Britain’s High Court found on Thursday that the Home Secretary’s decision, not to allow entry to the UK for six refugees, and their 19 children, currently stranded on a British base in Cyprus since 1998, is unlawful and must be quashed.
In the ruling the judge ordered Home Secretary Theresa May to retake her decision in light of the judgment and all relevant up-to-date factors.
In 1998, 75 migrants landed on RAF Akrotiri in a boat described as a ‘barely floating coffin’.
Six of the families, from the Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria and Iraq are still living on British soil on the island after repeated appeals for asylum in the UK were turned down.
In 1999 – 2000 the six men and women were released from detention after being recognised as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention following a procedure conducted by the SBA [Sovereign Base Areas] Administration in conjunction with the Home Office and UNHCR.
They and their children have stayed on the SBA for the past 17 years stuck in a legal limbo.
The High Court heard that UK and SBA officials repeatedly argued that the refugees would have to be resettled in the UK but this was rejected at a Ministerial level because it was “not on politically.”
Instead the UK government sought to persuade the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) to accept the claimants whilst continuing to pay them subsistence benefits.
Documents disclosed during the proceedings showed the RoC’s reluctance to accept the refugees as they purportedly told the UK that “if [the UK] claim sovereignty, with all the benefits that implies, [the UK] cannot shrug off responsibilities…”
During the hearing, lawyers for the UK government cited an ‘informal agreement’ with the RoC to accept the refugees in 2005, seven years after the refugees washed ashore.
Following this ‘informal agreement’ the SBA withdrew essential services from the families in what documents disclosed during the proceedings revealed was an attempt to ‘encourage’ them to seek transfer to the RoC.
They did not move because they remain concerned that their status in the RoC is precarious and maintain that they are the UK’s responsibility. Despite repeated requests the UK government has failed to provide any written assurance from the RoC of this ‘informal agreement’.
According to their lawyers, the families have had to endure deteriorating living conditions on the SBA with no access to healthcare, living in bungalows which were due to be demolished in 1997 and have been found by the SBA to contain potentially harmful levels of asbestos.
In November 2014, in response to a joint letter from the UNCHR and the claimants’ Cypriot lawyer, the Home Secretary refused to consider the claimants for admission into the UK.
It is that decision which was the subject of the judicial review proceedings before the High Court.
In Thursday’s judgment Mr Justice Foskett found that whereas the Refugee Convention does not apply to the SBA as a matter of international law, the UK and the SBAA are required to act within the spirit of the Refugee Convention because they adopted a policy to do so from the outset.
The judge held that whilst the UK Government could in principle discharge its obligations in this regard via the RoC, the Secretary of State failed to act within the spirit of the Refugee Convention in her decision of November 2014 as she did not take into account crucial concerns raised by the UNHCR.
As a result the judge held that the decision should be quashed.
Tessa Gregory, the claimants’ attorney and partner at Leigh Day Solicitors said
“We are pleased that the Court has quashed the Home Secretary’s decision. The Government can now avoid further costly legal proceedings by allowing this small group of recognized refugees to resettle in the UK.
“To do so would not create a dangerous precedent or a back-door to the UK, it would simply be a humanitarian response in recognition of the unique circumstances of these families.
“We hope that the Home Secretary will now do the right thing, until she does we will continue to seek the only lawful durable solution: resettlement of our clients in the UK”
Tag Bashir, the lead claimant said:
“We hope that with today’s judgment we are one step closer to providing our children with a decent future. I was 26 years old when I came to the SBA and for 17 years I have been trying to work and build a life for my family but there is nothing here.”