. Iraqi embassy officials at the meeting supported this position. In northern Iraq young Kurds are fleeing KRG persecution, corruption and poverty at a rate of 2000 per week. This leaves the area short of labour and potential recruits to the armed and security forces of the KRG and its main constituent parts — the KDP and PUK.
The return of political opponents, through forced deportation, 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 1990s 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."
Ahmed explained that his wife had been murdered and his family targeted for their communist sympathies and opposition to the KDP and PUK. The KDP has not condemned the September 5 forced deportation of Kurds.
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 or 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.
What happens to people after they get deported to northern Iraq?
According to European Council for Refugees and Exiles guidelines "member states should implement an effective system for monitoring forced returns". Questions to Home Secretary John Reid's office have yielded replies explaining that the 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 Britain and their fellow Kurds back in northern Iraq.
Recent reports suggest that the September 5 deportation was not the last: at least 22 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. 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.