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Journalist Zaina Erhaim says the Syrian government wants her killed and that co-operating with Syrian officials, by seizing her passport, was a very dangerous thing for the UK to have done. “It’s obvious that they are still dealing with Assad as a president, not a criminal.”
Erhaim, a Chevening scholar and award-winning reporter, had her passport confiscated by British officials when she flew into London to take part in a literature festival with former BBC foreign correspondent Kate Adie. Erhaim, who won the 2016 Index award for journalism, voiced concern that the actions of officials in the UK suggested that they condoned the Syrian government. “They were speaking about the regime with really tender language as if was a legitimate government,” she said.
The journalist was speaking at a press conference, organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in conjunction with Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the Frontline Club. Her passport was seized at Heathrow on September 22 after being reported as stolen by the Syrian government.
Erhaim considers herself to be lucky because she has another passport, even if it is now full. She is also thankful that she works for an international organisation, speaks English and has the support of other journalists.
“If this happened to another Syrian who doesn’t have another valid passport and he or she’s not supported, what would happen?,” she asked. “Because if [border officials] are following the rules, they should deport him or her back to Damascus.”
Another major concern for her is making sure European governments are not able to deport Syrians fleeing from war in the future without the press being informed.
She said: “I’m not optimistic that the Home Office is going to be doing something about the situation, I’m not optimistic that my passport is going to be returned, and even if it’s returned I don’t think I would be able to use it again.”
When asked what a future without her passport holds, Erhaim said: “I believe this is going to be the last trip abroad I’m making. This is not as scary as not being able to go back to Turkey because all my family is there, the father of my baby is there. I don’t have my exit stamp for Turkey because that’s on the new passport. So they might ask me, ‘Where is your exit stamp?’ and not allow me in, which is really scary.”
If Erhaim is unable to gain access to Turkey, the only other option she sees at the moment is to stay in Britain or another European country where she holds a visa and seek asylum. This is a prospect she currently rejects. “I’m not ready for that,” she said.
Erhaim’s future may be uncertain but she will continue to fight and will only consider asking for asylum if she was threatened in Turkey or survived an assassination attempt.
“I would rather be stuck in Turkey than here, and I will try to go back.”
Index condemns UK’s seizure of award winner’s passport
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Zaina Erhaim: “I want to give this award to the Syrians who are being terrorised”
We condemn the decision of UK border officials to confiscate the passport of Syrian journalist, Zaina Erhaim, at the request of Syrian authorities. We urge the British government to protect the freedom of the press by refusing to let foreign governments use manipulation of the passport system to punish journalists.
The Syria coordinator for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Ms Erhaim has been recognised by a number of organisations internationally – including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2015 – for her work training citizen journalists to report on the conflict within Aleppo.
Ms Erhaim was invited to the UK in her capacity as winner of this year’s Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards for journalism to speak about her experiences alongside veteran journalist Kate Adie.
When Ms Erhaim arrived in the UK on Thursday 22 September for the event she was detained by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and questioned for an hour before UKBA confiscated her passport. Erhaim was told that the passport had been reported by the Syrian authorities as stolen and therefore UKBA was compelled to retain it and return it to the Syrian government.
Ms Erhaim had her old passport, which remains valid but is effectively unusable because the pages are filled, and was able to enter the UK for the debate. Further travel may be impossible, however, as Ms Erhaim no longer has a passport with which to apply for a new visa to enter Europe.
When Ms Erhaim challenged this decision, she was told to seek consular advice from the Syrian government in Damascus.
“It seems quite astonishing that the UK would accede to a request from a government whom it has only this week accused of being complicit in war crimes – especially when it is clear that the Syrian government is using tools, such as passport cancellations, to harass those who oppose or expose its behaviour,” Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, said.
Anthony Borden, IWPR executive director and managing director, said: “Zaina Ehraim is internationally recognized as one of the most courageous and professional independent voices from Syria – working at great personal risk to support media and civic society inside the country to inform the world about this terrible conflict and keep hope alive for some kind of positive future.”
“The idea that the British government – which has directly supported our work in Syria – should accede to the demands of the Syrian authorities to seize her passport is profoundly offensive to any democratic thinking, directly undermines the effort to build civic options inside Syria, and sends precisely the wrong message to the criminal regime in Damascus,” he added.
Four organisations – the Council for Arab-British Understanding, Index on Censorship, IWPR, and RSF – have raised the matter with the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“We are appalled that the UK authorities have allowed our system to be manipulated in this way. British law is meant to protect freedom of expression, not to be used to harass critical journalists at the urging of repressive regimes. We call on the Home Office to take immediate steps to assist Erhaim and issue a public statement in her support,” said Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s UK Bureau Director.
Chris Doyle, Director, Council for Arab-British Understanding said: “The precedent set by seizing Erhaim’s passport and the message it sends to oppressive governments around the world is alarming. In theory, any vicious regime could demand the return of a passport from any government merely by fraudulently claiming that the passport is stolen.”
The Frontline Club is also supporting a campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
If you would like to write a letter in support of Zaina Erhaim, address your correspondence to:
Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP
Secretary of State for the Home Department
Direct Communications Unit
2 Marsham Street
Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
King Charles Street
Press contact: Jodie Ginsberg, [email protected]