The number of Syrians claiming asylum in Britain has soared since civil war gripped the country last year.
Barely 10 a month sought refuge in the UK before President Bashar al-Assad's regime started turning its weaponry on protesters. The trickle has now turned into a stream of about 100 a month, placing fresh pressure on refugee support services and forcing the Home Office to issue new guidance to immigration officers dealing with Syrian asylum-seekers.
Some Syrians currently working or studying in Britain on visas which are about to run out are claiming asylum, warning they face arrest if they return to their home country. Most Syrians who make the journey to western Europe are seeking refuge in Germany, Switzerland or Sweden, but a significant minority are reaching the UK.
In the three months before civil war erupted last April, just 31 claimed asylum in Britain. In the final three months of the year, the number had risen to 149 – equivalent to 50 month. More than 330 claimed refuge in the first six months of 2012 – 55 a month – and unpublished Home Office figures suggest the number exceeded 100 a month in July and August.
Many have headed to London, but others have also arrived in Oxford. Asylum Welcome, which works with refugees in the city, has just sent out an alert to supporters asking for emergency help to look after new arrivals from Syria. It said: "[We are] providing support to the recent influx of Syrian families waiting to claim asylum and be relocated. This has put massive pressure on our resources, particularly the food cupboard which provides food for destitute families."
The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has just issued new guidance to staff handling asylum applications by Syrians. It warns that the Syrian security agencies routinely extract confessions by torturing suspects and locking up their relatives and estimates there are up to 3,000 political prisoners, most of whom have never been tried, in the country. But the UKBA also says there is no general policy against the enforced return of Syrians to Syria.
The Home Office, recognising the deepening crisis in the country, has just announced a temporary relaxation of the visa rules for Syrians legally in Britain. It said they would be able to apply to extend their stay without having to return home first. The Immigration minister, Mark Harper, said the concessions would remain in force until March. He added: "The Government continues to monitor the situation in Syria closely in order to ensure our response is appropriate."
Judith Dennis, policy officer at the Refugee Council said: "It is not surprising asylum claims from Syria have increased, given the serious human rights abuses that are taking place, leaving people with no choice but to flee for their lives. It is important for people to make the link between the situation they read about in the news and the impact on our fellow human beings. If they are not able to remain safe in their own country, it is right the UK does all it can to provide protection to those who need it."
Hasan Abdalla, 57, is a teacher who lived in the Kurdish region of north-eastern Syria. He came to Britain last December and, aided by Freedom From Torture, he was granted asylum in April.
I first had problems with the regime 20 years ago when I was a member of the Kurdish Popular Union Party. They imprisoned me for one-and-a-half years – they said I had been distributing leaflets, but it wasn't me. I was beaten and tortured. They tie your legs up and hit you until you are unconscious, strap your hands to electric chairs with a cable connected to a car battery and shock you.
"When the Arab Spring started we travelled down to Damascus to start holding demonstrations. They shot at us – two from my group and three others were killed. That was when I knew I had to run away.
"When I realised it was impossible for me to go back, I went to Turkey and found some agents to prepare a fake passport. I preferred Britain because I can speak English.
"I went to the Home Office and they gave me an appointment to apply for asylum. My family are in Jordan now and I want them to come and join me. I'm looking for a job as a translator for Arabic and Kurdish, and I've got a contract to start running a teaching course in London.
Case study: 'When I was shot at, I knew I couldn't return'
Hasan Abdalla, 57, is a teacher with a degree in English Literature who lived the Kurdish region of north-eastern Syria. He came to Britain last December after his opposition group’s peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad led to them being targeted for torture, imprisonment and execution by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces. Aided by Freedom From Torture, he was granted asylum in April and has exhibited artworks reflecting on his experiences.
"I first had problems with the regime 20 years ago when I was a member of the Kurdish Popular Union Party. They imprisoned me for one and a half years for nothing – they said I had been distributing leaflets, but it wasn’t me. They captured me in front of my family and my neighbours, and they took me away with no clothes on.
"While I was detained I was beaten and tortured. They tie your legs up and hit you until you are unconscious; they strap your hands to electric chairs with a cable connected to a car battery and shock you until you pee yourself or you are unconscious, in addition to the insults and abuse. Then they push you in a small room – 3m by 2m – with more than 50 people. You eat in it, you sleep in it, and they take you out two times a day just to beat you and interrogate you, to question you, to torture you to confess about members of your party. You have to lie and tell them what they want. You tell them everything because nobody can resist what they do.
"They released me in 1995, but they stopped me from teaching. When the Arab Spring started we travelled down to Damascus to start holding demonstrations outside the arch of the old city.
"At first they broke up our protests, but then they shot at us – two from my group and three others were killed – and they captured 300. We knew that we were about to be arrested and killed, because those they took knew everything about our group. The next day we went to the funeral and they shot at us again, and raided my house. I knew that it was my turn. That was when I knew I had to run away.
"I knew people who could pass me over the border to Lebanon. At that time I thought I would be going back because I thought Bashar’s regime would not last long. I didn’t think it would escalate and get more critical. When I realised it was impossible for me to go back, I went to Turkey and found some agents to prepare a fake passport for me to come to Europe. I preferred Britain because I can speak English.
"I went to the Home Office and they gave me an appointment to apply for asylum. At first I stayed with an Egyptian friend before going to a refugee service in Brixton. They sent me to Home Office accommodation in Croydon and then to West Bromwich. The process was fine, I was very happy.
"I have a wife and three children. My family are in Jordan now and I want them to come and join me. One of my children is allowed to come here but the others aren’t because they are over 18. I’m now looking for a job as a translator for Arabic and Kurdish, and I’ve got a contract to start running a teaching course in London soon."