Skip to main content

Rwanda plan: Kurdish refugees in UK fear for future after narrowly avoiding deportation

Kurdish refugees from Iran and Iraq tell MEE that they still live in fear of being sent to the African nation
Police officers walk near to where a Boeing 767 sits on the runway at the military base in Amesbury, Salisbury, on 14 June 2022, preparing to take a number of asylum-seekers to Rwanda (AFP)

Berzan and Nebez are both Kurdish. They both made a perilous journey from their homeland to the UK, enduring violent smugglers and border police.

Both narrowly avoided being flown to the African nation of Rwanda on Tuesday after a last-minute legal challenge against the British government's controversial new asylum policy.

The two men - whose names have been changed for this article - now face an uncertain future, as the UK's stridently right-wing administration mulls the options for pressing forward with their plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, even raising the prospect of withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which helped scupper the first flight of refugees out of the country.

Nebez, a political refugee originally from Iran, was already on the flight, ready to head to a country he had never been to and knew nothing about. He was led from his room with his hands tied behind his back, shaking as he went, after having spent 28 days in the removal centre.

'Now, I am in the centre near the airport. Whenever I see any plane take off, it's just like I am inside that plane. I am still so terrified'

- Nebez, refugee

While on the plane, in a state of visible distress, he managed to convince a police officer to allow him to call his sister one last time before take-off.

"I called my sister, and she was crying telling me the deportation was cancelled," he said, speaking to Middle East Eye by phone from the Colnbrook immigration removal centre in west London. "I didn't believe her, she repeatedly was saying you are not going to Rwanda, it was cancelled. Then, I was shouting and crying at the same time.

"Everyone on the plane was shocked and scared of me. They thought I am running away, but I told them it's cancelled, it’s cancelled."

Berzan received notification his flight had been cancelled before they managed to get him on the plane - though the experience was still traumatising.

"They came to our room - it was about five or six officers," said Berzan.

"They said they have to take me to an airport, I have to go to Rwanda. And I said I don't want to and they said 'that is not your decision.'"

Berzan travelled in a series of lorries across Europe after fleeing his home city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's northern Kurdish region, after a family dispute threatened his life.

How Boris Johnson is turning Britain into a global pariah
Read More »

On the way he was extorted by people smugglers who forced him to carry out jobs for them after he was unable to pay the extra money they demanded. When he refused they kicked and beat him repeatedly.

He recalls being finally put on a boat to cross the channel from France to the UK, along with an estimated 53 people. The smugglers brutalised one refugee after he had second thoughts about making the perilous crossing, which over the past five years has caused the deaths of more than 150 people.

However, ultimately, Berzan said he saw little difference between the criminals who mistreated him throughout his journey and the security officers who attempted to force him onto the Rwanda flight.

"'You come freely or we take you by force.' That just reminded me how the traffickers did that to me. Because I said the same thing that I don't want to do something and the trafficker hit me," he explained.

"I said I don't want to go to Rwanda and they forced me, they said, that's not your decision - you have to do it."

Legal battle

The UK government's policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing - which critics say is aimed at deterring refugees from seeking asylum but which the government says is meant to undermine people traffickers - was ruled legal by the High Court last week.

However, individual legal cases brought by refugees and migrant rights groups have thrown more roadblocks in the way.

The first attempt by the UK government to carry out a flight was cancelled on Tuesday after a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The ECHR accepted an appeal from a 54-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker and alleged torture victim from Iraq whose deportation case remains under judicial review in the UK.

Poland-Belarus: Iraqi Kurdish refugees reject offer to return to hardship at home
Read More »

“The European Court has indicated to the UK government that the applicant should not be removed to Rwanda until three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his ongoing judicial review proceedings,” the ECHR said.

After a number of successful appeals, the number of refugees originally set to be put on the first flight to the African country dropped from 130 to seven, with most citing their vulnerability to human rights abuses.

In the end, no-one was left on the flight.

However, neither Nebez or Berzan are out of danger. The UK government has promised it will push on with the policy and has promised legislation to allow it to ignore certain rulings from the ECHR.

"I'm really scared and afraid that the UK government will do it again," said Nebez.

"Now, I am in the centre near the airport; whenever I see any plane take off, it's just like I am inside that plane. I am still so terrified."

