•  SyriaUK  •  info@syriauk.org  •  www.facebook.com/SyriaUKorg  •  @SyriaUK

Monthly Archive

Search Syria Solidarity UK

Friday 15 July 2022

Syrians in the UK call for an end to Rwanda threats

Photo: Priti Patel meeting Syrian refugee children in 2017 when she was Secretary of State for International Development. Photo by Robert Oxley, DFID.

The UK’s Rwanda removals policy threatens vulnerable Syrians, survivors of torture and war.

With the UK Government continuing to threaten asylum seekers with removal to Rwanda, Syrian organisations in the UK have written to Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Many were shocked and surprised when several Syrian asylum seekers were amongst the first to be threatened by the new removals policy. Syrians are known to be fleeing one of the most brutal regimes on the planet.

Incredibly, the UK’s Rwanda removals policy is being run by individuals with clear knowledge of the Assad regime’s brutality.

The current Home Secretary Priti Patel was formerly Secretary of State for International Development from 2016 to 2017, responsible for delivering aid to millions of Syrians who were forced to flee Assad and Putin’s bombs.

And the top civil servant at the Home Office, Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft, was previously responsible for Syria aid from 2018 to 2020 as Permanent Secretary for International Development, and he was the British Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2015 to 2018, where he spoke on the Assad regime’s use of torture and mass murder, its targeting of medics and aid workers.

Despite this, we have already seen Patel and Rycroft put asylum seekers in UK army camps—including Syrians, including injured survivors of Assad’s bombs, including survivors of torture—and we have seen them threaten asylum seekers with dangerous forced pushbacks at sea.

This Government has in the past welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Amongst the first Syrian asylum seekers to be listed for removal to Rwanda were ones whose close family members had already been given refuge in the UK. But being Syrian is no protection from this Government’s range of threats towards asylum seekers.

The Rwanda policy is in the process of being challenged in the courts. At the same time the governing Conservative Party is in the process of selecting a new leader—a new Prime Minister for Britain. The press have been briefed that there will be no flights before that election is complete. That’s not good enough. It means the Government is still preparing for removals, still threatening and detaining vulnerable asylum seekers.

We believe the Rwanda removals policy violates the UN Convention for Refugees.

In short, the policy is illegal under international law. When a government puts itself above the law, it is on a path to tyranny, as we see in Syria. So our call is not just for the UK Government to act humanely, it is for the Government to respect the institutions of law and to suspend removals to Rwanda until after the final determination of the lawfulness of their policy, in national and international courts.

Below is the letter in full. PDF version here.

Monday 20 June 2022

Syrians are targeted by the UK’s Rwanda deportation plan

Many Syrian refugees have found a welcome in the UK. But more recently, Syrians arriving in the UK have been amongst those asylum seekers put in army camps, and have even been locked up and threatened with deportation to Rwanda.

All of us, Syrian and non-Syrian, have an interest in stopping these offensive policies—they stir hate and racism against all asylum seekers and refugees, and threaten the cohesiveness of UK society.

Here we explain the latest developments in the UK Government’s Rwanda plan, and consider what Syrians and their friends can do to stop it.

What happened to stop the plane to Kigali on June 14th?

As we know, there are currently no legal routes to asylum in the UK, except for some people from Hong Kong, Ukraine and possibly Afghanistan. Because of our geography, everyone who crosses clandestinely into the UK can be deemed to have passed through another safe country. But because of Brexit, since December 2020 they cannot be returned to Europe. So, for a UK Government obsessed with its borders, that meant finding somewhere else to remove them to.

Israel started sending some of its asylum seekers to Rwanda in 2013—at first voluntarily, but in 2018 forcibly—after evidence that it led to more dangerous journeys instead of safety, compulsory transfers were discontinued after a few months.

Despite this dismal outcome, the UK chose to follow Israel’s example.

The first hundred men, randomly selected it seems, were given letters by the Home Office in mid May, indicating the ‘inadmissibility’ of their asylum claim (because they had arrived clandestinely) and their consequent removal to Rwanda. Anyone who arrives without permission from 9th May is liable to put on this list—initially men over the age of eighteen, but eventually everybody. And if they are granted asylum by Rwanda, they are expected to settle there.

