Activist was questioned by airport officials for 90 minutes
UK authorities told Erhaim her passport will be returned to Damascus
Home Office: "Our first priority is the security of our borders"
An award-winning Syrian journalist and prominent critic of President Bashar al-Assad says Britain’s Border Agency confiscated one of her passports at the request of the embattled Syrian regime.
Zaina Erhaim told CNN Monday that officials at London’s Heathrow Airport seized her recently-issued Syrian passport upon her arrival early Friday morning and questioned her for 90 minutes in the presence of her 7-month old baby.
Airport officials told the 31-year-old activist that the Syrian government had reported the passport as stolen, and that the document would be returned to authorities in Damascus, Erhaim told CNN over the phone from the UK.
The Turkey-based activist, who traveled to the UK to speak at an Index on Censorship forum in London, was told to raise the issue with her government when she questioned the confiscation.
“In that moment in the airport, I really felt like I was in … a pro-regime territory, which was so upsetting,” she said, adding that she felt she was being targeted by the Syrian government for her activism.
Commenting on the incident, a spokesperson for Britain’s Home Office told CNN: “Our first priority is the security of our borders and if a passport is reported as lost or stolen by a foreign government we have no choice but to confiscate it.”
The UK has suspended diplomatic relations with Damascus and ordered the Syrian embassy in London to close in 2012 in response to the Assad regime’s bloody crackdown on dissent at home.
Erhaim said she had previously used the confiscated passport to visit the UK in April and several other European countries.
“They said they will be returning it to ‘my government’ although its embassy in the UK is closed for years now,” Erhaim wrote on her Facebook page after the incident.
She told CNN she had paid US$1,500 for her new passport at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul “to speed the procedure up,” adding that had she not paid that amount, the next passport application appointment at the consulate would have been in 2017.
A new Syrian passport usually costs US$400.
The trade in stolen and fake passports has burgeoned during the civil war in Syria, after it became increasingly difficult to get proper documents. Syrian embassies have been shut down in a number of European countries and passport centers in Syria are too risky for Assad’s critics to visit.
Erhaim was eventually allowed into the UK as she happened to be carrying – in addition to the now confiscated document – her older passport, which has no pages left for visa stamps.
She said that the confiscation means she will essentially be grounded in Turkey when she returns from London, as she has no means to get a new passport and no space for visa stamps in her old passport.
”I have no idea what I will do now. I am leaving on Sunday and won’t be back,” she said.
CNN has yet to receive a response from the Syrian government on the issue.
Erhaim has won a number of awards for her work from Syria, including a the Reporters Without Border’s press freedom prize and the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.
She has trained dozens of citizen reporters inside Syria in print and TV journalism, and also helped set up independent publications in the war-torn country.