( UN ) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is seeking urgent clarification from Turkish authorities on reports that over 100 Iraqis - some of whom may have been seeking asylum - have been forcibly returned to their country this week.
Considering the current situation in Iraq, UNHCR said it is extremely concerned for the safety of the 135 individuals, on whose whereabouts there is no information currently available.
Last December, UNHCR issued an advisory recommending that countries should not forcibly return any Iraqi from the centre or south of the country until there was a substantial improvement in security and human rights in the country. The agency also advised against returns to the three northern governorates of people not originating from there.
The 135 were apprehended in Urla, near the city of Izmir, earlier this month as part of a larger group of some 500 people - most of them Iraqis, Palestinians, Sri Lankans and Afghans - who were about to depart Turkey irregularly.
UNHCR said that it understood that some of those deported had made an asylum claim. "If this is confirmed, the deportations would be a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement, under which no refugee or asylum seeker whose case has not yet been properly assessed, can be forcibly returned to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk," the agency said in a statement.
"Refoulement is explicitly prohibited by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and it is also contrary to international customary law," it added.
UNHCR is seeking urgent clarification from the Government of Turkey on the events surrounding the deportation, and further information on the fate of the deportees. It also seeks assurances that in the future, those needing international protection will be treated in full respect of Turkey's international and national legal obligations.
At the same time, UNHCR requested that Turkey admit into the asylum procedure the claims of those in the remaining group who expressed fear to return to their country of origin.
The agency said it was pleased that Turkey has agreed to conduct a joint screening exercise with UNHCR to identify those in the group who wish to apply for asylum.
Last December, UNHCR issued an advisory on the international protection needs of Iraqis outside their country, which was shared with the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The agency noted the overall situation in Iraq was characterized by "generalized violence in which massive, targeted violations of human rights are prevalent."