HELSINKI (Reuters) - Iraqi asylum seekers rallied in central Helsinki and signed a petition on Monday against Finland's plans to negotiate a deal with Baghdad that could lead to their deportation, arguing that their country should not be considered safe.
Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from conflict- and poverty-stricken parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa have streamed into Europe this year, with even far-northern Finland becoming the final stop for more than 21,000, mostly from Iraq.
Encouraged by relatively broad Finnish asylum criteria and an existing Iraqi community in the Nordic country, they have taken a long circuitous journey up through central Europe and Sweden to reach Finland's border near the Arctic Circle.
The government has responded by suspending decision-making on asylum claims by Iraqis and Somalis, saying it might tighten guidelines for granting people asylum after reassessing the security situation in both countries.
Helsinki has also begun to negotiate an accord with Iraq on deportations of asylum seekers judged not to have had a genuine fear for their safety or of persecution, but rather to have come more as economic migrants to better their living standards.
More than 300 Iraqi asylum seekers signed a petition to the Finnish government criticizing its plans, and around 50 rallied in central Helsinki holding up with signs saying, "Baghdad is not safe, do not deport Iraqis!"
Saad, a 37-year-old asylum seeker from Baghdad who did not give his family name, said he had left Iraq in 2006 after his brother was killed in sectarian violence.
He said Sweden deported him back to Iraq in 2010 after Stockholm signed a deal similar to one Finland is now seeking.
Back in Baghdad, Saad said the Shi'ite Muslim authorities branded him a "terrorist" and that he was held in a camp and beaten, after which he was denied an apartment and became homeless because he came from a Sunni Muslim part of the capital.
"The Iraqi government promised that we would be safe, but we weren't ... If I am deported back to Iraq, I will end up in prison," he told a news conference.
Large parts of Iraq have been plagued by sectarian conflict since the 2003 fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. Iraq now has a Shi'ite Muslim-dominated government that is battling ultra-hardline Sunni Islamic State militants who control a third of the country. At least 57 people were killed last week in car bomb attacks in Baghdad and other cities.
A total of 50,000 asylum seekers are expected to reach Finland this year, up from just 3,600 in 2014.
(Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl; Editing by Mark Heinrich)