Posted: Monday 2 July 2012
By Jamie Kerr
For over a year, many of us have been closely monitoring events in Syria. What started as an extension of the “Arab Spring” uprisings has now deteriorated into something approximating a bloody civil war. The government of President Bashar al-Assad has been pitched against a loose coalition of anti-government groups, headed by the Syrian National Council (which is now recognised by a number of states, including the USA).
The deterioration in Syria is vexing the international community and there has been mixed responses on how best to stop the conflict. Some call for military intervention whilst others focus on how best to agree a political solution.
What is clear at the moment is that the key players: UK, USA, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, UN and NATO (to name a few) will have to broker some sort of agreement quickly if further bloodshed and instability is to be avoided. Recent reports point to a consensus that a new transitional government ought to be formed, though the American position is that President Assad cannot remain in power.
Given that President Assad has a British wife, the conflict raises a number of interesting questions in terms of UK immigration law. The first is whether Mrs Assad can be prevented from entering Britain. The second is whether President Assad would be able to enter with her. The third is whether President Assad would be able to settle in Britain and whether he would be entitled to British nationality.
The President’s wife, Asma al-Assad, is an interesting lady. She was born in London and was educated and raised there. After graduating from King’s College in London, she worked in the City for Deutsche Bank, then for JP Morgan. It was only in June 2000 that she left Britain and her family for Syria after her partner (who she met whilst he was studying in London) became the Syrian President as a result of the death of his father. The couple married in Syria in December 2000.
As Mrs Assad is British, it is not possible for her to be refused entry to the United Kingdom. There is currently no restriction whatsoever on her entering and exiting the UK and she would be lawfully entitled to move back to reside in the UK if she wished. The only way this would change is if the British authorities attempted to deprive her of her British nationality. A power to do this under S.40 of the British Nationality Act 1981 was inserted by S.56 of the Immigration, Asylum & Nationality Act 2006. However, this could only happen were the Home Secretary was satisfied that deprivation of citizenship would be “conducive to the public good” and that such an order would not leave the individual stateless (i.e. without any nationality). If Mrs. Assad were to renounce her Syrian nationality (given current circumstances, it may well be advisable that she does so), then the UK authorities would not be able to deprive her of her British nationality, as to do so would leave her stateless.
On the basis that no attempts have been made to deprive Mrs. Assad of her British nationality, she remains British. She is therefore entitled to have her spouse/partner settle with her in the United Kingdom. As she has been living abroad for four years or more with her husband, he (President Assad) qualifies for indefinite leave to enter under paragraph 282 of the immigration rules. This is a very common route for British nationals who live overseas to bring their non-British partners to Britain. Under these rules, it would be relatively simple for President Assad to settle in Britain. However, it is possible that any application he makes would be refused by the British authorities.
The reason for this is that there is a general power to refuse entry to those whose presence in the UK is deemed not to be conducive to the public good. This power is widely used by the authorities and given the allegations of war crimes that some have made against President Assad, it is likely that this power would be invoked by the British authorities should the President attempt to enter the UK. He would have a right of appeal against this decision and it is likely that human rights considerations would be argued (on the basis that he has a British wife).
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Were he able to enter Britain with indefinite leave to enter, then he would be entitled to British nationality within three years.
In conclusion, should Mrs. Assad wish to settle in Britain in the future, she could ensure this by renouncing her Syrian citizenship. However, doing this would lose her any diplomatic protections that she currently has, though it is questionable whether these have any real value in the current situation.
Were the President to be removed from his office in the ancient city of Damascus, it is doubtful whether he would be able to, or wish to, live in peace in Syria. Examples from neighbouring Egypt and Libya point towards a post-Assad Syria facing an uncertain future. It would be interesting to see whether the British authorities would, as part of an international agreement, allow President Assad to join his wife in Britain. Having said that, it may be that he would rather not re-locate here should he be removed from office, given the risk that Britain would be likely to extradite him either back to Syria or even to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, should such a request be made.