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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has barred entry to a group of Iraqi asylum seekers sent back to Baghdad by the British government, and Britain is now holding the refugees in an immigration detention centre, Iraqi and British officials said on Saturday.
Sectarian carnage and conflict since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq has created a massive refugee crisis with 1.5 million Iraqis having fled mainly to Syria and Jordan. More than 40,000 Iraqis lodged applications for asylum in the West last year.
"We are establishing a new route to southern Iraq and have successfully returned 10 Iraqis to the Baghdad area. This is an important first step for us," Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency Lin Homer said in a statement.
A security official at Baghdad airport confirmed that 10 asylum seekers had been allowed entry on Friday, and British officials said 34 of the 44 refugees had returned to Britain.
The Iraqi official said that they were from the semi-autonomous north and should not have been sent to Baghdad.
"We are working closely with the Iraqi government to iron out the issues which led to some of the returnees being sent back, and expect to carry out another flight in the future," Homer said.
But Iraq criticised Britain for the move.
"The action of the British immigration authorities is indeed considered a unilateral step ... sending persons to a country without verifying their identity and whether they were Iraqis or not is wrong," Ali al-Dabbagh said on Iraqi state television.
"We will start contacts with British authorities and this issue will be resolved quietly through diplomatic channels."
Homer said that more than 2,500 people have been voluntarily returned to Iraq in the last three years. British officials said that the 34 Iraqis were being held at an immigration centre.
In June, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said Iraq was still too fragile to absorb Iraqis living abroad and any forced repatriation would place the refugees at risk.
But only a month before, UNHCR said that it had stopped recommending that most Iraqis get automatic refugee status abroad given a sharp fall in attacks in Iraq.
Over the last 18 months, the country has seen a dramatic drop in violence, but bombings, killings and other attacks still happen on a daily basis and are expected to increase in the lead up to national elections in January.
(Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths in London and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad)
(Reporting by Muhanad Mohammed; Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Richard Williams)