Six refugee families who have been stranded on a sovereign British army base in Cyprus for more than 20 years have been granted indefinite leave to enter the UK for permanent residence by the British government.
The decision, announced by their London lawyers Leigh Day, is a victory for the families – originally from Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia and Syria – who left the coast of Lebanon in a fishing boat operated by smugglers in the hope of making an Italian landfall.
After a few days at sea in October 1998, however, the engine failed and the smugglers abandoned the vessel. The #refugees managed to steer the boat towards the nearest visible land – beaching close to the RAF’s Akrotiri #military airfield, a British overseas territory.
The group have been fighting through the courts to obtain leave to enter the UK for nearly four years. Ahead of a supreme court hearing on the case, Leigh Day said, the government had agreed to grant all the families indefinite leave to enter the UK.
The UK government had consistently denied legal responsibility for the refugees, arguing that the refugee convention of 1951 was never extended to the sovereign base area and that the families had no grounds on which to seek resettlement in the UK.
Expert reports carried out on behalf of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) in 2013 found high levels of anxiety and depression among the families, with all children being assessed to have suffered in their “psychological health” due to their living conditions.
The refugees live in disused military accommodation on the military base in Dhekelia, close to Larnaca, Cyprus, with limited access to healthcare. The bungalows, which were due to be demolished in 1997, were found to contain potentially harmful levels of asbestos in 2008.
The decision to deny them entry was reaffirmed by Theresa May when she was home secretary in 2014. Following an earlier hearing, Mr Justice Foskett ordered her to reconsider her ruling in the light of factors including concerns expressed by the UNHCR about Cyprus’s ability to receive the refugees.
Tessa Gregory, the solicitor at Leigh Day handling the case, said: “We are delighted that the current home secretary has done the humane thing and agreed to grant our clients and their families leave to enter the UK for permanent residency.
“My clients now want to put those wasted years behind them and build a new life in the UK with stability and security. These six families have hope again and are looking forward to contributing to our society.”