Syrians yes, Iraqis no: the startling disparity in Britain’s asylum decisions

Ahd Kamel stars as the sister of a murdered asylum seeker in Collateral. BBC/The Forge

Collateral, a new TV mini-series on the BBC written by David Hare, revolves around the murder of a young man working as a pizza delivery driver in London. One of the main themes running through the drama series is the situation of asylum seekers in the UK.

We soon learn that the murder is linked to events that occurred while the victim and his two sisters were crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece. Initially pretending to be from Syria, the women are eventually revealed as Iraqi. In the words of an aggressive MI5 officer, that means they “have no right to asylum.”

This assertion is incorrect: Iraqis can claim asylum in the UK.

The latest government statistics show that, in 2017, 368 Iraqi nationals were granted asylum at the initial decision stage. However, this figure constitutes only 20% of the 1,844 Iraqi applicants in that year: higher than the rate for Pakistanis (14%), but far distant from the figures for Iranians (47%) and Sudanese (62%). These figures are approximations as not all applications will be lodged and receive an initial decision within the same calendar year.

Most striking is the comparison with Syrian asylum seekers – 83% of the 832 applicants were given some form of status in 2017. This is in addition to the 4,832 Syrians granted humanitarian protection that year through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. The difference in positive initial decisions between Iraqi and Syrian applications was similar in 2016: 12% for the former and 86% for the latter. Small wonder, then, that the Iraqi family in the BBC drama Collateral try to pass themselves off as Syrian.

From a humanitarian perspective, the disparity in treatment of Syrians and Iraqis is difficult to fathom. Both countries have been torn apart by years of extreme political violence. Both have experienced immense displacement of civilians within their territory and over their borders. In recent years, much of the displacement has been at the hands of the same forces operating in both Syria and Iraq, notably the Islamic State.

Read more: Liberating Mosul is one thing – next comes the real challenge for Iraq

It is the scale of external displacement that most obviously distinguishes the two. According to recent figures, in excess of 5.5m Syrians are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the countries surrounding Syria, compared to 263,000 people displaced from Iraq. This difference in numbers justifies disparity in the volume of response to Syrians and Iraqis – but it fails to explain the starkly different rates of asylum granted by the British government.

Some might argue that the different treatment of asylum seekers from the two countries reflects socio-economic differences between their populations. Among humanitarians working in the Middle East there is a common perception that Iraqis are more “urban” and “middle-class” than Syrians. Correct or not this perception fuels a belief that Iraqis are better able to cope with life in exile – even in a country such as Jordan where the majority are not allowed to work.

There are certainly many wealthy Iraqis who have been able to acquire residency in Jordan and enjoy comfortable lives. Yet, in low cost neighbourhoods, thousands of Iraqis can be found living side-by-side with Syrians, Sudanese, Eritrean and other displaced people. Their educational attainments and their savings have proven insufficient to prevent a steady descent into poverty. Access to basic services is at least as constrained for impoverished Iraqis as it is for their neighbours.

A question of responsibility

Some western nations, including the US, Australia, Canada, and Germany recognised the scale of suffering of displaced Iraqis in neighbouring countries and, for many years, ran modest resettlement programmes. A few continue to do so.

The UK, meanwhile, has never had a sustained programme of resettlement for Iraqis. The contrast with the US is particularly striking given the fact that the governments of the US and UK together led the invasion of Iraq in 2003: ignoring the warnings about the destabilisation of the country and the mass displacement that would likely ensue.

There are indications that the Americans recognise their responsibility for the Iraqi refugee crisis. However, the actions of successive UK governments suggest an unwillingness to make a similar acknowledgement of culpability.

In 2016, after much deliberation and delay the British Government published the “Iraq Enquiry”: a report on the UK’s role in the war. It concluded that the decision of then-prime minister, Tony Blair, and parliament to invade Iraq was of questionable legality, based upon inadequate intelligence, and that it undermined the UN Security Council. To date no action has been taken against Blair and his team.

Meanwhile, 15 years after the invasion of their country, millions of ordinary Iraqis still contend with the consequences of this misadventure. Despite the best efforts of the authorities to prevent their arrival on UK soil, some continue to reach these shores. Here they discover that their suffering is less likely to receive a sympathetic response within the asylum system than that of Syrians, Iranians, Sudanese and others. The government has chosen to move on. And so, it seems, must they.