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Exclusive: ‘Safe routes’ for refugees so slow that toddler died waiting

Iraqi refugees who have spent years stuck in Turkey tell openDemocracy they understand why some turn to smugglers

Adam Bychawski
8 June 2023, 12.44pm

Fadi (pictured) could not get the care he needed.

Supposedly safe, legal asylum routes that Suella Braverman claims are open to refugees are so inadequate that a toddler died after waiting years to be resettled, openDemocracy has learnt.

The government has sought to justify harsh new laws that would prevent people from claiming asylum in the UK by arguing that it already provides a safe and legal route for refugees referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But speaking from Turkey, some of those accepted onto the scheme say they feel abandoned after waiting more than a decade for resettlement.

“Sometimes I think, if I had taken the smuggling route, I would have gotten treatment for my children,” the boy’s mother, Mina*, told openDemocracy.

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Mina’s family has been waiting for resettlement since 2014. Her little boy, Fadi*, died in 2020 from a rare autoimmune condition even after Mina and her husband begged the UNHCR to fast-track their case, sending medical documents as evidence. Mina now fears losing her daughter, too, who was born in 2012 and has been diagnosed with the same disease – which also killed the family’s eldest son in 2009 while they still lived in Iraq.

Mina says restrictions imposed on refugees in Turkey made it difficult to access care for Fadi, both because it was expensive and because they needed permission from the immigration office to travel to medical appointments. Asked if she believes Fadi would have stood a better chance of survival if the family had been resettled, she said: “Yes, of course.”

In 2016, the year before Fadi was born, they were informed that the US had rejected their application for resettlement after they were referred by the UNHCR, with no specific reason given. In a particularly cruel twist, Mina’s immunocompromised daughter would be particularly vulnerable to environmental pollution in Iraq if she ever returned – some of which has been caused by America’s own bombing campaigns.

When Fadi was a baby, Mina and her husband wrote an email to the agency’s international headquarters in Geneva to complain about their treatment, where Mina says officials seemed concerned about the delays.

But when word got back to the UNHCR office in Ankara, Mina alleges she received a phone call from a local official scolding them for complaining. That was the last response they received from the UN agency. Two years later, Fadi died. Mina says they have continued sending emails and faxes and calling the UNHCR to no avail. 

She would not give openDemocracy permission to ask the UNHCR about their case directly because she feared it would only result in further delays. 

“We are exhausted,” she said. “By God, life is so difficult because of the UNHCR’s neglect of us and the long wait, and on top of that, my daughter’s disease. How could it be harder? Nothing can describe our situation.”

Mina says her family considered paying a smuggler after losing hope that they would be resettled by the UNHCR, but ultimately decided to wait for fear of losing another child. 

Majid* is acting as the spokesperson for a group of 20 Iraqi families, including Mina’s, who fled the country after fearing for their lives. He has been waiting for resettlement for eight years after he narrowly escaped to Turkey with his family. The journey itself was perilous – at one point he said snipers took aim at him – and made all the more difficult with a disabled family member. 

He shared documents with openDemocracy that show one member of his group has been waiting as long as 13 years for the UN refugee agency to resettle them.

Under the Refugee Convention, people have the right to seek refugee protection in the UK even if they arrive irregularly. But the government has proposed a new law that would allow it to deport anyone who enters the UK this way before their claim can be heard.

Nora*, another member of the group, says refugees are faced with an impossible choice: do as the UK says and potentially wait decades for resettlement, or take a dangerous journey to get the protection they urgently need.

She fled Iraq with her husband, teenage son and daughter in 2014 after facing religious persecution. They were registered as refugees in Turkey that same year and have been waiting for resettlement ever since.

“We lost everything in Iraq, and we cannot return because of the threat. Here, we cannot settle. We are tired of waiting and our fates being unknown… Our children have lost their future from waiting,” she said.

Nora said her children had to work and miss out on their education to provide for the family. Her husband suffers from epilepsy and a developmental disorder, which requires her constant care.

They have seen very little progress on their case. In 2017, they were notified that they had been referred to a resettlement country for consideration. Since then, they have had no contact from the UNHCR. They too were reluctant to let openDemocracy quiz the UNHCR for fear of damaging their case.

Nevertheless, Nora is clinging onto the hope of resettlement. When it comes, she said, “we will live a stable life, without fear of an unknown future”.

Like Mina, she chose not to take one of the many dangerous migration routes into Europe to claim asylum once reaching a third country. “Why should we risk our lives? We didn’t flee Iraq to save our children only to die that way,” she said.

But many of her friends did, out of desperation, and some have since secured citizenship in their countries of asylum.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world: some 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees along with close to 320,000 so-called ‘persons of concern’ of other nationalities.

Human rights groups say refugees remain at risk in Turkey in part because it opted only to recognise refugees from Europe when it joined the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Although it has offered temporary protection to some nationalities, these statuses afford fewer rights and leave others at risk of being returned.

Members of the group told openDemocracy they had struggled to get access to healthcare and find employment in the country.

Last year, the UNHCR submitted the files of more than 118,000 refugees for consideration to 25 resettlement countries – but only half that number were resettled.

The UK resettled 1,194 refugees referred by the UN agency in 2022. By comparison, France took double that number, and Germany and Sweden four times as much. The US accepted 21,915 refugees, the highest number of any country.   

Between 2012 and 2015, the UK resettled 37,999 refugees referred by the UN, the fifth most generous country signed up to the programme. But in the last five years, the number of refugees it accepts has fallen sharply. 

In April, the UNHCR released a statement correcting UK home secretary Suella Braverman after she wrongly claimed refugees could apply for resettlement on the scheme before leaving their country of origin.

“There is no asylum visa or ‘queue’ for the United Kingdom,” the statement said.

A few Iraqis in the group have distant relatives or friends who live in the UK who could help them resettle, but this does not mean they will ultimately be offered resettlement there – it is up to the UN refugee agency to decide which country to refer them to.

A UNHCR spokesperson said its resettlement programme only has the capacity to help a very limited number of refugees.

“Given the very limited availability of resettlement places worldwide, it is not a solution for all refugees – rather a life-saving protection tool for those at heightened risk in countries of asylum,” they said.

“Less than 1% of refugees are resettled each year. Out of a global refugee population of 21.3 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, only 57,500 refugees were resettled in 2021.”

It added that it considers cases on the basis of personal circumstances and risks, rather than the time they have spent waiting, but conceded: “There may be many refugees waiting for years for a solution.”

Julia Tinsley-Kent, policy and strategic communications manager at Migrants’ Rights Network, said: “The stories we have heard from this group of Iraqi refugees are largely symptomatic of the restrictive and insufficient resettlement schemes. The UNHCR and the West must recognise their responsibility to help people fleeing countries like Iraq, where we have a long history of interference. 

“The UK’s long history of deadly intervention and colonialism in both this region and many other parts of the world has directly contributed to the displacement of millions and continues to do so. 

“Instead of taking accountability and creating safe routes, the UK government is determined to pursue a cruel policy of deterrence and effectively criminalise anyone coming through an irregular route.”

* Names have been changed.

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