When Muhammed Hatif fled Syria he never thought he would end up in a British detention centre. Today, however, the 25-year-old refugee is among a group of his compatriots facing deportation from Britain to eastern Europe. Their numbers may be small, but they are vulnerable, and frightened.
Formerly a reluctant soldier for the Assad regime, Muhammed left his native Aleppo for Turkey in September 2012 with the aim of reaching “safety” in Britain, where he says he has cousins.
He paid people smugglers to get him to Hungary – where he says was beaten and kept in solitary confinement – before continuing on his journey through Austria, Italy and France, arriving in Dover on the back of a lorry in July 2013 and quickly being detained.
Like other Syrians in British custody he is facing a return to eastern Europe under the EU’s controversial Dublin regulation – which allows member states to return asylum seekers to the first European country they entered – despite the Government moving to accept 500 Syrian refugees after a campaign by aid agencies and The Independent.
Refugee charities and human rights bodies, including Amnesty International UK, Human Rights Watch, Refugee Action and the Refugee Council, have condemned the British Government practice of detaining and returning some Syrian refugees.
Muhammed said he is “terrified” of being returned to “squalid conditions” and “poor treatment” in Hungary, where he will likely have to be return. Speaking through an interpreter, he described how he was detained in Hungary on his arrival last year and was kept in solitary confinement, “punched like a boxer’s bag” by police, “stripped naked” and only fed once a day until he agreed provided his fingerprints to asylum authorities.
The Independent was unable to verify all of Muhammed’s claims, but charities suggest his tale is not unusual.
Jerome Phelps, director of Detention Action, said that “traumatised people are facing removal to third countries where conditions are very poor” and that they are “being detained in a prison-like environment in the UK beforehand”.
Muhammed said he was disappointed with Britain and had not expect to be “treated like a criminal”.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International UK have condemned the failure to sufficiently reform the controversial Dublin regulation and raised concerns over conditions for refugees returned to countries on the border of the EU, including Bulgaria, Italy, Greece and Hungary.
A recent Amnesty International report also highlighted the UNHCR’s concerns over Hungary’s treatment of asylum seekers. The country accepted 18,000 Syrian refugees last year but there have been reports of poor conditions in reception centres and reports that conditions in detention fall short of international and EU standards.
The Home Office says individual are only detained if there is a realistic prospect of their removal, but has refused to rule out the return of Syrians under the Dublin Regulation. A spokesperson added: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it. All asylum cases are considered on their individual merits and in line with immigration rules.”