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Travel

The Refugee Family Living in a British Military Hut in Cyprus

The well-tended garden outside Mustafa's home and the genial clutter within disguises what the house actually is—a military barracks hut made of corrugated iron. Mustafa has been here since 1998 when his boat capsized and he washed ashore...
August 1, 2013, 2:50pm

Mustafa and his family in the doorway of their Cypriot home, a tin hut that was originally built on a British Army Base in Egypt during the Second World War.

Just 12 miles from the vomit slicks of Ayia Napa there is another corner of Cyprus that is forever England. Or Britain, more precisely: a scrubby little patch of sovereign British territory, complete with tatty Union Jack flags flutteringly limply in the weak breeze, a pre-fab bar called The George and Dragon—which is packed out with drinkers on a Tuesday at lunchtime—and bored fat security guards in hi-vis jackets hanging around next to automated barriers.

Oh, and lots of barbed wire fences hung with signs warning you not to take photographs, because this is a military base and you’re liable to be arrested if you do. Welcome to Dhekelia, one of the two Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) in the Republic of Cyprus, and the place to which British troops retreat for some R&R after their tours on the front line in Afghanistan. However, I can’t help feeling that the Ministry of Defense is kicking the soldiers when they’re down with this particular policy, because Dhekelia is about as relaxing as Guantanamo.

One of the abandoned buildings in Richmond Village.

But what else—apart from flag waving, binge drinking, petty officialdom and even pettier rules—makes Britain Britain? If the Daily Mail, UKIP, and casual racists are to be believed, it’s all those bloody asylum seekers and refugees. And—incredibly—you can find these in Dhekelia, too. A small distance away from the main military compound, tucked into a forgotten corner near the firing range, sits Richmond Village, a depressing little huddle of tin huts that is about as far removed from its London namesake as possible. This is the place that 70 refugees and asylum seekers from various repressive and war-torn parts of the world have called home for the past 15 years.

Mustafa holds up an article published in the Cypriot press in 1998, shortly after he arrived in the Sovereign Base Area.

I met 40-year-old Mustafa, a Syrian Kurd, his Burmese wife Paw Lee, and their two children in their home, number 14 Richmond Village. The well-tended garden outside and the genial clutter within disguises what their house actually is—a military barracks hut made of corrugated iron. It was originally erected on a British army base in Egypt during the Second World War, then dismantled and shipped over to Cyprus when that base was closed. Richmond Village is actually just a single track road fringed by five of these tin huts on either side, arranged in small-town suburban style with privet hedges and road signs next to rolls of barbed wire in a confusing spacial tapestry of The Inbetweeners and M.A.S.H. In a small concession to domesticity the huts have been upgraded with gray tiled roofs.

Mustafa has been in Dhekelia since 1998. Pursued by the Syrian regime because of his cousin’s political affiliations, he fled first to Lebanon and then paid a people smuggler $5,000 to take him to Italy by boat. His plan was to travel onwards to Germany once he was safely inside the European Union; but the smuggler was either inept or a liar, because instead of reaching Italy the boat capsized and its passengers washed up on the shores of Cyprus.

Mustafa's wife and daughters in the street outside their home.

For the people traveling on the boat, that was a big problem. Only EU member states guarantee recognized refugee status for people who have arrived illegally but are fleeing war and torture at home. Back in 1998, the Republic of Cyprus was not an EU member, so from there they could be deported straight back to where they came from, no questions asked.

But after that ill-fated start to his journey, Mustafa lucked out, big time. Because, as it turned out, the bit of Cypriot shore that he had washed up on was not Cypriot at all, but British—part of one of the island’s Sovereign Base Areas.

“At first I thought we’d landed in Turkish Cyprus, because there were soldiers everywhere,” he says. “But when they rounded us up and took us to the army airport they told us that we had crossed the border into UK territory.”

Mustafa has furnished his home entirely from items he has made or found in the trash.

The British authorities, unsure how best to deal with a boatload of bedraggled refugees on their sovereign territory, stuck them in a refugee camp while they tried to decide what to do. “I think the British were trying to use us an example, because they were worried that other people were going to try to do the same thing,” says Mustafa. “We realized that we were going to be held there for a long time.” But finally, in February of 2000, Mustafa was granted recognized refugee status. It meant that he could remain indefinitely on British territory and apply for full asylum and the right to move to the mainland.

Mustafa's travel documents, valid only in the two British Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus.

It also meant that he could no longer be held in the refugee camp, but the only accommodation available to house the refugees in Dhekalia were the ancient tin huts from Egypt, which were hastily arranged into a village layout and given their very British name. Altogether, around 70 others who had been granted refugee status were moved to Richmond Village. “At that time we were living six to a hut,” says Mustafa.

They were issued with SBA travel documents but were not allowed to enter or work in the Republic of Cyprus—although some, including Mustafa, did. “I worked as a joiner for 20 Cypriot pounds a day,” he remembers. “And if I got caught by the police in Cyprus, I was taken straight back to the SBA.”

Over the border line in Cyprus he met Paw Lee, who came to the country from Burma in 2000 as a migrant worker. They married and had two children. The couple moved into their own house on the base and gradually made it into a home, using furniture they made themselves or that others had thrown out. They built up a life for themselves in Richmond Village alongside their cosmopolitan neighbors—Somalians, Ethopians, and Iraqis among them.

Mustafa's son next to the street sign outside their home.

And still Mustafa waited for the decision on his UK asylum application. In Dhekelia he was granted the right to use the British hospital on the base, and his children were given places at the school there. For six years, the residents of Richmond Village kept faith that they would eventually be resettled in the UK.

A letter Mustafa received in 2007 confirming that he is a recognized refugee in the Sovereign Base Areas and the Republic of Cyprus, but not in the United Kingdom.

But in 2007, everything changed. Mustafa received a letter telling him that his asylum application was being redirected to the Republic of Cyprus—which by now was an EU member—and that, even though he was still living on British territory, he no longer had the right to apply for asylum in the UK, or to use the British hospitals or school. “The UK was trying to push us out,” says Mustafa.

Some of Mustafa’s neighbors no longer had the energy to keep fighting against European bureaucracy. They left Richmond Village and resettled in Cyprus, and the tin huts they used to live in now lie forlorn and neglected. But some, including Mustafa and his family, are refusing to leave. “I don’t want to live in Cyprus,” he says. “I still won’t have the right to work there, and this is my home. I’ve known my neighbors here for 15 years now.” Under Cypriot law, Mustafa would have to reapply for residency every three years—even though he is a recognized refugee. He has also been given no assurance that he will not be immediately deported.

And so Mustafa believes that his best option is to continue living in Richmond Village, in limbo, in a tin hut that was built for a desert campaign, not a family home. This has become his way of life—and, for his children, it is all they’ve ever known. I ask them what country they feel they belong to. “We don’t have a nationality,” they reply.

Follow Hannah on Twitter: @hannahluci

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