Ruqaiya was in her final year of university when she realised she couldn’t go home. In London on a student visa, she had missed the worst of the fighting in her hometown of Damascus: after the revolution began in March 2011, her family had told her not to come back for the holidays.
In May 2012, gearing up for her exams, she received terrible news. “My brother, who works in Germany, called to say that our father had been killed in an airstrike and the house destroyed. My mother had fled with my aunt to Jordan. Suddenly I didn’t have a home.” On the advice of an uncle living in the UK, Ruqaiya claimed asylum.
Since the Syrian civil war broke out, well over 100,000 people have died. More than 2.3 million have fled Syria, mostly to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. A further 6.5 million are internally displaced. This refugee crisis – the biggest since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 – is placing a huge strain on countries in the region. In Lebanon, 1.2 million Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of the population.
Yet Europe’s borders have remained largely closed. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, just 55,000 Syrian refugees (2.4 per cent of the total) have claimed asylum in the EU. These low numbers are at least partly to do with the difficulty of getting into Europe. There have been multiple reports of “pushbacks” at the coast in Italy and Greece; where boats of refugees are literally not allowed to land.
Amid mounting international pressure, the UK government said earlier this year that it would take in 500 of the most vulnerable Syrians – about 0.02 per cent of the refugee population. “Quite rightly, the government has come to the view that we cannot just turn our backs on those who have fled their homes in fear of their lives,” says Anita Vasisht, a partner at Wilson Solicitors LLP, a firm that has represented many Syrians who have made it to the UK. “But when set against the scale of the crisis, the proposed resettlement remains drastically inadequate.” Germany has accepted 10,000.
The resettlement programme is not the only way that Syrians can reach the UK. For the past 18 months, between 50 and 100 individual Syrians claimed asylum here each month; a very low number compared with past conflicts. “We have had hardly any increase in asylum applications from Syrians, compared with the spikes we saw, for instance, during the Iraq war,” says Russell Hargrave of Asylum Aid. “Those who have claimed asylum in the UK tend to be from higher socio-economic backgrounds; people with connections or wealth.”
Some, like Ruqaiya, were already in the UK when they claimed asylum. Others have used their initiative. Khaled, 40, is a political journalist and a long-time dissident. Over coffee in central London, he vividly explains the reality of living in a police state. “Many people were dissatisfied with the regime, but they were afraid to speak out because the Ba’ath party controlled jobs, and everything else.” He describes the Syrian state as “Father Christmas”: “It has a long list of everything you have ever done. So if you are arrested, they already have a body of evidence against you.”
This moment came for him after the uprising. Wanted by the state, dead or alive, Khaled applied for temporary work visas to different European countries, and was granted one by the UK. He arrived at Heathrow in early 2012 and immediately claimed asylum.
Both Khaled and Ruqaiya have been granted refugee status, meaning they can stay in the UK for five years. But the struggle is not over. International law dictates that refugees can be reunified with their immediate family, but both are struggling.
“My mother is stranded in a camp in Jordan,” says Ruqaiya. “She has diabetes and she can’t always get her medication. There are problems on both sides – here in the UK there is an issue about whether I can bring my parent here because I am over 18, and in Jordan there are many different authorities.”
One reason that the UK is resettling only 500 refugees from Syria is the current anti-immigration climate and the government’s pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015.
Yet this rhetoric ignores the desperate circumstances of those forced here. “I was hysterical when I came,” says Khaled. “Even after everything, I wanted to go back to Syria. My friends reminded me I would face torture and death. It is like a shipwreck – my original country is the ship and I floated here on a plank of wood. I have no option.” He is grateful to the UK for giving him a safe haven, but speaks of the difficulties. “Here, they protect rights, and in Syria, those who defend rights are forced to leave. So you have a preconceived idea of Britain as a democratic state, a welcoming place with technology and infrastructure. But it is bewildering while you are waiting for a decision.”
Ruqaiya, resident in the UK for three years before claiming asylum, is acutely aware of attitudes. “It was strange for me to change from being a foreign student – who pays high fees and is seen to help the economy – to being an asylum seeker, which is like a dirty word. When you hear the word ‘refugee’, you don’t think what it means. It means you have nothing, not even refuge, a place to call home. My heart aches for Syria. I don’t think people think about that.”
While the number of Syrians claiming asylum in Europe has thus far been low, this could change. “Every year, the number of people making it to Europe has been increasing,” says Sharif Elsayed-Ali, head of migration and refugee rights at Amnesty. “It is likely more people will make it across this year, particularly after late March, when the weather improves and the seas are calmer. This remains extremely dangerous.”
As desperation encourages risky and expensive routes across Europe, Amnesty and other groups are calling on governments in the EU to increase their resettlement programmes. “The UK is giving a lot of money to the humanitarian effort, which should continue,” says Elsayed-Ali. “Starting with 500 is huge for each person that is resettled – but this is the biggest humanitarian crisis in modern history. Surely the UK can do a bit more.”
Vasisht agrees. “We cannot sanely bundle this together with day-to-day immigration policy and border control. It must be viewed as an opportunity to honour one of the greatest of British traditions – providing sanctuary for those who have fled persecution.”
Khaled, adjusting to his new home but struggling to find work, still dreams of Syria. “I am like a 40 year old tree, planted and grown on Syrian land – in winter, spring, summer and autumn. Never in all those years did I think I would leave that land and come somewhere else.”