Refugees from Syria seeking asylum in the UK may be welcome, but they must risk a perilous journey first
Ahmed Zakri is from the village of Jalin in the Daraa province of Syria, just north of the border of Jordan. The road that leads out of the violence and into the neighbouring country has been closed since summer 2013.
At some point Zakri's family negotiated their way past this, only to have their ID checked. When soldiers saw they were Palestinian-Syrians they were sent back into Syria. "Even to get to a refugee camp in Jordan you have to be smuggled in," Zakri tells me. "Palestinian-Syrians are not welcome anywhere." So he set his sights on Europe.
Zakri had more luck getting into Lebanon but then struggled to get a visa for his onward journey. He was told by embassies a six-month residency permit was a prerequisite to apply but he could not get one, again, thanks to his nationality. Eventually he bought a visa to Malaysia for $7.50 and boarded a plane to Sharm El-Sheikh. He met a smuggler who supplied him with a fake Danish passport and he prepared to be reunited with his three brothers, who were already there.
When the smuggler suggested he get on a cheap flight to London, Zakri was hesitant. Rumours suggested the UK was impossible to get to and that most refugees aim for Sweden, Denmark or Germany because they're known for their good treatment of Syrian-Palestinians. "But it was our first time in Europe, we didn't say yes, we didn't say no, we just followed him," recalls Zakri. At the airport in London Zakri confessed everything. "I just told them I was trying to seek refuge from Syria," he explains. From here his asylum claim was accepted within a month.
Given the UK's record of resettling Syrian refugees through official channels, the speed and smoothness with which Zakri's claim was accepted may come as a surprise. In 2014 Britain pledged to resettle extreme cases from Syria through the vulnerable person's relocation scheme. It has so far resettled 90. Compare this to Germany, who as of November last year has taken 20, 000. The number of refugees fleeing Syria has topped three million; to say that 90 barely scratches the surface is a colossal understatement.
The countries surrounding Syria have certainly absorbed a lot of refugees. A report by Amnesty International published earlier this month says that just five countries, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, have taken 95 per cent of Syrian refugees between them. But they have made clear that their doors are open to Syrians and not to Palestinian-Syrians.
"A Syrian can get a visa to move to any country around Syria. Palestinians can't," comments Tariq Hamoud, director of the Palestine Return Centre based in London. "The other problem is what kind of protection the international community provides to Syrian and Palestinian refugees."
UNHCR can provide protection for a Syrian refugee but not for a Palestinian as the latter fall under the mandate of UNRWA which provides relief and operates on a tighter budget. "The big need for Palestinians now is protection," confirms Hamoud, without which they don't have legal status and access to health and education. Rejecting any refugee is also against international law, he points out, because it outlaws the return of individuals to a situation where they face persecution.
As for European countries, they officially take refugees in through the UNHCR register. As Palestinians, especially those in Jordan or Lebanon, are not on their registers, settling them through official channels is much harder. This has forced them to make ever more dangerous journeys to get to Europe. In 2014 alone 3,500 refugees, among them Palestinians, died trying to get to Europe across the Mediterranean.
Whilst Zakri flew on false documents into London, a popular point of entry into the UK is via the ferry port of Dover in South East England, hidden on the back of lorries. Lily Parrott, service manager for Refugee Support and International Family Tracing for the Red Cross in Kent and Sussex, explains that many different routes are taken before they end up here, with an increase in journeys made overland from Syria to reach boats leaving from Turkey.
Parrott says refugees always remember Greece because they are treated so badly there and often beaten up. The Dublin convention stipulates that a refugee should seek asylum, and so be sent back to, the first country they arrive in, regardless of where they end up. But even this has been suspended for Greece due to the high level of xenophobia there. "It's so bad people almost claim asylum from Greece," says Parrott.
Those arriving into Dover are largely young men, neither the youngest nor the oldest of the family, a decision made back in Syria and likely to be prompted by a particularly bad event such as the father being killed or an increase in bombs in their area. "It seems to reach some sort of breaking point where people think I just can't go on like this here," she says.
Usually the success rate on first-time applications for asylum in the UK is "extraordinarily low", says Parrott. But the Syrian conflict is such a hot subject and with internal relocation out of the question they are often allowed to stay. "Everyone says the country is falling apart and you can't just send people back. I don't think there would be a safe place in Syria where the government could justify sending people back to," she adds.
It may be very likely that Syrian refugees are granted asylum once in the UK but the Home Office has found other ways to turn Syrians away. In February 2013 former immigration minister Mark Harper authorised controversial language analysis tests on those claiming to be Syrian refugees, to determine whether or not they are really from Syria. If they are suspected to be Egyptian, for example, they are sent back to Egypt.
Many of the Syrians who do stay in the UK follow the news back home via Facebook, one of the only ways to keep up to date with what is happening given that the mainstream press is manipulated by the regime. "Back then it was bad and now it is so much worse," says Zakri commenting on what he has read on the social media platform of late. He recalls that when he left Syria bombs would hit the villages and take out a wall, a window or part of a roof. "Now they're using barrel bombs so when it hits a house it destroys all of it and three around it," a disturbing image made worse for Zakri, whose his brother is still there guarding their property.
Zakri has been resettled in Manchester where he hopes to buy a food truck from which to sell hummus and falafel, as he did back in Syria. His biggest problem, he says, is the language. He didn't finish secondary school and applying for jobs has not been easy. But he has obtained a food hygiene certificate and is on his way to realising his career. His biggest source of happiness, though, is his children and the opportunities they have in the UK compared to back in Syria.
"The best thing is that they allowed me to bring my children. The whole reason I left Syria and did all this is for my children. In Syria they wouldn't sleep, they cried at bombs. The only thing that was worrying me was my wife and children."
Whilst Zakri's experience of arriving in the UK is certainly positive, there are still some 440,000 Palestinian refugees still inside war-torn Syria. Many of the camps where they live are under siege and those inside are dying of hunger. In total over three million Syrian refugees have fled the country and a further 6.5 million have been internally displaced.
The government often points out that the UK is one of the largest humanitarian donors to Syria, but there are still thousands of people who need a safe place to live. If Syrian refugees are almost guaranteed asylum when they arrive in the UK, why isn't more being done to resettle them through official channels so they can avoid a perilous journey across the Mediterranean?
Infographic: international response to the Syrian exodus
Published in Middle East Monitor