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Asylum Seekers

13. Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): How many failed asylum seekers resident in (a) Glasgow, Cathcart and (b) the United Kingdom are in receipt of hard case payments; and if he will make a statement. [211505]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): According to provisional management information, as at 21 January there were no failed asylum seekers in section 4 accommodation in my hon. Friend's constituency. There were, however, 2,223 in section 4 accommodation in the United Kingdom as a whole.

Mr. Harris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, because it flatly contradicts those who criticise the Government for leaving failed asylum seekers without accommodation or any income. In fact, the truth is that those who do not have a legitimate claim for asylum in this country can claim hard case payments provided that they co-operate with the authorities for their eventual return home. Will my hon. Friend highlight and improve awareness of the hard case payment scheme, and assure the House that finance is in place to meet any substantial consequent increase in take-up?

Mr. Browne: Failed asylum seekers are expected to leave the UK, and there is nothing to stop the vast majority of them from so doing. When they do not leave and it is appropriate that they should be removed, it is the responsibility of Government to remove them. The issue was raised earlier in questions, and the improvement in removals was recognised. Indeed, it was recognised by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who speaks on these issues on behalf of the official Opposition, in a debate in Westminster Hall in July, when he said that he had no further advice for the Government in this area. I think that even he would agree that working on a supportive basis under section 4 with people who genuinely cannot leave is the appropriate thing to do. We in Government are happy to provide that support as long as those failed asylum seekers continue to co-operate with us.
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15. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): If he will make a further statement on his Department's policy on the repatriation to Zimbabwe of Zimbabwean nationals whose asylum and residence applications to the UK have been unsuccessful. [211507]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): The Government's position remains as set out in the statement that I made on 16 November. The treatment of Zimbabwean asylum applicants is the same as that of all other nationalities. There are Zimbabweans in need of international protection from persecution. Our asylum system provides that protection, and will continue to do so. People who need international protection are given it, but if an asylum and human rights claim by an individual of any nationality is refused, and any appeal to the independent appellate authorities is unsuccessful, we consider that it would be safe for that individual to return to their country of origin. They are expected to leave voluntarily, and if they do not do so we will seek to enforce their return.

Joyce Quin: I am worried about the Department's policy of allowing failed asylum seekers to return to Zimbabwe in certain circumstances, which might result in the return of one of my constituents, who is a valued member of the local community. Is my hon. Friend aware that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees opposes asylum seekers being returned to Zimbabwe at present? There are worrying accounts of asylum seekers on their return being handed over to Mugabe and his henchmen.

Mr. Browne: I am, of course, aware of the UNHCR position, which is based on a broad assessment of the situation in Zimbabwe generally. However, asylum and human rights claims are not decided on the basis of the general situation—they are based on the circumstances of the particular individual and the risk to that individual, as they are in relation to all asylum seekers, wherever they come from. Those who are found to be at risk because of the situation in Zimbabwe will be granted asylum or other appropriate protection. For them, the question of removal does not arise. With regard to my right hon. Friend's individual case, I am happy to consider to any information that she wishes to submit.

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3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the elections that were held in Iraq yesterday.

First, however, let me deal with the tragic crash of an RAF C-130 Hercules aircraft. As the House will be aware, the aircraft came down approximately 30 km to the north-west of Baghdad, at half-past four in the afternoon, Iraq time, yesterday. The aircraft was flying from Baghdad international airport to Balad airbase. The site of the crash has been secured, and we are investigating its cause. The House will understand that it would be wrong at this stage to speculate about possible causes. Ten United Kingdom service personnel were onboard the aircraft and, sadly, are presumed killed— nine were from the Royal Air Force and one from the Army. Their next of kin are being informed. The Ministry of Defence will release the names of those who were onboard only once this process is complete and the families have been given time to inform other loved ones and friends. I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences and sympathy to the families of these brave men and to their comrades.

Yesterday's elections in Iraq demonstrated the vital importance of what those service personnel and thousands of other brave British servicemen and women have been helping to achieve in Iraq. Only two years ago, Iraq was still under the sway of one of the most ruthless dictators in the world. Dissent was punishable by torture and summary execution, with an estimated 300,000 people buried in mass graves during the period of Saddam's dictatorship. The last time that the Iraqi people voted was in the staged elections of Saddam's tyranny, with just one candidate—a man who had been flouting the will of the United Nations for 12 long years. Yesterday, in contrast, the elections took place in the implementation of the will of the United Nations, for it was the Security Council, in resolution 1546, that laid down the timetable and process for the elections and the steps that follow. Yesterday, the Iraqi people had a choice of not one candidate but 8,000 candidates for the new National Assembly, from 111 different political parties and entities, with 11,000 candidates in regional and Kurdish elections. I am delighted to say that one third of the candidates in the national elections were women.

