UK charities running aid convoys to Syria coming under increased scrutiny, with volunteers risking arrest.
London, United Kingdom – A British aid worker based in northern Syria says he has been denied a UK passport for his baby daughter and sustained harassment by the security services has left him feeling he has “no home to go to”.
Tauqir Sharif, who works with his British wife in a refugee camp near the Turkish border, says British officials’ failure to grant his 17-month-old daughter a passport has effectively stranded her in Syria, and potentially placed the family in greater danger by making it harder for them to escape if fighting breaks out.
“She’s not English, she’s not Syrian, in effect she is stateless. If we need to get out of Syria we can’t go through an official crossing. We have to be smuggled out, and face being shot by Turkish soldiers,” Sharif told Al Jazeera.
Sharif’s concerns for his family’s safety have been heightened in recent days following an air strike on the village of Atmeh, adjacent to the camp where they live and work, which killed nine people. Monitors said the attack appeared to have been carried out by the US-led coalition and targeted suspected fighters of the al-Nusra Front.
“Atmeh has been relatively safe but I’ve always said to my family that there may be a time when we have to get up and leave,” he said. “They are bombing areas where we are working, so the air strikes are making it a lot more dangerous.”
Sharif, who has been based in Syria since 2012, says his daughter’s passport issues may be linked to the British intelligence agencies’ past and current interest in his activities.
Police and security officials had attempted to contact him in Syria and had even asked other volunteers visiting him to pass on the message that they could help him get a passport if he got in touch, he said.
Sharif said he had spent eight months chasing up an application submitted to the British passport office shortly after his daughter was born in Turkey in 2013. But officials failed to respond to phone calls and emails, before finally telling him that he would have to begin the process again because of a problem with his signature on the documents.
“We made sure she was born in Turkey so she would have a proper birth certificate. We did all the things that we needed to do, we got the forms translated, and after that we had no correspondence from the passport office,” he said.
“After two months I decided to call them, and they said someone would call me back within a week. No one called me back. I must have called 30 times, to the point where I thought, ‘This isn’t going anywhere’.
“I visited the consulate in Istanbul, but they told me to call the passport office. Eventually I got an email saying that the signature on the forms I’d sent was outside of the box. It took me eight months to get any sort of correspondence, and they wanted me to re-do the entire application.”
Sharif insists he did sign within the box, as the passport application form clearly instructs. He says the problem has more to do with harassment he says he has been subjected to by the security services.
In 2010, Sharif was aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara aid ship stormed by Israeli commandos with the death of nine activists. He says he was the only Briton involved who was held for questioning on returning to the UK.
Coming back from that ordeal to have your own government treating you as if you are the terrorist was not the nicest feeling in the world.
“Obviously, coming back from that ordeal to have your own government treating you as if you are the terrorist was not the nicest feeling in the world,” he said.
Sharif says he had been regularly questioned by security services and police since then.
“Often they won’t give away what department they are from. Sometimes they’d say they were from MI5. ‘This is just an informal chat, can you give us information?’, that sort of thing.
“Sometimes they were nice, sometimes not so nice. Often they use a ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine. Many times in airports I’ve been pulled out of the line. It’s quite belittling, to be honest. Or when you are collecting your luggage they’ll take your bags for you and stand with you like you are a prisoner.”
Sharif’s work, which includes running refugee camps for widows and orphans, setting up schools and organising the delivery of aid to areas deeper in Syria, is held in high regard by other British aid workers.
“Any time you go to any camp all the elders, even the grandmas, all know him and everybody respects him. Even the kids will come running when they see him,” Majid Freeman, a volunteer who visited Atmeh last month, told Al Jazeera.
“You can see by the way people interact with him that he is a much-loved person and he and his wife are making a huge difference on the ground. He is out there practising British values because he has been taught to stand up against injustice and help the needy.”
Sharif says he could understand the security services’ interest in his work, adding he had sought to cooperate by telling them of his travel plans and offering to meet to discuss their concerns.
“I’ve told them: ‘I am an aid worker and I’m not going to stop my work. But I’d rather that every time when I come back – and I’ve been out in the field for weeks – that I don’t have to sit with you guys for 12 hours’. But they said they couldn’t guarantee that. They said, ‘We’re Special Branch [UK counter-terrorism police]. Maybe next time MI5 or port security will hold you’.”
Since first going to Syria in mid-2012, Sharif says his problems have increased. Both he and his wife have had their bank accounts closed, and he said each had £5,000 ($7,500) in charitable donations confiscated by police while leaving the UK with a Syria-bound convoy in December 2012.
He says some charities and aid organisations he worked with had been questioned about him by police and security officials, and members of his family have also been harassed.
“They have made it very difficult for people wanting to support our projects. A lot of charities have felt that they can’t work with us anymore. They use scare tactics. Our ways of bringing funds in has been greatly reduced. I have 50 people who work for me and the wages we provide them are a lifeline for their families.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office told Al Jazeera the government did not comment on matters of national security. On the matter of Sharif’s daughter’s passport, the spokesperson – who asked to remain anonymous per government policy – said: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”
The methods of the British security services are currently under scrutiny amid allegations made by CAGE, a human rights group, that their contact with Mohammed Emwazi – the British man identified as so-called “Jihadi John”, the masked murderer who appears in a series of beheading videos released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – may have contributed to Emwazi’s decision to go to Syria and join the group.
Last month David Cameron, the British prime minister, also ordered an inquiry into whether the security services were involved in ill-treatment of Michael Adebolajo, who killed a British soldier in London in 2013.
Amandla Thomas-Johnson, a spokesman for CAGE, told Al Jazeera: “We’ve come across countless cases of passport confiscations and citizenship revocations in recent years, but refusing to give a new-born baby its basic rights marks a new low.
“This is someone who is providing a lifeline to Syrians who have been abandoned by the international community, including Britain, but the government is sending out a strong message that if you help the Syrian people caught in the middle of barrel bombs, wholesale massacre and coalition bombing, they will make your life very difficult indeed.”
Sharif says he could understand how Emwazi might have felt “pushed into a corner”.
“I am not condoning what he has done, but I can understand how Muhammed Emwazi was actually radicalised, because our government’s policy is very alienating. I feel as if I don’t have any place to return home to because of the treatment that I have received,” he says.
“For me it is very important that British citizens of good conscience understand that some of the policies that the British security services are applying are not for the benefit of the British public, and they are making Britain less safe rather than more safe.”
Though he would like to visit his family and contribute to fundraising efforts for Syria by talking about his experiences, Sharif says he no longer has any expectations of ever returning home.
“I don’t think I’ve been given any choice but to make a life for myself outside of the UK. If I go back I will face questioning and potentially prison, and I’m not really feeling that. The work here is endless but we have a community, we have family, we have friends and life goes on, I suppose.”
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