How does this affect the Syrian community, and its supporters? Some of the early Syrian refugees from 2011 onwards were lucky enough to obtain visas (usually for study) and could claim asylum safely while in the UK. Then there was the Syrian Resettlement Scheme, which at first offered to take 500, but after the huge Refugees Welcome march in 2015, the UK Government promised to welcome 20,000 vulnerable Syrians from refugee camps in surrounding countries. But that was wound up in 2021, ostensibly on account of the covid pandemic. By then, over 19,000 Syrians had been accepted in the UK. Nothing has since replaced it.

Since then, Syrian asylum seekers have had no option but to take the dangerous journeys so deplored by the Government, and on arrival in the UK have faced an increasingly hostile environment. From September 2020 onwards, Syrians were among the hundreds sent to military camps at Pennally and Napier—indeed they were among the founders of CROP (Camp Residents of Pennally) whose campaigning led to the closure of that camp, and afterwards to similar attempts to organise the residents of Napier. (The struggle to close Napier is still ongoing).

Some of the original CROP members have founded a new organisation, Life Seekers Aid. Though it has a Syrian co-founder, Life Seekers Aid has few links with the more established Syrian community, but they are busy helping new arrivals, Syrian and non-Syrian, who are struggling in an ever-more hostile UK asylum system. Of the one hundred recent arrivals who received letters of removal to Rwanda, there were more than twenty Syrians, some of whom went on hunger strike in detention to protest their removal. So, Syrian asylum seekers have been at the heart of resistance to the most inhumane polices of this Government, and deserve our support.

Congratulations also to Action for Sama! With the Syria Campaign, they organised an email drop to MPs against the forced removals to Rwanda. Please add your voice.

Internationally, the Government’s abusive policy has drawn attention from Syrian human rights organisations and media. The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre wrote on why the UK’s controversial Rwanda scheme undermines international law. And Syria Direct has written ten things to know about the UK’s Rwanda deal, and has reported on the agony of two detained Syrian asylum seekers facing deportation.


There was huge relief last Tuesday evening at the last minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which forbade the removal of one asylum seeker in the UK on the flight to Rwanda. This led to the other six remaining on the flight applying successfully for court injunctions removing them, on the same basis. So the flight, now empty, was called off!

Despite its bluster, it now seems impossible for the UK government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, according to its Memorandum of Understanding of April 2022, while its legality is being tested in the UK courts.

This could take many months—the first stage is due by end July—nevertheless the injunction forbidding removal is merely a respite, a temporary relief. And judging by the words of the UK judges to date, the prospects of a final favourable decision are not good.

Why should this be, in light of the formidable coalition of forces aligned against it?

The campaigners and charities which issued the judicial review were a representative sample of the 160 plus organisations which condemned the policy as ‘shamefully cruel’ in mid April.

One of the parties to the legal challenge is the trade union representing Home Office workers who would have to implement the policy.

The UNHCR, which the judges accepted as the primary arbitrer with responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, wrote a detailed analysis of the Government’s Rwanda policy in early June, which condemned it as seeking’ to shift responsibility’ and lacking in ‘necessary safeguards’ and as ‘incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Convention’.

Some of the asylum seekers threatened with removal to Rwanda went on hunger strike, and others self harmed or attempted suicide.

Apart from those directly involved in the legal challenge, many others have expressed strong opposition, including:
The opposition parties in Parliament, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and others, also oppose the Rwanda plan. But public opinion polls still indicate support from the base of the Conservative party.

Why is this relevant to a court challenge, where the law and legal precedent is supposed to trump public opinion? Because of the weight that the UK judges gave to the ‘public interest’, over the risk to asylum seekers, in considering whether to order a temporary ban on flights. Granted they considered only an interim measure, while the legality of the policy as a whole was still undecided by the courts. So the so called ‘balance of convenience’ in such cases might give more weight to untested Government assurances, than in the final judgment.

