Refugee Week: Are Palestinian refugees welcome in the UK?

This week people across the world are holding events, taking action and speaking out in support of refugees, wherever they are. At MAP we have been working with Palestinian refugees since the early 1980’s, when our founders volunteered as surgeons in the refugee camps of Lebanon. Today, more than thirty years later, the situation facing Palestinian refugees is arguably worse than ever. Whilst European governments are developing new and more complex barriers for refugees seeking protection, conditions in host countries and war zones continue to deteriorate.

Palestinian refugees are one of the largest and longest-suffering refugee populations. Many face poverty and limited rights in Lebanon and Jordan and hundreds of thousands are recently doubly-displaced from the war in Syria. This is all in addition to the continued political obstacles to the realisation of their right of return.

Since the restrictions to entry at the Syrian-Lebanese border increased in 2014, Palestinian refugees from Syria have had two options: stay in Syria, moving from place to place avoiding the shifting front lines, or leave Syria through Turkey (the only remaining open border) to Europe.

Through our campaign for the protection of Palestinian refugees from Syria, we at MAP have come into contact with several Palestinian refugees in the UK who have fled Syria by various means.

Recently the MAP team in London met Ibrahim* who is seeking asylum in the UK.

Ibrahim fled Syria in 2015, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters and his seven year-old son in order to make the perilous journey to seek protection, with a view to bringing his family to join him as soon as possible by safer means. Each day Ibrahim speaks to his family in Syria on the phone. He is a refugee in the UK, but he is also displaced from those he loves in Syria, constantly fearing that tomorrow he may not receive a call.

“In Syria my children are sick, my son cannot leave a room without it causing him distress and my youngest daughter is terrified every time she hears a plane,” he told us. “My family have to move house every week to avoid the fighting and I am far from them here in the UK. All I want is to live in safety with my family”.

My family have to move house every week to avoid the fighting and I am far from them here in the UK. All I want is to live in safety with my family.

Ibrahim is Palestinian, but was born and grew up in Aleppo, Syria. Having never been to Palestine, and without a West Bank, Gaza or Jerusalem identity document he is not able to travel there. Ibrahim made his escape from Syria through Turkey, after which he travelled by boat, car, plane and on foot through Greece, Italy, Sweden and finally to the UK. At every stage he had to pay people smugglers, who held all of his personal documents as collateral until he paid some 5,700 Euros.

After thirteen months in the UK, Ibrahim was refused asylum. In his letter of rejection, he was told by the Home Office, “you have failed to demonstrate a reasonable degree of likelihood that you would be at real risk of persecution from anyone in Palestine.” All Palestinians from Syria have their nationality registered as ‘Palestinian Authority’ on arrival in the UK. Despite producing many different forms of ID and documentation demonstrating his residence in Syria and that of his family, Ibrahim was told to return to Palestine at the earliest opportunity and advised to approach the Palestinian Mission for documentation to return. The Palestinian Mission responded to Ibrahim telling him that, “Israel as the occupying force of the Palestinian areas will only admit Palestinians who have ID numbers to reside there. The travel document issued by the Syrian Authority that you hold does not grant you an entry to the Palestinian territories”.

Ibrahim has an asylum appeal in just over a week. A judge may take one look at such a decision and overrule it, granting him asylum, but in the meantime he has to suffer with the psychological consequences of being rejected protection in the UK on the basis of having ties to a land that was never his and to which he is not permitted to travel. When we asked Ibrahim how he felt about being told to return to Palestine he told us, “I am Palestinian in name, but I have never seen Palestine. How can I go to Palestine? I am not permitted”.  

 I am Palestinian in name, but I have never seen Palestine. How can I go to Palestine? I am not permitted

The theme of Refugee Week 2016 is ‘Welcome’ and Ibrahim has certainly sought to welcome others into his community. In Manchester, Ibrahim volunteers as a translator in a local refugee and asylum centre and helps out at Manchester University, working on integration projects for refugees. He told us, “However I can help, in any way, I will not stop.” Ibrahim has friends here, he contributes to his local community and he has an intoxicating and friendly personality that makes everyone want to know him better (including us), but welcome means more than those things.

Welcome is about feeling safe, having opportunities for the future and belonging somewhere. For Ibrahim it is being able to build a life here; bringing his family out of war and fear; walking his young children to school; seeing them grow up somewhere they call home; and being able to hold his family in his arms and know that they are safe.

At MAP we believe strongly that every Palestinian refugee should be afforded the same access to protection and medical care that any other refugee would have. All people, regardless of their nationality or legal status here in the UK contribute to making our society stronger, more loving and more the place we are proud to call home.

This refugee week we ask you to sign our petition and call on our government to ensure that Palestinian refugees like Ibrahim who are fleeing war in Syria can find protection and a new home far from war, either in properly funded, protected and serviced surroundings in Lebanon, or right here in the UK.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Featured image: Photo: Ilias Bartolini

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