Syrians peacefully demonstrating in London. But possibly breaking the law in Syria. (Photo: Clare Struthers, Amnesty International)
An eleventh-hour intervention that prevented the deportation of a Syrian activist back to Damascus has raised fresh concerns over British asylum policy for thousands of asylum seekers fleeing the bloodshed in Syria.
The man, who is originally from the southwestern city of Dera’a, came to Britain on a student visa and has taken part in several anti-regime protests outside the Syrian embassy in London.
He was detained after visiting the Home Office to register an asylum claim, and notified of the UK Border Agency’s intention to deport him back to Damascus.
However, deportation plans were halted after the High Court granted his legal team an injunction, two days before the scheduled flight. His lawyers argue that he faces a high risk of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and even torture if he is returned to Syria.
Alice Cunliffe, the man’s solicitor, told The Bureau: “No dissent is tolerated by the regime. Having demonstrated would be enough to put him at risk of torture or worse if he was to get into the hands of the Syrian authorities.
In addition, his parents recently received a court order sentencing him in absentia to 18 years in prison for his demonstrating activities in the UK.”
Since Syria’s anti-regime demonstrations began in March 2011, human rights organisations have documented the systematic use of arbitrary arrests against civilians, as well as torture and enforced disappearances.
The number of Syrians seeking asylum in Britain has increased sharply since their home country descended into civil war in April of this year. Between January and March 2012, only 31 Syrians sought asylum through the UK Border Agency. Unpublished Home Office figures seen by The Independent suggest that the figures are now exceeding 100 a month.
Home Office avoided ‘blood on its hands’
In a statement yesterday, Amnesty International’s UK Refugee Programme Director Jan Shaw said that the organization was ‘deeply alarmed’ by the attempted deportation of the young Syrian.
‘The UK government has been instrumental in pressing the UN to take action to address the serious abuses being perpetrated in Syria and so it is astonishing that whilst actively acknowledging the scale of such abuses, it would seek to return someone.
“Had it not been for [last week’s] intervention, the UK government could have blood on its hands over this case.’
Syrian removals considered ‘case by case’
The move by the UK Border Agency has been condemned as contradictory as it comes a week after Syrian nationals residing in Britain were allowed to extend their asylum period until March 2013. This is seen as an implicit acknowledgement that a return to Syria under the current circumstances would be fraught with danger.
Cunliffe described the government’s approach to Syrian asylum seekers as ‘very worrying. [In] my experience the Home Office are continuing to refuse claims where they can.
It is appalling that we should even be considering returning people back to Syria at this time. There is no doubt that anyone suspected of being an opponent of the regime would be at severe risk of being detained on arrival and tortured, potentially executed.’
A UK Border Agency spokesperson said that all removals to Syria are considered on a ‘case by case basis’.
At present, the UK is believed to be the only EU country returning Syrian asylum seekers to Syria.