Britain is on the verge of signing a secret deal to allow a small number of Yemeni Jews facing severe persecution in their home country to move to the UK, The Independent has learnt.
The tentative agreement is the product of months of painstaking negotiations between the Foreign Office and the Yemeni authorities, who have struggled to contain rising anti-Jewish sentiment as they battle a sectarian insurgency in the north and growing al-Qa'ida-inspired militancy.
An estimated 20 or 30 families living in the northern town of Raida already have relatives living in the UK. They have been desperately trying to seek sanctuary here amid rising hate attacks, murders and forced conversions by the hostile Shia al-Houthi tribe, which dominates Yemen's mountainous border with Saudi Arabia.
Until now, Britain has always refused to offer a similar blanket refugee status to those with British relatives. Many Yemeni families in the UK have subsequently complained that their relatives' visa requests had been regularly turned down or held up. But under the terms of the new negotiations, Raida Jews with British connections will be invited to apply for a three-month visitor visa to see their relatives in Britain. There is still a group of 70 Jews living in the capital Sana'a under government protection, but they are not included in the negotiations with Britain.
Once out of the country, the Raida Jews will be able to claim refugee status, although each application will still be considered on an individual basis, unlike in the US where all Yemeni Jews are guaranteed asylum.
Spiriting the families out of the country on a visitor visa is important because it frees the Yemeni authorities from embarrassment and allows them to avoid claims that they can no longer protect the country's Jewish population, who have lived in the Arabian Peninsula for more than 2,000 years.
Foreign Office officials refused to confirm any deal last night, stating that "purdah" rules governing general elections forbade them from talking about any new policies until after 6 May. But sources close to the talks say the British embassy in Sana'a has begun informing the Raida Jews of their choices.
"The UK will allow the Raida Jews with UK ties to leave, but it's important that they don't officially leave the country as refugees," said one source, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak about the negotiations. "They have brokered a deal with the Yemenis and agreed to keep this low profile." Another source said: "We haven't signed off on everything quite yet but we're nearly there."
The vast majority of the estimated 50 Yemeni Jewish families living in Britain have chosen to settle in Hackney, east London, because their customs are closest to the Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox) community who live in the Stamford Hill area. Many Charedi families, most of whom are Yiddish-speaking Jews who originate from central Europe, have already adopted Yemeni children and sponsored asylum applications.
Eli Low, who has spent more than a decade helping Yemen's Jews escape persecution, said yesterday: "Community activists are going into fast gear preparing the infrastructure needed to absorb the new arrivals." Families are also being encouraged to sponsor any new Yemeni children through schooling when they arrive, he added.
Yemen's government is uncomfortable with any suggestion that it has been unable to protect the country's Jews, who now number less than 400.