Westernisation can provide a basis for a claim for leave to remain in the UK where individuals face a real risk of persecution if they would not be able to adhere to the norms of conservative societies, a tribunal has ruled.

A ‘westernised’ family of five who fled Iraq in 2006 have won an appeal against the refusal of leave on the grounds that they would face ‘a real risk of persecution because they are atheists’.

Upper Tribunal Judge Gaenor Bruce said: ‘They do not wish to adhere to conservative Islamic norms because they fundamentally do not agree with them. They should not be expected to do so simply in order to remain safe.’

Bruce held that the Refugee Convention does not provide ‘a protected and unfettered right to enjoy one’s life in the way that one would like: there is no human right to listen to a particular kind of music, drink alcohol or to wear jeans’. However, it can offer protection ‘where the modifications required of the claimants amount to suppressions of the inalienable rights afforded to them by international law’, she added.

Westernisation can also entitle an individual to protection where, if they have been living in the UK for a long time or is unfamiliar with the prevailing culture in their country of origin, there is a risk that their ‘modified behaviour will slip’.

The tribunal heard that the family, who were all ‘nominally’ Muslim but have never been practising, previously lived in an affluent area of Baghdad where their atheism was ‘simply never an issue’.

However, Bruce said that ‘the Iraq of 2021 is very different from the Iraq that they left’ and referred to expert evidence suggesting that ‘today religion permeates the public space’ and that atheists ‘often keep their views secret’ for fear of harassment, attack or even murder.

‘In that context an individual does not have to sell books, or shout on a street corner, to proclaim that he is not a Muslim: his lack of faith is apparent in his everyday actions,’ Bruce said.

‘[The father] will be regarded with curiosity if he permits his daughters to go out unchaperoned; that curiosity will rise to suspicion if he is never seen at mosque; suspicion would quickly escalate to hostility if the family fail to observe the fasts in Ramadhan or to don black during Muharram; that hostility could, at any time, give rise to persecution if, for instance, the women insist on remaining unveiled or the family’s attitudes lead to them being identified as particularly wealthy.’

She added: ‘Although evidence about fashion, or entertainment preferences, appears at first glance to consist of little more than an appeal to pluralism, and thus lying entirely outwith the protection framework, that evidence must be carefully assessed.

‘First, to determine whether the lifestyle choices of the claimant are in fact an expression of  beliefs prohibited or disapproved of in his country of origin. Second, whether there is a real risk of that claimant failing to effectively mask his "western" identity and thus exposing himself to harm.’

The parents and their youngest child’s human rights claims were previously allowed by consent, as the Home Office accepted that it would not be reasonable to expect their young child to leave the UK, and their two other children’s human rights appeals were also allowed.