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Refugee families twenty years of limbo ends

18 December 20180 comments

In an extraordinary story that has resonance in Australia, a group of refugee families left stranded for two decades on a British military base on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus have been granted permanent residency in the UK.

The six families were part of a group of 75 people who fled Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria in October 1998, taking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Lebanon with hopes of reaching Italy.

But the group never reached their intended destination. Their fishing boat took on water and sank just off the coast of the Akotiri military base.
Over the two decades that followed, the six families were forced to rebuild their lives in a legal limbo on the base while the UK government repeatedly denied responsibility for them, and their rights as refugees were not observed.

The UK claims the 1951 refugee Convention did not apply to sovereign military bases.

In 2014, the then-British Home Secretary Theresa May refused to admit the families to the UK. Her decision was appealed, and in 2017, was overturned by Britain’s Court of Appeals.

Tag Bashir, the father of one of the families who escaped the Sudanese war, said in a statement to media that his family would be dead if they hadn’t made the journey.

“If we didn’t take that journey we would be dead already because of the war. The boat broke and we were rescued by the British base in Akrotiri. We felt happy because we were saved,” he said.

After their rescue, the heads of the six families, including Bashir, were detained for lengthy periods of time, but all six were eventually released when they were legally recognised as refugees.

But a UNHCR report into the families’ plight outlined their precarious situation.

“Military bases and are not designed for permanent habitation, and hence the refugees had limited access to services like education and healthcare…,” the report said.

Finally the families have been given leave to move to the UK.

“We’re very happy for our kids – they have a brighter future not to stay like this,” Mr Bashir said.

His son Emmanuel, who was born on the base and is now 18, told media of his interests in art and music, and his longtime ambitions he now had the ability to pursue after being granted residency.

“The hopes that I have for the future are really bright – I’ve had them since I turned 13; wanting to study, wanting to learn more, and to explore places,” he said.