Palestinians who fled war in Syria lose fight over UK resettlement

Refugees with chronic health problems locked out of scheme to help 20,000 of the most vulnerable move to Britain

A Syrian refugee stands outside a tent at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon March 12, 2021. Picture taken March 12, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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A Palestinian woman who fled the war in Syria has lost a legal battle with the British government over her failure to secure a place on a scheme to resettle 20,000 vulnerable refugees.

Palestinian Haifaa Marouf fled to Lebanon to escape the fighting that killed her husband and son but says she was blocked from being part of the humanitarian programme because of her nationality.

Despite suffering serious health issues, the grandmother, who is in her 60s, has been forced to live an extremely "fragile and precarious existence" in a Lebanese camp, reliant on handouts, the UK's Appeal Court was told.

Former prime minister David Cameron announced in 2015 that by 2020 the UK would accept 20,000 people who were fleeing the conflict, with a priority placed on women and children, people in severe need of medical care and survivors of torture.

But Ms Marouf was not among them because she could not register with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) that was administering the scheme, the court was told.

Ms Marouf and another refugee, Saleh Turani, also in his 60s, sought to have the resettlement scheme declared unlawful because it discriminated against Palestinians.

But two rulings in the British courts have gone against the pair, who are in Lebanon with little access to medical help for their chronic health conditions. Their solicitors said they were considering the judgment and will decide whether they will launch a new appeal.

The ruling is a new blow for Ms Marouf, whose son-in-law and granddaughter are also feared dead after trying to seek refuge abroad. She is alone in the camp sleeping on a friend's sofa while other members of her family left her to seek refuge elsewhere, her lawyers said.

The pair fled separately from the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus in 2012 and 2013 as battles raged between the Syrian Army and rebels.

The court was told that the pair registered with UNRWA, the UN body charged with providing relief for Palestinians, after arriving in Lebanon.

But the British had an agreement with the UNHCR to identify only potential cases for consideration for resettlement – which meant the pair fell between the cracks.

The UN has a policy not to deal with refugees who are already getting help from another of its agencies, such as UNRWA, which operates in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.

It meant that no Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who registered with UNRWA settled in the UK before the scheme closed in 2020. The final tranche of 300 people were due to travel last year but were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The scheme was focused on Syrians in need, but from 2017 was expanded to allow other nationalities who had fled war in the country.

In a policy document, the government said that non-Syrian refugees “should not be treated differently ... as the refugees have fled the same conflict and suffered similarly as a result of the consequence of the violence in Syria”.

But to be eligible, they had to register with UNHCR. "How can our clients apply to the scheme as Palestinians, given they cannot register with UNHCR?" solicitors for the pair said.

The three Appeal Court judges said it was surprising that the UK government was unaware that the UN could not act as the gatekeeper for many Palestinian refugees and failed to acknowledge that there was a “real problem”.

But the three judges found against the pair, saying that there was a good reason for using UNHCR for the scheme and the problems for the Palestinian refugees emerged only at a late stage.