Nevertheless the High Court Judge placed great weight on the ‘legitimate public interest’ in ‘deterring asylum seekers from dangerous journeys’—the stated aim of the British Government; and despite the powerful UNHCR arguments to the contrary, found that the risk to asylum seekers in Rwanda was ‘very small’, at least in the interim period before the full case was decided.

Any balancing act between competing interests is obviously a discretionary judgment. This one depended on not examining the UNHCR report in any depth—the judge’s excuse being that he did not have time to consider it closely—and on ignoring the lack of evidence that the policy was or would be an effective deterrent to ‘dangerous journeys’.

But the judges at the Court of Appeal agreed, in refusing to find that the first instance judge’s opinion was flawed, despite the UNHCR evidence. As did the Supreme Court, in agreeing with the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court contented itself with assurances from the Home Office that should the final case go against the Government, the asylum seekers would then be returned to the UK from Rwanda.

The ECHR, more removed from British public opinion, took the UNHCR evidence more seriously. It decided to indicate to the Government of the UK, under Rule 39, that the applicant should not be removed until the expiry of a period of three weeks following the delivery of the final domestic decision in the ongoing judicial review proceedings.

“The Court had regard to the concerns identified in the material before it, in particular by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that asylum-seekers transferred from the United Kingdom to Rwanda will not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status as well as the finding by the High Court that the question whether the decision to treat Rwanda as a safe third country was irrational or based on insufficient enquiry gave rise to “serious triable issues”. In light of the resulting risk of treatment contrary to the applicant’s Convention rights as well as the fact that Rwanda is outside the Convention legal space (and is therefore not bound by the European Convention on Human Rights) and the absence of any legally enforceable mechanism for the applicant’s return to the United Kingdom in the event of a successful merits challenge before the domestic courts, the Court has decided to grant this interim measure to prevent the applicant’s removal until the domestic courts have had the opportunity to first consider those issues.”

(ECHR Press Release, 14 June 2022)

What next?

The Government will not give up this policy easily—it is the core of their new Nationality and Borders Act which outsources its responsibility for asylum, under the Refugee Convention. To save the policy, the Government is now threatening to join Russia, Europe’s outlaw, outside the European Convention on Human Rights.

But the UK judges could defeat it; we need to strengthen the judges’ hand and rally their courage, by persuading them that the damage done to asylum seekers is greater than the damage done to the Government’s prestige by the undermining of its post Brexit flagship policy. We know that the lawyers, who have already proven their dedication, will do an excellent job in preparing the case. But this will be a decision based on moral values, as much as on legal principle.

With the Bishops and the Prince of Wales already publicly opposed to the Rwanda plan, we might ask what more could we do to convince the judges that public opinion is against it? But the smaller and more radical organisations, for example the Stop Deportations, No Borders movement, had a significant effect by striking at the right moment, delaying the flight sufficiently to give the lawyers and judges time for their last minute interventions—the last person was ordered off the plane only 20 minutes before take off, after an hour’s delay to the schedule.

A cacophony of voices—influential and less so—will add to the noise that the judges will hear, despite themselves, when they sit in judgment at the end of July and after. So we hope to add to that noise, on behalf of the many Syrians and others arriving on our shores, still desperately seeking safety, and still fighting for their human rights after arrival.

Saturday 19 February 2022

Bringing Assad to Justice

Review by Clara Connolly

Earlier this month, the Frontline Club in London screened a new film on the challenge of getting accountability for crimes in Syria, followed by a discussion with the film-makers. Bringing Assad to Justice is the second major documentary about the Syrian conflict by Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan, of the independent Irish film team Esperanza Productions.

The film has won several awards around the world since its launch in Berlin last year, including winner of best documentary at festivals in Toronto and New York, and at the African Human Rights film festival. This screening was particularly significant as the Frontline Club is a prestigious gathering place for international journalists and photographers, championing independent media and truthful investigative journalism.

The crimes

I confess that I was slightly dreading the screening—not of course meeting up with old friends and acquaintances, but revisiting the inevitable depiction of unimaginable atrocities, in what Roy Gutman in the film describes as “war crimes masquerading as a war.”