Hopes for a better life

A border has separated Berzan and Nebez's respective regions of Kurdistan for over a century.

Nebez had to flee Iran due to his support for the Iranian wing of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which advocates for Kurdish autonomy and has been heavily suppressed by the Islamic Republic.

Though Kurdish cultural rights are suppressed in Iran and are, conversely, boosted in Iraq's Kurdish region, both regions are currently struggling with a similar range of problems - corruption, unemployment, entrenched interests and violent repression.

"Anyone would be lucky if they aren't executed or jailed for 15-30 years. It's a really bad situation in Iran," said Nebez.

Though he had high hopes for the UK as a haven, and has been bitterly disappointed by the result, he also has few options.

Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, members of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Iran), take part in routine military exercise in Koya, 100 kms east of Erbil in KRG (AFP)
Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, members of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Iran), take part in routine military exercise in Koya, 100 kms east of Erbil in KRG (AFP)

"If I knew there was such a policy, I wouldn't come to UK. At the same time, I wouldn't be staying in Iran...my life would be worse there," he explained.

The situation has become so desperate that in the past two years thousands of Kurds have left the lands of their birth, comprising the largest single ethnic group during the 2021 migrant "crisis" that developed on the borders of Europe.

Kurdish migrants (primarily from Iraq) ended up congregating in huge numbers on the Poland-Belarus borders, enduring freezing conditions just for a chance at a better life, after travel agencies in Iraqi Kurdistan began offering package deals to Belarus.

The Belarusian government was accused by EU members states of orchestrating an influx of migrants in response to the sanctions imposed on the Belarus administration over the repression of demonstrators in 2020.

But regardless of the geopolitics involved, the motivation for the migrants was legitimate.

Many of Iraqi Kurdistan's problems have been laid at the feet of the KDP's Iraqi wing, which is the most powerful party in the devolved area known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Beneath an image which is portrayed the KRG as a beacon of stability and liberalism in a turbulent, repressive region, unemployment and poverty are high and rising - particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic - while disputes with Baghdad over the region's share of the budget have led to repeated delays in salary payments.

The KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have controlled the region since the early 90s and both parties have established patronage networks protected by armed militias. Tribal and political violence is often overlooked in these circumstances.

"Kurdistan...it's not a safe country. If you do something and people think it's wrong, they can kill you, as all of them have guns and the government will not do anything serious about it," said Berzan.

"When something happens, when they threaten to kill you, they mean it - so you have to run or you have to kill him. So we run; we don't want to kill anyone and we don't want to be killed."

'Disappointed in the UK'

British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said on Thursday that his government would soon release details of a Bill of Rights to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act, the legislation which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights and the authority of the ECHR into British law.

The Conservative government brought the UK out of the European Union in 2020 and although the ECHR is under the authority of the Council of Europe rather than the EU, it has long been a dream of the same Eurosceptics to limit the influence of the court as well.

Though full withdrawal would be a big step - one so far only taken before by the Greek military junta in 1969 and Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine in February - the battle over the Rwanda deportations has given them renewed motivation.

UK: European Court ruling cancels first Rwanda flight deporting asylum seekers
Read More »

Karen Doyle, an organiser from the migrant rights group Movement for Justice, told MEE on Wednesday that the whole situation was ultimately right-wing fodder for the media.

"This policy is nothing more than racist political theatre from a failing, corrupt government desperate to divide people and divert attention away from their crisis," she said.

Though spared from Tuesday's flight, it remains to be seen what lies in store for Berzan, Nebez and other refugees, who are still being held in prison-like conditions in Colnbrook removal centre - despite having committed no crimes - with no smartphones and limited contact with the outside world.

Whether Iran, Iraq, Rwanda or the UK, it appears there is nowhere that is willing to provide them with the protection and the basic rights they need.

"I came to UK to begin with a new life, and I was holding a lot of hope that the UK would save and protect us as they used to protect many people, especially, if I am coming from Iran," said Nebez. "Then after I saw this treatment I was beginning to ask myself is it me who doesn't have luck or if is it really the face of [the] UK?" 

However he has been encouraged by the support shown by organisations and pro-refugee solidarity protests.

"I really felt disappointed in the UK - but after I saw the people of UK coming down to the street supporting us, I felt hope as I always believed there will be hope. I believed in the people of UK, organisations and media."