Syrian refugees stranded on a British base since 1998

We examine plight of Syrian refugees stranded on British military base in Cyprus since being washed up there in 1998

Photo by: TRT WORLD
Photo by: TRT WORLD

Syrian refugees stranded on a British military base since 1998

Updated Dec 9, 2015

Mustafa Shamus cuts an incongruous sight. A proud Syrian Kurd, he meets me at his garden gate, welcomes me in Arabic and invites me into his rundown house for tea and to share lunch with his family. We chat for a while as he tells me about how persecution in his homeland, escape across the sea in a sinking boat and subsequent dramatic rescue have led him to an uncertain life. But Mustafa is not part of the tragic fallout of the current Syrian conflict, he’s been becalmed and stateless in a British military base in the Eastern Mediterranean since 1998.

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d easily drive past a ramshackle collection of old prefab houses known Richmond village. There are rusting street signs fading in the sun bearing names like Cornwallis, Clarendon and Sydney, the goalposts of a long abandoned soccer pitch looms in the distance. Despite the colonial names, this is however is a long way from mainland Britain.

British Sovereign Base Area sign

The collection of dilapidated houses is on an abandoned area of a British military garrison on the island of Cyprus. Mustafa tells me how he and his neighbours have become unwanted guests of the British Armed Forces, eking out a poor existence whilst trapped in refugee limbo.

The metal sheds they call home are crumbling and falling apart, the roof leaks after a good downpour, abandoned supermarket trolleys lie in the road. Barely 500 yards away, behind barbed wire lie the pristine quarters of the British Dhekelia Garrison. The contrast between the two areas is stark. Dhekelia has green playing fields, a supermarket, a well-maintained beach with beachside restaurant, and even a sandy golf course hewn out of the parched Cypriot countryside. Mustafa’s house and those of his neighbours have rats, cockroaches and asbestos in the roofs.

His story dates back to 1998 when he and 73 others were crammed into a leaky boat. In fleeing political persecution in Syria Mustafa was part of a group who paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to take them to Europe. They headed for Italy, but as so often is the case, the overcrowded boat began to take on water. They didn’t know where they were and Mustafa expected the worst.

And just when all hope seemed lost, land was spotted and they beached on British military territory in what was described in the media at the time as "a floating coffin." 

They may have reached land safely, but politically they were adrift in a legal minefield, as they didn't officially arrive on Cypriot territory but the at the RAF Akrotiri airbase in the large part of Cyprus that Britain kept when the island became independent in 1960.  

Two large tracts of land known as Sovereign Base Areas were retained by Britain in perpetuity, in a similar manner to the way in which the USA owns Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Areas that - according to the treaty signed at the time - "remain under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom."

Which is where it all starts to get rather complicated. The local newspapers at the time are full of quotes from the then Cypriot Attorney General Alecos Markides making it plain that Cyprus was not responsible for the boat people as they didn’t land on Cypriot soil, so it was purely a British issue. This was also some six years before Cyprus joined the European Union. 

British Sovereign base, Dhekelia, Cyprus

The refugees then passed into a state of political limbo and remain there to this day. In 2005, the British bases signed an agreement with the Cypriot government stating that the Republic of Cyprus would have responsibility for any refugees that arrived on the military bases – and this happened when a boatload of mainly Palestinian migrants landed at the air base at Akrotiri just a few weeks ago. But this can’t apply to Mustafa Shamus and his fellow refugees as their arrival predates the legal arrangement.

They were initially housed at the nearby garrison of Episkopi - a "jail" as Mustafa called it - where they spent over a year, before being moved to the current, crumbling location in the Dhekelia Garrison. This is where they have been ever since, with seemingly no one willing to offer them a future.

Despite the British military regarding the refugees as somewhat unwanted guests, and doing as much as they can to persuade them to move on, the military still housed them - albeit in very rough accommodation that was abandoned in the early 1990’s - and they have been paid a basic stipend ever since. But they’ve not been treated at all fairly according to Nicoletta Charalambidou, a human rights lawyer based in Cyprus' capital Nicosia.

"It's a good thing they've not been returned to their countries where they face persecution. They've been given some minimal welfare benefits to survive, but otherwise they've not been given access to any other rights which they could enjoy like any other human being. They have the right to dignity and all other rights that are provided in the European convention on human rights and other international treaties," Charalambidou said.

The British military didn’t respond to our request for an interview or comment, but it’s plain they don’t want to house the refugees and indeed have tried to move them on them in the past. They issued eviction notices in 2011 that have yet to be enforced. However it remains a legal threat hanging over the families already worn down by years of judicial oppression.

With great irony, the Air force base of Akrotiri, is the site from which Britain is sending planes to currently bomb DAESH, who now occupy the village and lands in the al hasekah region of Syria from where Mustafa came in 1998.

Musfata himself has an air of utter despair. He can neither go back to his homeland, nor move forward as no other country will take him, his family, or the others he arrived with. Certainly not Britain, as long before the current refugee crisis they steadfastly refused to re-house the refugees in the UK. They fear that doing so would set a precedent and be a back door for other desperate people.

This attitude appears to have unsurprisingly hardened in recent months, with the currently ongoing migrant crisis. 

But to do nothing to ease the plight of these people in their decrepit houses in Dhekelia is to condemn Mustafa Shamus, his wife Paw, and their two children, to a stateless, uncertain future.