Syrian journalist whose passport was seized at Heathrow at Assad government’s request speaks out

Zaina Erhaim fears she won’t be reunited with family if her passport is not returned to her

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The Independent Online

An award-winning Syrian journalist who had her passport confiscated in the UK at the request of the Syrian Government says she fears she may not be reunited with her family if the document is returned to Damascus. 

Zaina Erhaim had her passport confiscated by UK border officials when she arrived at Heathrow airport from Istanbul in September. Officials said Syrian authorities had reported her passport as stolen. The Home Office said the UK Government had to comply with their request to return it because passports are the legal property of the issuing government. 

Ms Erhaim, an activist who is fiercely critical of the Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Assad, has reported on the six-year conflict in Syria and trained a number of people to become citizen reporters, including many women. 

She has written for a number of major outlets including The Economist, Newsweek and The Guardian and returned to Aleppo, where she is from, in 2013 to report from some of the areas worst hit by civil war. She fled Syria in 2015 to Turkey with her seven-month-old baby. Her husband travels between Aleppo and Turkey.

Ms Erhaim works for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a UK-based institute and had been travelling to the UK to talk at an event about front-line reporting with BBC journalist Kate Adie at the Kew Literary Festival when her passport was seized. 

She had travelled to the UK using the same passport in April to receive the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Journalism award for her reporting. She has an older passport which she can use to return to Turkey before it expires next year, although she is concerned about this as well. She says the passport has no pages left for visa or immigration stamps which means she would not be able to travel again after returning to Turkey. 

Ms Erhaim spoke about her situation on Thursday morning at The Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu).   

“I believe this could be the last trip abroad that I am making, “ she said. ”Which is not as scary as not being able to go back to Turkey, because all of my family is there. The father of my baby is there. He wouldn’t get a British visa for sure. 

“I don’t have my exit stamp of Turkey because that’s on the new passport. So they might ask me where my exit stamp is, they might not allow me in, which is really scary. And even if I get a new passport, the regime would flag it again and then another authority would just seize it.

“Even someone like me, who doesn’t really want to seek asylum, who is independent, who can still work, might think about that because I don’t have any other choice.  My passport is expiring next year, so what’s next? I’ll be stuck in Turkey for the rest of my life? I can’t work because I don’t have a passport? I can’t have a residency because I don’t have a passport? I couldn’t even have a bank account?” 

However, even if the passport is returned, Caabu said Ms Erhaim and her supporters would not be satisfied unless there was a rule change implemented to ensure her situation is not one experienced by others. 

Speaking about the decision to confiscate her passport last month, Ms Erhaim told The Observer: “What really, really hurts me is I am a Chevening scholar, you funded my master’s degree and I work for a UK-based, UK-funded organisation. And despite that, you take the regime’s word against mine.

In a statement given in September, the Home Office said: “Our first priority is the security of our borders and it would be irresponsible to ignore warnings about lost or stolen passports.

“The British Government has no direct contact with the Assad regime due to the atrocities it has committed against the Syrian people.” 

The Independent has contacted the Home Office for comment.

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