Six refugee families who have been stranded at a British military base in Cyprus for more than 20 years are to be allowed to settle in the UK following a legal battle.

The government has granted the group indefinite leave to enter the UK for permanent residence, in a U-turn that comes shortly before a Supreme Court hearing on the case.

The elder members of the families were among 75 refugees from Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria who washed up on the shores of the military base in a fishing boat operated by smugglers.

They had been heading for Italy but the smugglers abandoned the vessel after it foundered off the coast of Cyprus in October 1998.

Their boat reached land at RAF’s Akrotiri military airfield, a British overseas territory, where the group was detained for up to 18 months.

They were released between 1999 and 2000 after being recognised as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, but the families have been marooned in the military base ever since. The UK government consistently denied responsibility for the refugees, arguing the convention did not extend to the sovereign base area.

The refugees, who live in disused military accommodation in Dhekelia, near Larnaca, have endured deteriorating conditions in bungalows which had been due to be demolished in 1997 and which were found to contain potentially harmful levels of asbestos in 2008. 

In 2013, reports commissioned by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found high levels of anxiety among the families, who had limited access to healthcare. All the families’ children were found to have suffered in their “psychological health” due to their living conditions.

The families took legal action after Theresa May, the then-home secretary, refused to give them leave to enter the UK in November 2014. The decision was quashed following a High Court judicial review, which found it was unlawful, a ruling that was later upheld following a government appeal.

The government’s decision to settle the case, without an admission of liability, came before a further Supreme Court heard on 26 November.

Six claimants and 25 other family members were granted to indefinite leave to enter the UK, said law firm Leigh Day, which represented the refugees and announced the decision.

Tessa Gregory, a solicitor at the company, said she was “delighted that the current home secretary has done the humane thing”.

She added: “The heads of these six refugee families who washed up on a British army base in 1998 were fleeing from terrible conditions in their own countries. Instead of being welcomed into the UK as refugees they have been left in limbo for twenty years, raising their families in substandard housing, riddled with deadly asbestos and void of an official identity. 

“My clients now want to put those wasted years behind them and build a new life in the UK with stability and security. These six families have hope again and are looking forward to contributing to our society.”

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The Home Office said the decision was made “on an exceptional basis” due to the “highly unusual circumstances”.

Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesman for the UNHCR, said: “We are delighted that the UK government has agreed to grant the refugees indefinite leave to remain in the UK and that proceedings are now settled.

“We are now examining, with partners in the sector, how best the individuals can be supported to help them integrate in the UK and rebuild their lives, which had been in limbo for many years.”

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