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Home Office delays are stopping families reuniting after the Türkiye earthquake

Turkish and Kurdish people in Britain say they are unable to help loved ones affected by last month's earthquake because of UK immigration delays

Hilal Seven
Hilal Seven
27 March 2023, 6.15am

Tents set up as temporary shelters for people who have been left homeless after the Türkiye earthquake


OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Bureaucratic delays are stopping Turkish and Kurdish people in Britain from visiting relatives affected by last month’s devastating earthquake – and, in some cases, from bringing homeless loved ones to the UK.

Several families told openDemocracy they have been unable to travel abroad since the magnitude 7.8 quake hit Türkiye and Syria on 6 February because of Home Office delays in processing visa applications and asylum claims.

Earlier this month, the government rejected a petition signed by tens of thousands of people calling for a special visa scheme to help those in need.

Ali Sizer, a Kurdish music tutor living in north London, lost six members of his extended family in the earthquake, which killed more than 57,000. Yet he has not been able to visit and support his surviving relatives because he has no valid UK visa and is unable to leave the country.

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“I have lost uncountable numbers of friends, comrades, relatives. I can’t describe my sorrow. My family is staying in a tent now and I feel so helpless about it,” he said.

Sizer is one of thousands of holders of a special UK-Türkiye business visa, known as ECAA, who were caught up in post-Brexit processing delays. openDemocracy reported on the situation last July. The most recent figures suggest more than 700 people are still waiting for their applications to be processed.

“I came here [to Britain] to improve my music career and help my family, but now I cannot even help myself because I am trapped here,” he said. “After waiting for 17 months they rejected my visa with no valid excuse and I must apply for a new one. I can’t leave the country until I get my visa.”

Razem Ahmed, a London-based immigration lawyer, said his firm is representing dozens of ECAA applicants, including Sizer, whose families have been affected by the earthquake.

Ahmed said Sizer’s initial application was rejected on the grounds that he didn’t run a viable business. He is confident that Sizer will win his appeal, since he can prove he has been teaching music.

“The Turkish earthquake situation however, and the fact that he lost relatives there, unfortunately doesn’t aid in speeding up his application,” said Ahmed.

Another ECAA applicant, who wanted to remain anonymous, told openDemocracy that she and her husband are stuck in a similar situation.

The couple, who are in their 30s, moved to the UK in 2019 via the ECAA visa scheme. They have an 18-month-old daughter.

‘‘When we lived in Türkiye, our life standards were high. We wanted to have a baby and the UK seemed like a good option to raise a child,” she said.

The couple had to apply for a visa extension in 2020 when the pandemic hit – and were rejected on the grounds they had no viable business, an assertion they dispute.

“We have been unfairly waiting for years without a visa,” she said. “We are worried about our families because they live in cities the earthquake hit badly. After talking to our families on video calls, both my husband and I are worried about when we’ll see them next, since they are not staying in a safe place.”

Now they are living in a plastic tent with 20 other people. My baby is crying all the time because of the cold. I can’t help her

People seeking asylum in the UK have also been affected by delays. Mahir Harmancı, 37, came to the UK less than a year ago from Türkiye as a political refugee, leaving his wife and two-year-old daughter behind.

“My wife and my daughter have survived but I lost my uncles, aunts, and cousins to the earthquake. There is no one left. Everything and everyone is under the rubble now,” said Harmancı.

Harmancı’s father saved the lives of his wife and daughter, but they lost their home.

“Now they are living in a plastic tent with 20 other people. My baby is crying all the time because of the cold. I can’t help her,” he said.

“My wife had a heart operation in a private hospital two days before the earthquake. She is a Syrian Kurd from Kobane and this is the second disaster she had to face after the war.”

Mahir Harmancı's family are living in a tent in Türkiye

Mahir Harmancı's family are living in a tent in Türkiye



As a refugee from Syria, Harmancı’s wife has not been given an identity card by the Turkish government, which means she is not allowed to access basic services such as public hospital care.

“They are not safe there,” he said. “But if I get my residency” – if his asylum claim is accepted by the UK – “I can bring my wife and baby here.”

That might not happen any time soon. The British asylum system is facing a backlog of cases, with long delays in processing claims.

Ali Has, a London-based human rights lawyer, told openDemocracy that the UK’s strict immigration policies are making people’s suffering worse.

He said: “We have people affected by the earthquake who’ve claimed asylum, but have not been able to apply for family reunification because their applications have not yet been finalised. That creates a double obstacle.”

Has estimates several hundred people in the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora to be trapped in bureaucratic limbo.

Ishak Gunduz, a spokesperson for the Kurdish Community Centre in Haringey, London and a refugee from Sanliurfa, Türkiye, has been waiting 17 months for his asylum claim to be considered.

“The UK government sees us as a threat,” he said. “They want manageable workers, not political refugees.”

Like others, his family has been directly affected by the earthquake.

“My mother in Türkiye is staying in a tent now and I cannot help her," he continued. "All I can do is here to support Heyvasor – a Kurdish charity – because we believe it is a reliable organisation who could deliver the aid to our people over there.

“One of our friends lost 35 people in his family. We could not do anything except sit together and cry. But there is something that the UK government can do and that is to grant us with a guaranteed temporary visa so we could bring our family here.”

More than 80,000 people have signed a petition to Parliament, calling on the government to create a Turkish Family Scheme visa – similar to the one offered to Ukrainian refugees – for those who have lost their homes to the earthquake.

On 1 March, the government responded, saying it had “no plans to adopt this proposal, but has responded with life-saving support to people affected in the region. Existing visa routes for those wishing to come to the UK are available.”

MPs Feryal Clark and Bambos Charalambous, who represent north London constituencies with many Turkish and Kurdish residents, also raised the issue in Parliament. In response, Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell told MPs the UK has been doing everything it can to help people affected by the earthquake.

Responding to the ECAA and asylum system delays, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The majority of [ECAA] visa applications are concluded within our published six-month service standard.”

They added that anyone affected by the earthquake who wished to join family in the UK but did not have a visa could apply through standard visa routes.

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