‘Forgotten’ Syrian interpreter attempts suicide after UK asylum delays

A Syrian interpreter who has worked for the British government and the White Helmets has tried to kill himself after waiting nearly two years for a decision on his asylum claim.

Ali [not his real name] worked as an interpreter and translator for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in Istanbul, and for Mayday Rescue, a humanitarian organisation that supported the work of the White Helmets (officially known as the Syria Civil Defence) across Syria.

Ali arrived on a tier 2 highly skilled worker visa in spring 2020, staying near Liverpool, where he claimed asylum in summer 2020. He was given permission to work and still translates for the White Helmets from the UK. He says that, while he has the right to work, the anxiety and fear of his claim being rejected has had a significant impact on his health and wellbeing.

“I can’t sleep. It’s affecting everything – my mental health, my appetite … I can’t eat. I keep getting cramps and feeling really sick. But as I was telling the Home Office guy all this, I said ‘Please, give me a timeframe.’ ‘No, you have to wait.’ I said, ‘What can I do? Please help me. Help me to help myself.’ They said, ‘Write to me about what you’re telling me now.’ It’s even more frustrating to go through even more bureaucracy, when I’ve done everything they asked me to do.”

Despite frequently contacting the Home Office for an update on his claim, he says he has been given no timeframe or assurances, leading to a severe deterioration in his mental health.

“When I called the Home Office to tell them I am attempting to end my life, they said they will call the police,” he said. “I don’t know if that was a threat or if they were saying it to protect me – but an ambulance arrived two hours later. They treated me kindly, but it’s as if it’s a one-off case, and it’s not. I’m having these black, intrusive thoughts all the time. I feel I’m neglected, left on a desk, with a number, and just forgotten about.”

Ali, who was security checked before he began working on UK government-funded projects in 2013, says he feels let down by the government.

“Even though I was vetted by the Foreign Office, the Home Office still asked for an accent expert to double check I’m Syrian. Why would one part of the British government trust me to translate highly sensitive material but not trust another branch of the government that I am who I say I am? It makes no sense.”

Ali says his family in Syria have become a target as a result of his work with the British government and the White Helmets. In summer 2020, he says his mother was arrested and interrogated in a regime prison.

“She is now too terrified to speak to me, worried the line is being monitored,” Ali said. “She’s traumatised and feels she is being watched … and I have no security here, which makes it even worse.”

He continues to consult a psychiatrist, who is now offering urgent care, and he is on the strongest dose of antidepressants his doctor can prescribe.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to ensuring asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay, but we are currently prioritising cases involving unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Asylum seekers have access to health and social care services, including mental health support from the point of arrival in the UK. We take every step to prevent self-harm or suicide, including a dedicated team responsible for identifying vulnerable asylum seekers and providing tailored support.”

  • In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here