Bringing my girls home from Damascus
A simple case of reuniting two British girls with their father has turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Three years after civil war broke out in Syria, Iqbal Khan’s family is torn apart: he is separated from his children and his wife is dead.
In August 2011, at the height of panic when foreigners and expats were rushing to get out of Syria, a few months after the start of the conflict, Khan, a British citizen who had been working in Damascus for ten years as an IT consultant, applied for a settlement visa for Britain on behalf of his Syrian wife so his young family could leave Syria together. The application was refused. From Syria, Mr Khan appealed to the British Home Office via his local MP on humanitarian grounds. This appeal was also refused. His two girls already held British passports so they would have been able to enter the country, but without their mother.
In August 2012, Mr. Khan was transferred to Dubai by his company and prepared for his family to join him. His wife had stayed behind in Syria with their children to care for her mother following a heart operation. Tragically, a month before his wife and children were due to leave for Dubai in July 2013, his wife was killed by a mortar shell near Abbasiyen square, Damascus. Mr Khan says ‘had my wife been granted entry to Britain back in 2011, my children would have been in Britain safe and well with their mother’.
His two daughters, Habiba, now six-years-old, and Fatima, now four-years-old, were left in the care of their maternal grandparents. Khan expected that being reunited with his children would be easy, but he says the grandparents – staunch Assad supporters – have refused to send the children back to Britain, seeing this as a betrayal of the regime. They have not allowed him to speak to his two girls and say that they would rather the children ‘die in Syria’ than let them leave.
Khan finds himself in a legal vacuum. His lawyers in Damascus have said that his case is not a custody issue as Syrian law recognizes the children to be British and Syrian family law gives the father automatic custody. Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have directed Khan to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), suggesting that they recognize it as a criminal case. Khan’s legal contacts in Syria say the British government must take up with the matter with the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
The response of the FCO to what appears to be a straightforward case has been curious. They have given Khan advice on how he should respond. But instead of taking action themselves, they have sent him letters of condolence. There is no sign of any Foreign Office contact with the Metropolitan police that would initiate proceedings with Interpol.
Khan is stuck. The Foreign Office’s Alistair Burt and others have advised him not to travel to Syria because they cannot guarantee his safety: both roads from the Lebanese capital Beirut and the Jordanian capital of Amman to Damascus are controlled by different pro-Assad and anti-Assad militias. Rather, they suggest that he contact the Czech and Hungarian Embassies in Damascus and initiate legal proceedings against the grandparents. But any proceedings would be far more effective if facilitated by a government with diplomatic influence and connections rather than an IT consultant acting alone.
While the FCO has not replied to my queries regarding Iqbal Khan’s children, the unwanted media attention, even from small fish like me, has elicited a pithy email to the father saying: ‘I believe the FCO has been providing advice to you about your children in Syria, including how to get in touch with NGOs and the police. I would be interested to know whether there has been any progress on the case since you last contacted us?’
It is hardly surprising that Khan accuses the Foreign Office of failing British citizens and questions whether the situation would be different if he had another name or skin colour. He echoes similar sentiments to the family of Abbas Khan who is thought to have been killed by the Syrian regime’s security services last December. Abbas' brother, Shahnawaz Khan, has accused the British government of not doing enough and has stated that here in Britain, some citizens are more equal than others.
With additional research by Lydia James.