The Home Office has told a Syrian asylum seeker he can return to the country he fled during the war because it is safe to do so, in what is thought to be the first case of its kind.
The 25-year-old asylum seeker sought sanctuary in the UK in May 2020. He fled forcible conscription into Bashar al-Assad’s army in 2017, saying that he would have been forced to kill other Syrians. He said that if he is forced back to Syria he will be targeted as a draft evader, arrested, detained and killed.
Until now, the UK has not returned refugees who opposed President Assad’s regime because of the dangers still present in a nation torn asunder by the continuing civil war.
But the Guardian has seen a refusal letter sent to the man by the Home Office in December, in which officials said: “I am not satisfied to a reasonable degree of likelihood that you have a well-founded fear of persecution.”
While the Home Office has accepted he did flee forced conscription, the refusal letter adds: “It is not accepted that you will face a risk of persecution or real risk of serious harm on return to the Syrian Arab Republic due to your imputed political opinion as a draft evader.”
The asylum seeker, who is not named for his own protection, said: “I escaped from Syria in 2017 and I am looking for safety.
“My solicitor is appealing against the Home Office decision and says this is the first Syrian asylum refusal case she has seen. I hope I will not be forced back to Syria. I am so tired of trying to find somewhere that I can be safe.”
The charity Refugee Action expressed alarm at the Home Office’s decision. Mariam Kemple Hardy, its head of campaigns, said the decision “beggars belief”, and “implored” the home secretary, Priti Patel, to overturn the decision.
She added: “Frankly, if this government is no longer granting sanctuary to Syrian refugees, who will it grant sanctuary to? This decision pulls up the drawbridge to those fleeing war and persecution. It fails to meet even the bare minimum anyone would expect of a government claiming to uphold its obligations on the world stage.”
No other European country is forcibly returning refugees to Syria because it is a conflict zone. However, to the dismay of human rights organisations worldwide, Denmark has been detaining some Syrian refugees who refuse to return to their home country voluntarily.
According to a report in the Mail on Sunday, about 1,200 Syrian refugees out of 35,000 living in Denmark are affected by a tough new policy from the government to return them to their home country, as of November last year. The scheme is being challenged by the refugees’ lawyers.
A report from Human Rights Watch in October 2021 said that refugees should not be returned to Syria. By examining the fate of those who returned voluntarily, it found that they faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias – including torture, extra-judicial killings and kidnappings.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “All asylum applications are considered on their individual merits on a case-by-case basis and in line with current published policy.”