Syrian asylum seekers allowed to appeal against UK convictions

Syrian girls near destroyed buildings in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption The three asylum seekers fled fighting in Syria but were arrested at Heathrow

Three asylum seekers who fled Syria but were jailed after arriving in the UK without passports have been told they can appeal against their convictions.

The men arrived at Heathrow Airport at different times in 2013, saying they had received threats while in Syria.

However, they were arrested for failing to have travel documents and jailed for between eight weeks and four months.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has now said they were wrongly advised to plead guilty and can appeal.

It brings the number of convictions involving asylum seekers and refugees to be referred to the appeal courts in the last three years to 34.

The three new cases are the first involving Syrians to be referred.

Twenty-six people from other countries have already had similar convictions quashed, the CCRC said.

Analysis by home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw

In 2002, when the number of asylum applicants to the UK hit record levels, topping 100,000, then Home Secretary David Blunkett set out plans to stop abuse of the system.

One of the measures involved a clampdown on people arriving without valid travel and immigration papers: they'd face up to two years in jail if caught.

The powers, which came into force in 2004, may well have contributed to the fall in asylum numbers that followed. But they have had an unintended consequence too, leading to dozens of wrongful convictions.

It's a puzzle why that has happened, when the law quite sensibly provides a defence for people fleeing persecution who can't acquire a genuine passport to get out of their home country. The legal and prison costs are considerable, the human cost even greater.

'Death threats'

It said the first of the three Syrians arrived at Heathrow in July 2013, aged 19.

He told an immigration officer he did not have a passport and wanted to claim asylum.

He said he had fled from Syria after receiving deaths threats and travelled to the UK, via Lebanon and Egypt.

But he was arrested and later sentenced to four months' detention in a young offenders' institution.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The men were "wrongly advised" to admit immigration offences, the CCRC has said

The second man arrived in the UK in August 2013, saying he had left Syria one month earlier due to the war and following verbal threats.

However, he was also arrested and was later sentenced to eight weeks in prison.

The third man arrived in the UK in November 2013 without a passport, saying Syrian government officials suspected him of belonging to the Free Syrian Army.

He was also arrested and later sentenced to three months in prison.

'Reasonable excuse'

All three men had pleaded guilty and were sentenced at Uxbridge Magistrates' Court.

However, the CCRC, which investigates suspected miscarriages in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said they had all been wrongly advised by legal aid lawyers that they had no defence to the charge.

The advice was incorrect as the law provides a defence of "reasonable excuse" for people fleeing persecution who don't have passports, it added.

The CCRC says there is "a real possibility" that the crown court could allow all three men to vacate their guilty pleas on the basis that "each was deprived of a defence that was likely to succeed".

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