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Syrian asylum seeker attempted to take his own life during long wait for Home Office decision | Politics News

An asylum seeker who escaped to the UK after five years of torture in a Syrian prison has told Sky News he was so traumatised by the long wait for a Home Office decision on his case he attempted to take his own life. 

It comes as new government figures show there are more than 125,000 outstanding asylum claims – a slight reduction since the summer but still higher than this time last year.

Omar’s arms are riddled with 250 shotgun pellets, which causes him constant pain.

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X-ray showing Omar’s arm riddled with shotgun pellets

Bullet pellets

He was fired on by the Syrian army while attending a pro-democracy demonstration in 2012.

Arrested while attempting to seek medical treatment afterwards, he was sent to prison where he said he was regularly tortured.

“They took me underground and started beating me, beating me and torturing me,” Omar said. “They had pipes, thick water pipes, and they used those pipes to beat me with.

“They knew my hands and arms were hurt already and they were deliberately hitting where my wounds were. I was blindfolded so I couldn’t see who was torturing me. They handcuffed my hands and hung me up for hours.

“You do not have a name. You’re just a number to them.”

Scars on Omar's chest
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Injuries to Omar’s upper torso

We’re not using Omar’s real name or showing his face to protect his family in Syria. He managed to escape from prison after his father borrowed the money to pay a $10,000 bribe.

He fled to the UK and claimed asylum in November 2020. But the long wait for the Home Office to process his asylum claim – two years and four months – took a huge toll on his mental health. Last August, six months before the decision was finally made, he attempted to take his own life.

“I was so disappointed,” he said. “I was under the impression that Great Britain is great. And if I got to Great Britain, that I would not face injustice. But it wasn’t like that.

“For two years, they didn’t tell me they were not going to grant me asylum. And that was torture.”

Omar certainly isn’t alone.

An NHS study found 61% of those seeking asylum are suffering from serious mental distress, and they are five times more likely to suffer from mental health conditions than the wider population.

The latest Home Office figures, published this week, showed 125,173 cases were awaiting a decision at the end of September, a figure which is down 7% on the total this June, but is still up 7% compared with this time last year. 39,668 people have been on the list since before June 2022, well over a year.

A central part of the government’s strategy to reduce the future backlog is to discourage most asylum seekers from coming to the UK at all, with the threat of deportation to Rwanda.

While that has been blocked by the recent Supreme Court ruling – for now – the prime minister is determined to push ahead with the plan.

He has promised a new legally binding treaty with Rwanda to attempt to ease the judges’ concerns about claimants being sent home, and pledged to bring forward emergency legislation to ask parliament to confirm it believes Rwanda is a ‘safe country’. This could potentially happen as soon as next week.

Charities such as the Refugee Council are concerned the uncertainty of the situation for current asylum seekers makes their mental health even worse.

Woman
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Sarah Temple-Smith, a manager at the Refugee Council’s Youth Therapy Project.

“It adds to the feeling of being destabilised, and the lack of hope for the future,” said Sarah Temple-Smith, a manager at the Refugee Council’s Youth Therapy Project.

“The waiting is particularly hard for them. We know that a sense of powerlessness, a lack of autonomy is linked very strongly to mental illness – mental disorder, clinical depression, other things, even schizophrenia

“I’ve had many clients who have been through terrible things – including being forced onto small boats at gunpoint and seeing other people drown – who’ve actually said that the waiting and not knowing is a worse torture than what they’ve been through. It sounds extraordinary, but I’ve heard it many times.”

Omar found out earlier this year that his asylum claim has been rejected. He has been granted the temporary right to remain in the UK for two years – but is unable to bring his family over.

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“I know now that human rights are a big lie,” he said. “Can anybody live without his family, his children and wife? It’s not easy. Sometimes I think it would just be better for me to go back to Syria, where I would be executed.”

A spokesperson from the Home Office said: “We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and at every stage in the asylum process – from initial arrival, to any potential relocations – our approach is to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and considered including those related to mental health and trauma.

“We are on track to clear the legacy asylum backlog by the end of 2023, which has reduced by more than 60% since the start of November 2022, down by over 59,000 cases.”

The legacy asylum backlog refers to claims made before June 28, 2022, when the Nationality and Borders Act – which includes the Rwanda legislation – was initially tabled.

While the rate of decision-making has improved for the legacy cases, the latest statistics also show the number of more recent claims continue to increase – up 85,505 at the end of September, from 66,176 in the last set of government figures released at the end of June.

Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.

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