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Refugees stranded in British Bases for 20 years granted leave to enter UK

December 4, 2018 at 10:03am
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Six refugee families stranded in the British Bases for 20 years have been granted leave to enter the UK, their lawyer said.

The group, totalling 31 people in all, has been fighting through the courts to obtain leave to enter the UK for nearly four years. The British government’s offer to settle the case came shortly before a final Supreme Court hearing on the case was due to be heard, the law firm Leigh Day which represents them said in an announcement.

In October 1998, the six heads of families were amongst a group of 75 individuals from Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria who washed up on the shores of the army base after a fishing boat in which they were travelling to Italy foundered off the coast of Cyprus.

Following their arrival, the six were detained by the British military for up to 18 months as the British determined whether or not they were genuine refugees.

Between 1999 and 2000 the six men and women were released after being recognised as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention following a procedure conducted by the Sovereign Base Area Administration in conjunction with the Home Office and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Those six men and women and their children have remained living on the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) ever since and launched a legal case against the government in January 2015 challenging the then Home Secretary, Theresa May’s refusal to give them leave to enter in November 2014.

They currently live in disused military accommodation on the SBA in Dhekelia. The families have had to endure deteriorating living conditions on the SBA with limited access to healthcare, living in bungalows which were due to be demolished in 1997 and which were found to contain potentially harmful levels of asbestos in 2008.

The UK Government has consistently denied legal responsibility for the Claimants and their families. Instead, it argued that the Refugee Convention was never extended to the SBA and that the families had no grounds on which to seek resettlement in the UK.

Expert reports commissioned by the UNHCR in 2013 found high levels of anxiety and depression amongst the families with all children being assessed to have suffered in their “psychological health” due to their living conditions.

The Government argued during the case that it reached an informal agreement with the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) to accept the refugees in 2005. However, it failed to provide any written assurances or guarantees from the RoC of this agreement who when questioned by Channel 4 in September of this year denied any responsibility for the refugees.

In November 2014 the then Home Secretary Theresa May refused to consider the claimants for admission into the UK. That decision was subject to judicial review proceedings heard in the High Court in March 2016 which resulted in a court ruling that the decision was unlawful and must be quashed.

The government appealed the judgment to the Court of Appeal, but in May 2017 the Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that the government had acted unlawfully when refusing access to the UK to the claimants. The government was forced to make a new decision in July 2017 following the finding the Refugee Convention did apply to the SBA as a matter of law, but again refused entry to the clients and their families.

The government then appealed again to the Supreme Court, which following a two day hearing in December 2017 made an interim judgment in July 2018 concluding that the Refugee Convention did apply to the SBA and asking the parties to make further written submissions on a number of additional questions.

Just prior to a further hearing at the Supreme Court which was scheduled for November 26, 2018, the government offered to settle the case, without admission of liability by granting indefinite leave to enter the UK to all six claimants and their families (31 individuals in total).

Tessa Gregory solicitor at Leigh Day, said: “We are delighted that the current Home Secretary has done the humane thing and agreed to grant our clients and their families leave to enter the UK for permanent residency.

“The heads of these six refugee families who washed up on a British army base in 1998 were fleeing from terrible conditions in their own countries. Instead of being welcomed into the UK as refugees they have been left in limbo for twenty years, raising their families in substandard housing, riddled with deadly asbestos and void of an official identity.

“My clients now want to put those wasted years behind them and build a new life in the UK with stability and security. These six families have hope again and are looking forward to contributing to our society. Over the coming days and weeks we hope to work closely with the Home Office and other agencies to ensure that the families have the right to support on their arrival in the UK to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

Tag Bashir, the lead claimant, said: “We only want to thank everyone who has worked so hard to help us escape this twenty year nightmare. I cannot express how happy our families are to be given the opportunity to come to the UK and start our lives again”

Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesperson for the UNHCR, added: “UNHCR has followed this protracted case closely from the start, advocating for a durable solution for the individuals who found themselves stranded on the British Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) after fleeing persecution and violence. We are delighted that the UK Government has agreed to grant the refugees indefinite leave to remain in the UK and that proceedings are now settled. We are now examining, with partners in the sector, how best the individuals can be supported to help them integrate in the UK and rebuild their lives, which had been in limbo for many years.”

Read more:

Channel 4 reportage investigates refugees’ lives in Dhekelia (video)