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Finnish police carrying out forced returns of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers

Charter flights arranged by the Finnish police have carried 1,500 rejected asylum seekers voluntarily back to Iraq since the turn of the year, while the International Organization of Migration (IOM) has assisted with 1,395 voluntary returns from Finland to Iraq in the same period. A representative of the Finnish police says individual forced returns to Iraq have also taken place for some who refuse to leave voluntarily, despite the absence of an agreement between the countries on repatriation.

Image: Lassi Tolvanen

National Police Board Chief Superintendent Mia Poutanen says Finland is currently facilitating the forced returns of rejected asylum seekers from Iraq, in addition to thousands of voluntary returns assisted by the Finnish police and the IOM.

“We have always returned people there, and we seek to continue to do so. There is a false notion, if you could call it that, that a repatriation agreement must be signed before the police can carry out a forced return, but it is not true,” she says.

In previous years, Iraqi nationals that were deported were primarily required to leave because of a crime or misdemeanour they had committed in Finland. A criminal record is not, however, a legal prerequisite for a forced return, says Poutanen.

“An offence is not a precondition for a forced return. As long as it the decision qualifies for execution, the police implement deportations to the country in question without regard for the grounds leading up to it. The only constraint is people who face refusal of entry or deportation due to criminal activity. They cannot choose an assisted voluntary return,” she says.

The Chief Superintendent emphasizes that in the absence of this constraint, people who have been denied a residence permit are always first offered the choice of assisted voluntary returns.

Vast majority leaves voluntarily

The lion’s share of rejected asylum seekers originating from Iraq chose an assisted voluntary return. Some 1,500 people were returned to Iraq so far in 2016 on 16 charter flights. A further 1,395 Iraqis were sent back via the intergovernmental organisation the International Organisation of Migration (IOM).

In addition, Poutanen says several individuals have been returned to Iraq against their will this year.

“But it’s important to note that there haven’t been many decisions to enforce until the logjam begins to split up at the Finnish Immigration Service and the Courts of Appeal. In previous years, Finland has not had large numbers of forced returns to Iraq.”

Some 3,500 asylum seekers have gone missing from reception centres in Finland in 2015 and 2016. Poutanen ventures that some of them left Finland on their own, without informing anyone. Others may have stayed in the country.

“When the Immigration Service and the courts catch up with their backlog, and the rejected applicants don’t return to their country of origin for some reason, the number of people residing in the country illegally could grow. The goal however it that we will be able to implement each of the decisions,” she says.

Still working on a repatriation agreement

Poutanen says that most of the countries in the world take back residents who are forced returns, even if no bilateral agreements to that effect have been entered into.  However some countries, like Iraq, are more reluctant to cooperate in the joint operations than others.

“We have an excellent track record of repatriation cooperation with Iraq, but we have confronted minor challenges when it comes to forced returns. Not all, mind you, but some of the negative asylum decisions have led to forced returns to Iraq,” she says.

Finland and Iraq have been negotiating a bilateral repatriation agreement since autumn 2015. An attempt to put some kind of agreement in place has been in the works since 2009. An official agreement would make it easier for Finland to facilitate the return of asylum seekers to Iraq.

Finland signed a repatriation agreement with Afghanistan in October.

Second re-assessment of security risk in the works

The Finnish Immigration Service announced on November 19 that it will revisit its previous security assessment of Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan in January on the heels of news that Sweden's Migration Agency had changed its security assessment of Iraq. The Swedish immigration service says the change was owing to the ongoing armed conflict and deteriorating human rights in the country.

In May of this year, Finland's immigration authorities said that there had been an improvement in the local security situation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia and ruled the countries safe for nationals to return. Various humanitarian groups condemned the move, pointing out that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland was still advising Finnish citizens to avoid travel to these locations.

Over 20,000 of the over 32,000 asylum seekers that arrived in Finland in 2015 were from Iraq. Some 1,100 Iraqi asylum seekers have entered Finland so far this year from a total of just over 5,000.

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