A British aid worker and his family say they are stuck in Syria after his UK citizenship has been revoked and his eldest daughter refused a passport.
Tauqir Sharif, 31, from Walthamstow, who lives and works in Idlib alongside his British wife, Racquell Hayden-Best, had his citizenship revoked in May 2017. Speaking to the Guardian this week, he called on the UK government to review its revocation policy for those engaged in humanitarian work in conflict zones.
Sharif is appealing against the UK government’s decision and has asked for a fair hearing in an open court where evidence against him can be tested by a judge and jury. He claims aid workers and doctors are unfairly judged in the same category as jihadists.
Our job is to help those in need,” Sharif said. “I have friends here who are doctors, British expats … Whoever comes into a hospital, whether Isis or Bashir supporter, they will treat them because they are trying to save lives. We are different. We are trying to help the people who are displaced, ordinary Syrians – women, children, orphans.”
Sharif founded the organisation Live Updates from Syria in 2012, providing support and assistance for families there, and raising awareness about the devastating situation on the ground.
“I know people are saying it’s strange that as the war in Syria is coming to an end, people coming out of Isis are claiming to be aid workers,” he said. “There may be people using that as cover, but for myself and my wife, our history is very well documented. We have 41 projects running, with 170 staff. We are a well-established organisation on the ground. Syrian people see the value in our work and love us.
“I’m not an Isis sympathiser. They have tried to kill me. I believe that they are the worst representation of Muslims.”
As the war in Syria draws to a close, the UK Home Office faces the dilemma of determining citizenship rights of hundreds of British nationals and, in some cases, their children, who seek to return home. Work carried out by aid workers and doctors operating in conflict zones can complicate matters significantly, as humanitarian work can blur the rules of engagement.
Dismissing the “secret hearings” used by the UK government to determine if citizenship should be revoked, Sharif demanded that people like him – as well as Shamima Begum, the teenager who fled the UK to join Isis – should have the right to a fair trial. He insists he has broken no laws and has a history of humanitarian work.
“I have had friends killed by Isis. I’ve been targeted by Isis. They say that I am not a Muslim because I didn’t join them or because I’m helping Syrian people. They excommunicate me from ‘their religion’. I’ve had bombs put under my car. They’ve tried to blackmail me.”
Sharif insisted the British authorities needed to take into account the conditions under which those caught up in the conflict live and how aid is seen as a valuable commodity to all sides. He readily admitted that since his arrival in Syria he has carried a handgun and has used an assault rifle, and he is willing to justify their use in court. “The handgun is for my self defence and that of my family. I’ve not had to use it. There have been threats to my life because I distribute aid. It’s highly dangerous work in conflict zones.