An award-winning Syrian journalist who had her passport confiscated by UK border officials has accused the British government of siding with President Bashar Assad. Zaina Erhaim was travelling to London to speak alongside veteran war correspondent Kate Adie at a Women on the Frontline discussion.
But when she arrived at Heathrow on 22 September, with her eight-month-old daughter, border officials said her passport had been reported as stolen by the Syrian authorities.
The 31-year-old was only granted access to the UK because she had a second passport – yet it is full with no space for another visa and is due to expire next year.
Erhaim told the Press Association that the actions of the officials suggested that Britain stands by "a legitimate dictator", and that the country was "taking his [Assad's] side against all of those who demand a chance for freedom and defend their basic rights".
She said: "I think if they really believe it was stolen they wouldn't let me in because then I'm going to be a thief and they should have arrested me, at least. But because they knew that it's not a legitimate government against a citizen – it's like a criminal regime against a journalist – that's why they let me in."
The reporter, who undertook a masters in journalism at City University London a few years ago, said that while she understood Britain has "rules", it needed to adapt them to consider the political implications.
"You're claiming to be friends with Syria but you're acting against the Syrians that you claim you are friends with," Erhaim said.
A Home Office spokesperson said the government has "no direct contact with the Assad regime due to the atrocities it has committed against the Syrian people" but that it would be "irresponsible to ignore warnings about lost or stolen passports".
Erhaim claims that Assad flagged her passport as stolen to stop her from travelling outside the country and speaking loudly about "the crimes and the atrocities committed by the regime".
She said her reporting of humanitarian issues in Syria was "obviously" something the regime found "threatening".
Erhaim also accused the British government of being involved in military operations in Syria without helping those displaced by the war.
"You're bombing the Syrians but you're not actually dealing with the consequences of that bombing which is the refugees. So you bomb their houses but you don't find an alternative house for those that are running away. British, Russia, US – those are the countries which are taking the least refugees and those are the countries that are involved in the military operations."
Her comments came as foreign secretary Boris Johnson said he would like to see demonstrations outside Russia's embassy over Moscow's involvement in the Syrian conflict.
But Erhaim said the government simply needed to remove the Syrian president, and that if they wanted to, "they could".
"Removing Assad from power would, I think, be the first step to end the refugee crisis, to end the Isis crisis, to start the negotiations. Everything would be starting actually from after that but there is no intention obviously at the moment in the international community to deal with this."
The journalist, who will leave Britain in the next fortnight when her visa expires, said it was "impossible" to return to Syria where she would "definitely be killed under torture".
Instead, Erhaim will return to Turkey using a tourist residency visa, but will be stranded without a passport when it expires next year.