Cyprus refugees hope courts end 17-year-wait on UK base

Cyprus refugees hope courts end 17-year-wait on UK base
Seventy-five Kurdish refugees in limbo on a UK military base in Cyprus for 17 years are hoping a judicial review will give them permission to settle in Britain.
4 min read
19 December, 2015
The 75 asylum-seekers set sail from Lebanon in 1998 [AFP]

When Taj Bashir saw land after days adrift aboard a ramshackle fishing trawler, he thought his treacherous journey from persecution in Sudan to sanctuary in Europe was finally over.

But 17 years later, he and dozens of fellow passengers remain stranded on a British military base on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, unwitting participants in an international dispute that has lasted nearly half his life.

"We get used to waiting," says Bashir, 43, outside the corrugated steel bungalow that serves as his family home in Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area, on Cyprus's southern shore.

"We don't have most of our civil rights because we are in a military base. Most of the families here have been affected physically and psychologically," he says.

Bashir and 74 other asylum seekers - mainly Syrian and Iraqi Kurds - set sail from Lebanon in 1998 but were marooned off another British base on Cyprus, RAF Akrotiri, from where Britain is now launching air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

They were moved along the coast to Dhekelia, where around half were given refugee status on the base, and told their accommodation - 1960s prefabricated huts perched on a scrub-covered hill overlooking a firing range - was only temporary.

But their stay has been anything but.

     We are like the leftovers that you throw to the dogs.
- Mustafa Shirmus, a stateless Syrian Kurd.

"We are like the leftovers that you throw to the dogs," says Mustafa Shirmus, 41, a stateless Syrian Kurd who was on the same boat as Bashir.

"I wish the people of the UK knew what was happening here."

Although Dhekelia is officially British sovereign territory, the refugees have been refused permission to resettle in Britain.

While they could in theory claim asylum in Cyprus, many on the base say they have little prospect of finding work or permanent residency on the island.

The dispute has rumbled on for so long that many of the refugees have married and had children, all within the boundaries of the seven-square-kilometre (three-square-mile) outpost, although they are able to go outside.

Now, after 17 years in limbo, six of the families are seeking a judicial review challenging Britain's position.

"Our clients wish to have the opportunity to settle and make a life in the United Kingdom," says Tessa Gregory, of Leigh Day solicitors, acting for the families.

"They want to work and contribute positively to society."

'Tomorrow like today'

Although Britain signed a refugee agreement with Cyprus in 2005, Gregory believes London's stance - that the refugees may stay on British territory but not resettle in Britain - contravenes international humanitarian law.

The government must respond by January, and the case is expected to be heard in London early next year.

Those on Dhekelia accuse Britain of seeking to force them from the territory by gradually cutting amenities. Their children used to go to school on the base but must now travel outside by bus for classes.

Medical provisions were withdrawn and even the children's play area at the foot of their pot-holed "main street" has been left to rust.

"The Cypriots say we are nothing to do with them and that we are the base's responsibility," says Kovan al-Merza, a 20-year-old originally from Iraq's Mosul.

"The base says the exact same thing. Each one just throws us away to the other."

Kovan was just an infant when his family reached Cyprus. He graduated from high school last year and says there is now nothing for him to do.

     The UK is not going to open the floodgates to migrants by allowing them a shortcut via (its bases).
- Dhekelia base spokesperson

"You know that tomorrow is going to be like today," he shrugs.

In the sitting room of their bungalow, a Kurdish flag draped on the yellowing wall behind her, Kovan's sister Iman says she dreams of studying at university.

The 14-year-old is one of several refugee children born on Dhekelia, but she is old enough to realise that her situation makes future planning difficult.

"I don't want to stay here. I have nothing - no rights, no future," she says.

'No shortcut' to Britain

More than 956,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration, and Britain says it has the resources to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.

But a base spokesman told AFP that the British stance on the Dhekelia refugees "is not about space and resource".

"The UK is not going to open the floodgates to migrants by allowing them a shortcut via (its bases)."

In October, 115 migrants crowded on two boats landed at Akrotiri and were moved to Dhekelia.

After they were threatened with deportation, most quickly claimed asylum in Cyprus, but not before some rioted in protest at conditions on the base.

"You can measure how difficult things are for us by those people who just came for a few days," Bashir says.

His 15-year-old son Emmanuel harbours hopes of studying in Japan, but admits his family's constant state of flux can scupper even the best laid plans.

"You ask questions like: 'Why couldn't I have a normal life? Did I do something to deserve being pushed down?'," he says. "It's hard to move on."