And yes, we heard direct accounts of detention and torture from ex-detainees such as Anwar Al Bunni, Riyad Avlar and Majeda Khoury, sometimes vividly illustrated by the artist Marc Nelson; we saw the gruesome series of photographs of the dead, with their terrible injuries, as meticulously recorded by the Syrian regime, and smuggled out of Syria by the official code-named Caesar; we saw again the visual testimony of the relentless regime bombing of hospitals from Waad al-Kateab, co-director of the Channel 4 film For Sama; we heard from Paul Conroy, war photographer and stalwart companion of the great war correspondent Marie Colvin, about her deliberate targeting and assassination in February 2012 while working from the Homs Media Centre.

For some in the audience, this was not new, but for others the shock was palpable. Syria has faded from the news in recent years, and in any case much of this material has not been well-reported in the mainstream—partly because of how difficult it is to watch and absorb. The film-makers do a brilliant job in presenting the nature of the regime’s response to civilian opposition, in its extraordinary barbarity, as an issue that needs to be confronted head–on by journalists.

Toby Cadman, barrister at Guernica Chambers, suggests that the reason for the ferocity of such crimes is the lack of visible means of international accountability. The UN no longer functions as a check to human rights abuses by the state on its own people, because of the use of the veto on the UN Security Council. Mary Kaldor, author of New and Old Wars, reminds us that international law and its protocols, designed for wars between states, is an inadequate framework for a state at war with its own citizens, or where the strategy is the destruction of civil life and its institutions. As a consequence, Mouaz Moustafa of the Syrian Emergency Task Force describes the despair of those who recognised their dead family members in the Caesar pictures, to be told that there was no forum for redress for Syrian citizens. “Is Syrian blood of less worth?” they ask.

The investigations

In reply, the film traces the dedicated work by Syrians themselves in exile, aided by international journalists, lawyers, and archivists, to compile and examine the evidence smuggled out of Syria. Some of this was provided by ex officials of the regime, such as ‘Caesar’ who for over two and a half years in Damascus photographed the bodies of 11,000 dead detainees, labelled with their prison numbers, where held and where killed; and with the aid of the opposition left Syria with 55,000 photographs and other documents. Ibrahim Alkasem, director of the Caesar Files Group in Berlin, worked to arrange and archive these photographs in order to have the bodies identified by relatives. For example, the photographs were exhibited in Idlib, the last remaining opposition held area in Syria. As a result, 7,000 of the bodies have been identified by their families to date.

Many thousands of regime documents, identifying its control and command structures, which fell into the hands of the opposition, were smuggled out by Syrian citizen journalists, and are now archived in a secret location in Europe by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). Nerma Jelacic, its Bosnian director, explains that these documents have exposed the regime’s blanket arrest policy, targeting even the lowest form of participation in mass demonstrations, as a “special mission” by order of Assad himself.

Stephen J Rapp, who was US Ambassador for War Crimes during the Obama presidency, and is currently Chair of CIJA’s Board of Commissioners, specifies the forensic analysis to which all these documents have been subjected, and he concludes that the evidence is “better than the allies held in Nuremberg.” Unlike Nazi Germany, “the Syrian system itself is producing the evidence.. of the ongoing machinery of death.”

In addition Kristyan Benedict describes how testimony from Syrian survivors has helped the Forensic Architecture team, working with Amnesty International, to construct a map of the notorious Saydnaya prison where thousands were tortured and killed.

There is also the open source evidence of indiscriminate bombings of civilians in opposition areas, contrary to international law, such as that filmed by tens of thousands of Syrian citizens and media centres, and analysed by experts such as Bellingcat, or the New York Times visual investigative team.

The court cases

But, in the absence of an international criminal court or war crimes tribunal, where can such evidence be tested? The first case was in the US, when in 2016 Marie Colvin’s family sued the Syrian regime for her murder, using the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows victims to sue, in a US federal court, state-sponsored agents of terrorism for an extrajudicial killing. The Court found the regime directly responsible, using evidence leaked from regime defectors of their intent to directly target Marie Colvin following her CNN broadcast from Homs. Although the award to her family cannot currently be enforced, the finding of regime responsibility for an act of state terrorism is the first public indictment, and Paul Conroy ( witness in the trial) tells us that it led to an FBI criminal investigation.

