Obtaining a visa to enter Europe legally is becoming more difficult every day as Syria’s brutal civil war — and the refugee crisis it has created — continues to escalate with no end in sight.
More than 500,000 Syrians fled to Europe in 2015 alone, with Germany, Serbia, Kosovo, and Sweden receiving the bulk of asylum applications. Since the war erupted in 2011, Turkey and Lebanon have settled more than 3 million Syrian refugees combined, according to the human rights organisation Amnesty International.
Mahmoud Alkhuder, a 30-year-old lawyer from Aleppo, left Syria months after the revolution began. He had been living and working in Amman, Jordan, when he decided he wanted to pursue a business degree in the UK, where he thought he might face less discrimination for his refugee status than he had faced in Jordan.
“Syrians in Jordan can’t get a work permit,” Alkhuder told Business Insider in an interview from Germany last month, where he was able to get asylum in 2015.
“So there are thousands of people living in Jordan who are not allowed to work, but have no other source of income,” he continued. “By 2013, you couldn’t even open a bank account in Jordan if you were Syrian. Even with a Jordanian drivers licence, police officers could tell I was Syrian and would ask for my passport to verify my identity. It was just open discrimination.”
To his surprise, however, his nationality was evidently an issue for the UK as well.
In 2015, Alkhuder said, he applied twice for a six-month student visa to pursue an MBA at Edinburgh Business School. He was rejected both times, and received a striking letter from the British embassy in Amman informing him of the “severe civil unrest in Syria” that made them sceptical of Alkhuder’s plans to leave the UK after completing his degree.
Notably, 70% of international students in the UK came from non-EU countries in 2015, or roughly 131,000 students. Students from Asia make up the largest group of international students — over five times as many as the next largest group from the Middle East, according to Oxford’s Migration Observatory.
Of those 131,000, an estimated 93,000 did not return home after completing their studies, according to the Office of National Statistics.
This is not a new trend, however, and international students applying from relatively stable and wealthy countries who are granted visas seem to be given the benefit of the doubt by the British government that they will leave once their studies end, in a way that prospective students from more unstable countries may not.
Put differently, whereas some applicants will be granted a visa based on a holistic reading of their application — which includes their individual merits and intentions — the nationality of other applicants may preclude them from being granted a student visa in Britain.
“I am … aware of the spike in the numbers of Syrians fleeing the country and claiming refugee status in neighbouring countries since the date of your application,” the embassy officer wrote in an unclassified letter to Alkhuder that he provided to Business Insider, rejecting his student visa application.
Alkhuder said he explained to the embassy in both of his student visa applications that he had a home in Jordan that he planned on returning to after he received his MBA in Britain.
“I note you have only lived at your address in Amman since the conflict in Syria began and it is not clear if your residence in Jordan will be extended,” the officer replied.
Here is the full letter:
Colin Yeo, a lawyer specializing in immigration law based out of the UK who founded the Free Movement blog on immigration and asylum law, said in an interview that he was struck by the disconnect between the letter’s first and second paragraphs.
Yeo explained that the first paragraph — which expresses doubts about the student’s “genuineness” and “the potential cost of such a venture” — implies that the applicant’s intentions are being judged, which is fairly standard practice during the visa review process.
(Alkhuder, for his part, said he provided bank statements to the embassy that proved he had enough money to sustain himself in the UK without public funds and to purchase a return ticket back to Amman after the course was over.)
But the second paragraph, which focuses exclusively on the conflict in Syria, makes it clear that it doesn’t matter what the applicant’s intentions are; the applicant is going to be rejected no matter what, Yeo said.
“It doesn’t seem reasonable or moral to give one reason for rejection when actually the real reason is something else,” Yeo said. “It’s not true that they will be judged on individual merits. In the end, the UK doesn’t want Syrians to come here because if they do, they can claim asylum.”
In that second paragraph, moreover, the officer included links to BBC articles and EU fact sheets in an attempt to “explain” to Alkhuder what was happening in Syria — his birthplace and home for 25 years.
Yeo noted that while that information may seem “fairly obvious” to those on the receiving end of the rejection letter, “the officers feel they have to justify their refusal, so it’s not unusual for them to refer to objective evidence.”
The British embassy in Amman did not respond to a request for comment.
The letter Alkhuder received was not one of a kind. Another Syrian refugee, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, received the same rejection letter when he applied for a student visa to the UK from the United Arab Emirates. A man who says he applied for a visa to accompany his sick daughter to the UK for medical treatment apparently received the letter, too, according to an Arabic-language website focusing on victims of the Syrian crisis.
“Imagine that you get treated like this just because of your nationality,” Alkhuder said from his apartment near Dusseldorf. He is registered as a long-distance student at Edinburgh Business School, where he’s finishing his MBA online, and has developed an app aimed at facilitating refugees’ integration by connecting them with natives.
He said he’s disappointed by his experience with the UK.
“I mean, did you choose to be born in the US? I didn’t choose to be born in Syria. It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
But he gushes about the new life he’s been given in Germany.
“I think of Germany as my home country,” he said. “I feel like a human being again.”
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