By Stephanie Nebehay
European countries should stop forcibly returning Iraqis to Iraq's central provinces until security improves, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.
Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have repatriated hundreds of Iraqis to dangerous areas, despite the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' advice last April that they still need protection, it said.
"It is just too dangerous to forcibly return people to Iraq," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a news briefing. "We have seen a number of European countries doing this."
Those deported include asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected, and convicted criminals, according to the spokesman.
Baghdad is still wracked by periodic bombings and a series of car bombs killed 112 people in the capital on Tuesday, according to police.
"Despite the efforts of the authorities, the security situation remains precarious," Mahecic said.
"Countries need to refrain from forcibly returning Iraqis originating from the region of central Iraq back to those governorates deemed to be unsafe, namely Baghdad, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Diyala and Kirkuk," he said.
For Iraqi asylum-seekers from the three semi-autonomous northern provinces, the southern provinces and the western province of Anbar, UNHCR recommends their cases be reviewed on an individual basis.
Sectarian carnage and conflict since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 created a massive refugee crisis. An estimated 2 million Iraqis fled, mainly to Syria and Jordan.
"There is concern in some Middle East countries that these people should be returning to Iraq," William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told reporters in Geneva on Thursday.
"The problem is when will they be able to? In the meantime, should they be given an opportunity to resettle somewhere else?"
Some 56,218 Iraqis have been resettled voluntarily in 10 Western countries since Oct. 2006 under an IOM programme.
Nearly 38,000 of them went to the United States, according to the IOM. Canada and Australia have taken in the second and third highest numbers of resettled Iraqis.