DHEKELIA, CYPRUS // To say that Layla Ibrahim was born in wretched circumstances would be an understatement. She came into the world on the open deck of a small, ramshackle fishing boat that was packed with refugees and taking on water. There was no doctor for her mother, Avin, who was barely out of her teenage years, and experiencing terrible labour pain. For her parents, the worst thought was the dread that Layla would be born only to face a watery demise.
"We saw death before our eyes," Avin said yesterday with a shudder. But the Ibrahim family, from Iraqi Kurdistan, survived. They had paid people smugglers $10,000 (Dh37,000) to ferry them from Lebanon to Italy in Oct 1998. But deliverance for the 75 boat people, mostly Syrian Kurds, came unexpectedly at the hands of the British military after the Lebanese crew dumped them on a rocky shore at the bottom of a 30-metre cliff.
Instead of being taken to Italy, they had been abandoned on the shore of one of Britain's two sovereign military bases in Cyprus. Some scrambled to safety, the rest were rescued by an RAF Wessex helicopter. Nearly 10 years later, the British military in Cyprus is still playing reluctant but sympathetic host to 28 of the boat people, in addition to 21 of their children born on the island and 10 other family members who have since joined them.
Today, Layla is a healthy, happy-looking girl with striking blue eyes, and a younger sister and two brothers. For them, the British military base at Dhekelia in eastern Cyprus is home: they have known no other place. They speak Kurdish and have a good smattering of English. Some of the children in Richmond village, the quaintly named area of Dhekelia where the boat people are housed, are avid cricket players.
The chance arrival of the migrants on the doorstep of one of the United Kingdom's last colonial outposts has embroiled Britain in one of its most bizarre and protracted refugee dramas some 3,200 kilometres from London. Most demanded the right to go to Britain, arguing they had arrived on British sovereign territory. Some were later accorded refugee status by the UK Immigration and Naturalisation Department but were not given the right to enter Britain. London feared setting a precedent that would encourage other would-be migrants to regard Britain's two bases on the island as a fast ticket to the United Kingdom.
The bases are little more than 160 kilometres from such countries as Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, where many migrants embark on their odyssey to western Europe. When the boat people first arrived, London tried to pass them on to the island's authorities but was bluntly told they were Britain's responsibility. One local paper quipped: "Britannia waives the rules. All of a sudden the Brits are full of respect for the Cyprus government and its sovereignty all over Cyprus, including the bases."
The British bases in Cyprus, retained when the island won independence in 1960, give the impression of striving to be a corner of a foreign field that is forever England. A Union Jack flag flutters outside the police station in Dhekelia, and the streets have names such as Knightsbridge Road and Clarendon Avenue. Only the parched landscape and sweltering heat undermine the illusion of Middle England.
The migrants are deluded if they believe Richmond village is as British as, say, Trafalgar Square, British officials argue, adding that the sovereign base areas (SBAs) are overseas British territory but not part of Britain. Nor were the two Bases, which cover 254 sq km, ever meant to accommodate migrants. "We accept that the Richmond families are our responsibility as they arrived directly into the SBA," said Capt Nick Ulvert, a spokesman for the British military. "That said, the SBAs exist for military purposes only, and we do not and should not have the infrastructure to support asylum seekers. However, we are going beyond our duty to help them here."
Most of the boat people said if they cannot be given new lives in Britain, they want to stay in Richmond village. "I'd like to stay here, but in a bigger house," Avin Ibrahim said. "It's a good life for my children here. It's home. My children were born here, and I learnt to speak English here." British officials are concerned that the migrants, after living in limbo for years, now appear determined to put down roots in a place that can never be home. The boat people are provided with spartan but adequate housing in former married quarters for British service families that were due to be demolished.
The head of each family is given ?70 (Dh378) a week for living expenses from the SBA budget, as well as ?30 for each member of the household. The migrants are provided with free water, medical care and electricity: the Ibrahim house has air-conditioning, a luxury enjoyed by few British troops in Cyprus. Some of the migrants supplement their welfare payments by working illegally outside the bases in the Republic of Cyprus. The SBAs estimate that the cost of caring for the boat people over the past decade is more than £1 million.
Military officials said in 2002 the British Immigration and Naturalisation Department made a recommendation, supported by the UN's refugee agency, to deport boat people who were not granted refugee status - among them the Ibrahims - to their point of departure. That was Lebanon, which refused to take them. A year later, following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the British military offered cash incentives to repatriate the Iraqis among the boat people, an offer none took up, although some Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians among their number have since returned home. One Palestinian made it to Britain in 2002, apparently as a stowaway on a ship from Cyprus. Some of the boat people with refugee status now live and work outside the British bases in the Republic of Cyprus, where they pay their own way. But British officials said 13 adults and 16 children with recognised refugee status, who could live in Cyprus, had chosen to remain at Dhekelia, still hoping they would eventually get to Britain - or manage to stay in Richmond village.
The boat people are an exceptional case that will not be repeated. When Cyprus joined the European Union in May 2004, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the British military authorities to take responsibility for any migrants arriving on the sovereign bases. The boat people preceded that agreement. The Cypriot authorities were ready to make an exception, but one senior official said the boat people did not want to be dealt with by them. "They wanted to go to Britain," he said.
Yet as the 10th anniversary of the migrants' arrival approaches, the British military authorities are confident of reaching an agreement with the Cypriot authorities that will solve the problem in a "legal and righteous" manner. Capt Ulvert said: "We can't have stateless people here. It's a military base." @Email:email@example.com