Syrian's refugee status granted over safety fears

BEN HEATHER SOCIAL ISSUES
Last updated 05:00 11/02/2013

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A Syrian trying to escape conscription into a bloody civil war at home has won refugee status in New Zealand.

The man, an Assyrian Christian, has been living in New Zealand since 2009 after moving to this country with his wife, who is a New Zealand citizen. The pair separated in 2011, just as the uprising in Syria was escalating.

In the man's home village, his Christian family told him the conflict had led to growing abuse from their Muslim neighbours. The family was told they could no longer work their farm because of their religion. His mother was harassed for not wearing Muslim attire, and rocks were thrown at their home. The conflict is also edging closer to his home village, with his family witnessing the bombing of a neighbouring village by the Syrian Government.

Immigration New Zealand initially decided to decline the man refugee status and send him back to Syria. But overturning that ruling in a decision issued on Friday, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal found the man held a reasonable fear of being conscripted into the Syrian army and possibly being forced to commit war crimes.

"No-one can be compelled to undertake military service where a real chance exists that this will require the refugee claimant to commit human rights abuses."

The man told the tribunal he would likely be forced to join the Syrian army if he returned. Last year, his 18-year-old brother was conscripted to fight the Syrian rebels. Instead he fled to Turkey and is now seeking asylum in western Europe.

"The appellant told the tribunal that he is anxious about his safety if returned . . . He would not wish to fight and kill anybody."

The tribunal said the man was credible, with many of his fears independently corroborated. The Syrian Government was increasingly relying on reserves to fight its civil war and the defection of the man's brother could count against him. Well-founded fears that he would be forced to commit war crimes were enough to qualify him for refugee status, the tribunal said.

Defending the decision to initially decline the application, an Immigration New Zealand spokesman said new information had come to light during the tribunal hearing.

"The basis of the appellant's recognition as a refugee by the [tribunal] was not advanced when the original claim was lodged."

Syrian Solidarity - an expat group established in New Zealand in support of the uprising - claims it has become harder for Syrians to get into New Zealand since the civil war. Spokesman Ali Akil said few Syrians could get any type of visa in New Zealand for fear they would become refugees as the civil war dragged on.

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Since July 2011 - four months after the civil war erupted in Syria - New Zealand has approved nine applications by Syrians seeking refugee status. Another 71 have gained work or residency visas.

The Syrian civil war or uprising has been raging since March 2011 and has, according to United Nation's estimates, claimed more than 60,000 lives.

- The Dominion Post

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