The court of appeal has ordered the home secretary to “rapidly” reconsider a decision to bar from the UK people who have spent more than 18 years living at a British military base in Cyprus after being rescued from a boat.
Seventy-five people, including six families from Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia and Syria, were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea in October 1998. They were heading to Italy onboard a Lebanese fishing vessel, which was abandoned by its smuggler crew after the engine failed.
Since then, the six families have mostly lived in former forces’ accommodation known as Richmond Village at the Dhekelia sovereign base area, a judge said.
Leigh Day, the law firm, representing the families, said those individuals had been trapped in “legal limbo” for the past 18 years and faced wholly unacceptable conditions because the government had refused to accept that the 1951 refugee convention applied to their case.
On Thursday, three appeal court judges, Lord Justice Jackson, Lord Justice Briggs and Lord Justice Irwin, ruled that the convention applied directly. They declared that the home secretary, Amber Rudd, had to take a fresh decision in the light of the finding.
In November 2014, Theresa May, who was home secretary at the time, refused the families entry on the grounds they had no strong ties to Britain and could be resettled in Cyprus.
Her decision was overturned by the high court judge Mr Justice Foskett, who ruled that May had failed to consider all the relevant circumstances. He found that although the convention did not apply as a matter of public international law, UK authorities were required by policy decisions they had taken to act “within the spirit” of the convention.
In the lead judgment, Irwin said: “The secretary of state must take the decision once more, but on the basis that the refugee convention applies directly and the UK owes direct obligations to the claimants by operation of public international law.”
The judge highlighted the “enormous delay” the families had experienced and said “their present conditions are quite unacceptable
“I would regard it as unreasonable and a failure of the obligations to the refugees if resettlement was not achieved rapidly,” he added.
Tag Bashir, the lead claimant, said: “For the past 18 years the UK government has sought to ignore us and has left us stranded on the SBA living in awful conditions. All we have ever wanted is an opportunity to work and make a future for our children. We hope that the home secretary will now allow us entry to the UK. We will keep fighting until she does.”
Tessa Gregory, a partner at Leigh Day, said: “Our clients have been in legal limbo for 18 years living in wholly unacceptable conditions on a British military base. They have suffered enough. Now is the time for the government to show compassion and a ‘strong and stable’ resolve to address this situation, which has festered for far too long.”