Although turnout figures will not be available for some days, it is already clear from initial estimates that a substantial proportion of the Iraqi population took part in the elections. Turnout appears to have been especially high in the north and south of the country, among both men and women. Turnout in Sunni majority areas was lower, mainly because of the high penetration of insurgents threatening to kill voters. However, in other areas where Sunni Arabs were able to vote freely, they appear to have done so in good numbers. Simon Collis, British consul-general in Basra, told me this afternoon that some 50 per cent. of Sunnis in that province may have voted. He described the extraordinary atmosphere in Basra, as families went out to vote, taking along their children dressed in their smartest festive clothing. Polling was also brisk in the
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mixed Sunni-Shi'a suburbs of Baghdad. In Mosul, extra polling stations had to be opened when turnout exceeded expectations.

Yesterday's elections were monitored by some 22,000 domestic election observers, 33,000 party officials and some 120 international monitors accredited to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. I arranged for three of the monitors to come from the House on an all-party basis, and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and the hon. Members for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) formed that delegation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) also observed the elections, and Baroness Nicholson did so on behalf of the European Parliament.

Electoral procedures are reported to have worked efficiently throughout the country. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the Canadian head of the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, has described the election as a "very good process". I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—one of the three all-party observers from the House—has described arrangements in the town of Maysan as "model".

I should like to pay tribute to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq and to its advisers from the United Nations—led by the quite exceptional international diplomat, Mr. Carlos Valenzuela—for their outstanding work in assisting the Iraqis and ensuring that yesterday's elections ran smoothly. I should also like to thank our ambassador, Edward Chaplin, and all our staff in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk for the excellent job that they do generally, but specifically in covering the elections.

No one expected these first free elections in half a century to be perfect, but they went far better than many had anticipated, and they are all the more remarkable given the circumstances in which they were held. We have grown used to insurgents in Iraq who attack any and every group and organisation that is working to rebuild the country. The Iraqi people most of all have suffered from that terrorist violence, and the insurgents had made it clear that they would use the vilest means possible to stop yesterday's elections running smoothly or at all. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the insurgency in Iraq, declared last week that democracy was an "evil principle". He and his henchmen—many, like him, are not Iraqis themselves—sent suicide bombers to attack polling stations and other areas associated with the elections, with the message, "If you vote, you die."

Yesterday's elections, by contrast, represent a real blow to that disgusting campaign of violence and intimidation. In Sadr City in Baghdad, for example, a mortar attack at a polling station in a local school left a number of people wounded. However, multinational force troops at the site report that people simply helped the wounded and then, along with those who could do so, rejoined the queue to vote. In Sunni areas in central Iraq, large groups of people defied terrorist intimidation and walked several kilometres to polling stations to cast their votes. Those elections were a moving demonstration that democracy and freedom are universal values to which people everywhere aspire.
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The fact that not a single suicide bomber managed to get through the security cordons around polling stations is a great tribute to the bravery and effectiveness of Iraq's own security forces, who were in the front line. I pay tribute to them, and to the troops of the UN-mandated multinational force, who helped to maintain security around the polling stations. Several policemen were killed when suicide bombers who were unable to get through their rigorous searches simply blew themselves up. Our thoughts are with their families and those of all the Iraqis who lost their lives in yesterday's violence.

As Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Dr. Ayad Allawi, said this morning:

We have seen the determination of the Iraqi people to participate in building a more secure and democratic future for their country, and we now need to support them as they continue that process. The Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq expects to publish the results of the election within 10 days, and to certify those results by 20 February.

Yesterday's elections were for a Transitional National Assembly of 275 members, who are elected on a wholly proportional system. The TNA's first task will be to elect a three-person presidency, which will in turn appoint a Prime Minister and Cabinet, which the TNA will be asked to approve. This Iraqi Transitional Government will then be sworn in and the Interim Government will dissolve, and we expect that to have taken place by the end of February. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said,

The new Assembly will then begin work on the next stage of the political process in Iraq—the drafting of a permanent constitution for Iraq—as set out in Security Council resolution 1546. Many Iraqi political and religious leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, have made clear their wish to include Sunni groups in that process. I welcome Prime Minister Allawi's call earlier today for a

There is also an important safeguard for both the Sunni and Kurdish minorities in the transitional administrative law, under whose terms the constitution must be approved: the constitution must receive an absolute majority of votes in a referendum and, in addition, it can be blocked by two thirds of voters in any three of the country's 18 provinces.

The United Kingdom will continue to offer every support to the political process in Iraq as set out by the United Nations, working with our international partners including through the European Union. We shall seek an early meeting of the Sharm-el-Sheik group of Iraq's neighbours and G8 countries to build on international support for Iraq. We will continue to work for a central role for the UN in supporting the political process.

The House knows that there have been deep divisions over Iraq policy in the past two years, but this election should unite us all. Yesterday, the Iraqi people in their
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millions showed their wish to embrace freedom and to shape the future destiny of their country. I know that the whole House and our country stand behind them as they pursue that historic endeavour.

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