Award-winning journalist Zaina Erhaim successful in challenge to hotel quarantine

Zaina Erhaim, an award-winning Syrian journalist and refugee, who had multiple requests for an exemption unanswered by the Secretary of State, has been granted an exemption and allowed to return home to complete her period of self-isolation, along with her young child and partner. The exemption was granted this evening following an urgent application to the Secretary of State for Health by Bindmans LLP and counsel from Doughty Street Chambers.

Ms Erhaim and her family have been detained in a managed quarantine hotel at Heathrow for four days, in circumstances which caused them grave distress and serious psychological harm. Ms Erhaim has won multiple awards for her reporting from Aleppo during the Syrian civil war.  While working for the BBC in Syria, Ms Erhaim was kidnapped by militias working for the Assad regime and held prisoner in a room for two days by a number of regime officials. As a result of her experiences in Syria, Ms Erhaim has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She has suffered a severe exacerbation of her PTSD this week. This is due to the particular conditions of hotel quarantine which have triggered memories of highly traumatic experiences she has had during the Syrian civil war, including being kidnapped. Her partner, also a Syrian refugee who has suffered trauma, has also found the experience extremely distressing, and their young daughter has been held in the hotel witnessing the deterioration of her parents’ mental health.

Ms Erhaim’s legal team submitted that she and her family must urgently leave hotel quarantine in order to prevent a further exacerbation of her PTSD and to avoid further damage to her partner and daughter. Tonight, the Department of Health has conceded and granted the family an immediate exemption.

Ms Erhaim’s case is not only important in itself. It also raises wider concerns regarding the efficacy of the hotel quarantine regime, and whether the system is fit for purpose when dealing with individuals with such medical vulnerabilities who are unexpectedly subjected to quarantine. 

First, the hotel quarantine system puts people who suffer from acute mental health issues at serious risk. It was clear from the outset of her quarantine that Ms Erhaim was suffering a mental health crisis. She applied twice for an exemption on this basis but received no answer from the Secretary of State. Upon calling the NHS helpline given to her she was advised to meditate. Ultimately, she had to instruct expert lawyers to obtain the exemption. 

Second, unlike immigration detention, there is no specific policy or procedure for people who are unsuitable to be placed in hotel quarantine because they have a history of torture and mistreatment. This means that there are likely to be other individuals who suffer similar mental health crises due to their life history but are unable to obtain an exemption which is only available on medical grounds.

Third, Ms Erhaim and her family had returned to the UK after ten days in a Green List country, Croatia, following an urgent family trip to Turkey to visit an ill relative. They were informed by UKBA officials in Heathrow that their calculation had been out by one hour, and so they must self-isolate. The method of calculation of the ten day period is not readily available. Ms Erhaim had taken great care to follow the available guidance and  was surprised to learn of this requirement.

Ms Erhaim welcomed the decision from the Department of Health, stating:

"Coming from Syria, I expect nothing from the government but brutality and intimidation, as a result of being an outspoken journalist and human rights defender. It took me years to stop escaping when seeing a police officer walking casually in the streets of London. This week, however, I was yet again treated like a criminal without doing any crime, this time in the UK, and I was imprisoned in a hotel room with guards. Unlike the time when I was kidnapped by pro-regime militias in Syria, this time I had my daughter with me, which made everything much harder. I am pleased that the right decision was eventually made but I question why no one asked why I had a breakdown in the airport, and no one responded when I sought help as panic attacks and flashbacks of being imprisoned were hitting me like never before. Unfortunately  it was only when I got lawyers involved that the government took my case seriously."

Ms Erhaim was represented by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Adam Wagner, Doughty Street Chambers, and Patrick Ormerod and Grace Benton, Bindmans LLP.