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U.K. Treatment of Iraqi Refugees Probed

The U.N. refugee agency said Friday it is investigating claims by Iraqi asylum seekers that they were mistreated by British officials before being deported back to Iraq.

Fourteen failed asylum seekers told lawyers of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Baghdad that they were beaten by staff from the U.K. Border Agency in a London airport before being forced onto the plane to Iraq late Wednesday, said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic.

"We've met with six of them and saw fresh bruises that indicated mistreatment could have occurred," he told reporters in Geneva.

The 14 were among 42 rejected Iraqi asylum seekers who were sent back forcibly to Baghdad, Mahecic said. He said the agency spoke to eight other deportees by telephone.

"All those interviewed reported that 42 deportees were forcibly returned to Baghdad against their will," he said.

UNHCR has repeatedly told governments that they should not return asylum seekers to Baghdad and Iraq's five central provinces because the area is not secure enough for their return, Mahecic said.

Britain's Home Office said two of the detainees tried to escape while being taken onboard the plane. Two were handcuffed on the plane, a spokesman said on condition of anonymity in keeping with ministry regulations.

Most of the Iraqis refused to disembark the plane when it arrived in Baghdad, he said.

The Home Office denied that all of the 42 were failed asylum seekers, saying 17 were foreign national prisoners who had committed drug, weapons and sexual offenses.

The U.K. Border Agency rejected the allegations of mistreatment.

"We would prefer that those with no basis of stay in the U.K. left voluntarily. However, where they refuse to do so we will take steps to enforce their departure," said David Wood, who heads the Criminality and Detention Group of the U.K. Border Agency.

Several European governments, including Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, recently deported around 60 failed asylum seekers to Iraq, despite UNHCR's guidelines.

Security has seen dramatic improvements over the past two years in Iraq. But the UNHCR had urged governments not to force the Iraqis to return, citing continued attacks and human rights violations in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

Most of the 2 million Iraqi refugees are living without permanent homes in neighboring Syria and Jordan. The U.N. says it is worried European governments sending back Iraqi asylum seekers would send the wrong signal to those countries.

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