Secondly, lawyers turned to the European courts, using the principle of universal jurisdiction, whereby the court of any state can prosecute a war crime committed elsewhere, based on the idea that some crimes are so serious that they affect the international community. Its purpose is to stop people who have committed such crimes from finding safe haven in another country.

• Bringing Assad to Justice is available on Vimeo.

The first Syrian official to face trial was Anwar Raslan, the head of investigation in a Damascus intelligence branch, who sought asylum in Germany. And Germany was an ideal location for such a trial, given the large number of Syrian refugees living there. Raslan was recognised by Anwar Al Bunni in a refugee accommodation centre in Berlin as the man responsible for his torture, and so he gave evidence, one of fifty witnesses at the trial in Koblenz in 2020. Besides giving testimony himself, Anwar Al Bunni, through his organisation the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research, collected other compelling witness evidence against Raslan. Many of the witnesses in the Raslan trial knew Al Bunni through his work in defending them in Syria. So his participation, alongside other Syrian lawyers, such as Mazen Darwish of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, was crucial in finding and encouraging witnesses.

Documents from CIJA were used in the trial to prove Mr Raslan’s position of authority. Caesar’s evidence was also provided to the Court. At the time of filming, the trial was in progress, and we saw scenes inside and outside the court, where activists showed pictures of the victims. We also met Patrick Kroker of the ECCHR, who represented the plaintiffs in the trial, working closely with Anwar Al Bunni’s organisation. Since the filming, Raslan and a minor official tried with him were both found guilty of crimes against humanity; Raslan was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Patrick Kroker, lawyer in the Raslan case, has also filed a complaint against Saydnaya prison, using the evidence compiled by the Amnesty International team.

Toby Cadman spoke of a case he is preparing against the Russian state, in the European Court of Human Rights, for the bombing of hospitals in Aleppo. He is using the Channel 4 film For Sama as evidence, as well as evidence from the New York Times visual investigation team. He urges journalists world-wide to report and investigate war crimes, to counter misinformation and to “give the public a sense of what is criminal in war.”

Fighting disinformation and impunity

The film concludes with a warning of increased danger for Syrian refugees, when there is pressure for them to return, and when in the absence of interest in other solutions, the regime is being normalised. Bringing an end to impunity, and the work of highlighting Assad’s crimes, becomes all the more urgent in this context.

However, Anwar Al Bunni defines his work more broadly, as being “not just about Syria” but a signal to all dictators and human rights abusers that they are not safe from justice. “These court cases can send a message,” he says.

There are other sections of the film, particularly concerning the White Helmets and the disinformation war against them, which are more fully dealt with elsewhere—see for example the Mayday podcast by the BBC. Bringing Assad to Justice is nearly two hours long, and could have been more focused, I felt, but I understand why the film-makers wanted to include the issue of misinformation campaigns, given the talk in Europe and in the region of normalisation and refoulement of refugees.

There was a lively discussion afterwards, with the film-makers and with Paul Conroy who had featured in the film. I was particularly moved by the presence of Nerma Jernacic who expressed her passion in the work of CIJA as arising from her realisation of the relative failure of Bosnians to document the human rights abuses against them. This made her understand the importance of the archival work of CIJA.

I loved Toby Cadman’s story of what Ahmad Helmi, a former detainee and now campaigner, had said to him about the fight against impunity: “It’s one sock at a time. If you ask a child to clean up her room it’s overwhelming. So concentrate on one sock at a time.”

The film-makers gave an eloquent response to the question, what inspired you to make this film? “Our first film about Syria (The Impossible Revolution) described a peaceful uprising and the terrifying regime response. Our second film was the answer to our first—what can we do about this?”

And what they have done is an amazing achievement. So I left feeling hopeful, having heard the ongoing story of the revolution, now conducted by Syrian exiles and their allies worldwide in an ongoing battle for dignity and justice, in full faith with the original ideals of 2011.

The full film, Bringing Assad to Justice, is available to rent or buy on Vimeo.