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Iraq: Political Asylum

Volume 695: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will grant political asylum to Iraqis who have worked for the British forces or the United Kingdom Government in Iraq and have applied for such asylum.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are extremely grateful for the service of locally employed staff in Iraq and take their security very seriously. The Prime Minister commissioned a ministerial review on 8 August 2007 of assistance that might be offered to members of locally engaged staff in Iraq. The outcome of that review will be announced by the Prime Minister later this afternoon in another place.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I hear what he says, although perhaps he is aware that the Prime Minister’s decision has already been trailed in at least three national newspapers over the weekend—rather more accurately than some other prime ministerial intentions, I hope. Perhaps I may therefore ask the noble Lord a general question of principle: does he accept that Iraqis who have worked for the British in cities such as Basra and Baghdad have put themselves in enormous danger of reprisals and that this country has a moral duty to protect them as well as we can without placing some arbitrary limit on the numbers whom we help?

My Lords, I agree entirely that we have a moral obligation to look after people who have worked with our forces abroad. I have been on the ground in Iraq a number of times over the past four years and I have seen what those people have done there. Indeed, the same is true in many places around the world. I agree entirely that we have that moral obligation. I do not know the details of exactly what the Prime Minister is going to say. I have read some of those newspaper reports; I am not sure that I always believe everything that I read in the papers, but I am sure that we will very soon be clear about the reply.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on 20 June Hilary Benn, then the Secretary of State for International Development, gave an assurance to parliamentarians that the Iraqi interpreters had a compelling case for asylum and that he would urgently pursue that? A new Prime Minister arrived and months passed. We might hear something this afternoon, but can the Minister tell the House how many interpreters and members of their families have suffered, and possibly died, as a result of this delay?

My Lords, I do not have any statistics or figures on that but, if I may, I shall get back to the noble Baroness in writing. As I say, I believe that we have a moral obligation to look after people who have worked with us. However, we know in this House—probably better than in most places—that the actual detail involved in working out how to do that is extremely difficult. Putting the matter into some form of legislation is very tricky indeed. These people are not refugees—they cannot be refugees—so it is tricky. The matter has been looked at by a ministerial review and there will be an announcement later today that will make this clear.

My Lords, are the Iraqi forces in Basra city and elsewhere aware of the situation regarding the people who have been helping us in Iraq? Are they trained on the need to ensure the safety of those people and their families?

My Lords, I am not aware whether they have specific instructions. I would be surprised if they had instructions about named people because that would put those people at risk, but I will find out for the noble Baroness and get back to her. I imagine that it is much more a case of the Iraqi forces now becoming responsible for the basic security in the region and on that basis I hope that they would be looking after all their people.

My Lords, did the Minister say that these people are not refugees? If they are not, what are they?

My Lords, to be a refugee you cannot be in your country of abode. An Iraqi living in Iraq cannot be considered a refugee by this country. Similarly, if he is in another country, he cannot be a refugee as far as this country is concerned. That is why these people cannot be treated on that basis.

My Lords, I have two questions. The first arises from what the Minister just said: was a Jew in Germany in 1938 or 1939 a refugee? Secondly, do the Government still adhere to the view that a friendly alien likely to be persecuted in his own country by virtue of his political activities, such as being friendly to the British, would qualify for political asylum here?

My Lords, the answer to the first question is that a Jew in those days would not have been a refugee according to the precise definition of the word. That does not mean that one should not try to look after people in some way, but he would not have been a refugee. I do not know exactly what will be in the Statement later today but I am sure that it will say that we will be looking after some of these people, because the Government believe that we have a moral obligation to look after people.

My Lords, is my noble friend saying that if someone has remained in the country where they are in difficulty, they can be a refugee only when they leave that country? That was precisely the position of the Jews in Germany, who were not refugees until they actually left the country. Is that what he is saying?

My Lords, will the Minister nevertheless confirm that representations have been made by the UNHCR to a number of potential receiving countries about sharing the burden of accepting people who, while not refugees, are at serious risk of persecution and harm in Iraq?

My Lords, I am aware that some discussion has taken place, although I do not know the exact details of it. It is interesting to note the numbers of people who have been taken into various countries. The countries around Iraq, which are where most Iraqis who have fled have gone, have to deal with them; they are not refugees in the sense in which we deal with them in this country.

My Lords, my noble friend is right that the presumption must be that translators and others in roles of that kind should be given refuge, but will he confirm that there will be no abrogation of the normal principle that every case must be viewed on its individual merits? There must be some individuals who have some, but limited, contact with the British forces and who would not, by virtue of that, be entitled to come to the UK.

My Lords, I shall have to wait for the announcement, because I do not know exactly what will be said. However, the Government firmly believe that we have a moral obligation to look after people who have helped us. I am sure that that will emerge from the Statement later today.