Today, refugees and campaign groups handed in a petition to 10 Downing Street, backed by 36,500 members of the British public, urging the Government to allow child refugees who come to the UK to be reunited with their parents in safety.
Representatives from the Refugee Council, Amnesty International UK and refugees representing the VOICES Network, posed for photos outside Parliament holding placards reading,’36,500 believe families belong together.’
Every day, refugee families are torn apart by war and terror – during the brutality of conflict or in the urgency of fleeing a warzone. After making traumatic journeys to safety alone, child refugees can then face years of loneliness here in the UK, because laws prevent them from being reunited with their parents or any other close family members who have no right to join them in the UK.
Adult refugees who find safety here are also impacted by restrictive family reunion rules which deprive them of the right to be reunited with anyone other than a spouse or child under 18. This means that their older children and elderly parents can be left in dangerous war zones with no hope of seeing their loved ones in safety again.
In response to the crisis in Ukraine – which has seen more than 3 million people forced from their homes in just weeks – the UK Government promptly relaxed family visa rules for Ukrainian refugees. This has meant that in addition to spouses and children, Ukrainians in the UK are also able to be joined by a wide range of extended family fleeing the conflict including adult children, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents.
While campaigners warmly welcome this rule change, which will provide a lifeline for many Ukrainians, they argue it serves as a clear reminder of the importance of the issue of family reunion and the ease with which family reunion rules can be changed by Government. They call for these rules to be made fairer for all refugees, not just those from Ukraine.
Family reunion policies have attracted increased political attention recently with the House of Lords voting overwhelmingly to protect existing family reunion rights as outlined in the Nationality and Borders Bill.
This bill, which returns to the House of Commons next week, could severely restrict refugee family reunion, the route by which family members – 90% of whom are women and children – have been able to safely settle in Britain in recent years.
Being reunited with family members is a life changing moment, with evidence strongly suggesting that bringing loved ones together again significantly supports their recovery and integration into their new communities.
Helen is originally from Cameroon and claimed asylum in the UK. She describes being reunited with her children at Manchester airport, after being separated for years:
“It was an unforgettable moment, almost like a dream. Everyone was crying and it was such a mix of emotions. I had been apart from my children for two years and they had changed a lot in this time. When my children arrived, they were 17, 15 and 9 years old. I was able to sponsor them because they were all under 18. However, my family was split up as I had to leave my elderly mother in Cameroon and my two older sons…”
“Being reunited with my children has helped me to rebuild my life here in the UK. I am happier but my happiness is not complete because my family remains divided…”
Anwar from Afghanistan describes the desperation he felt while separated from his wife and children:
“I was worried about them, knowing that they were under threat in my country from the ongoing insecurity and direct threat.
My family reunion application process was a very frustrating process, it took a long time and became very stressful. The policy around refugee family reunions needs to change. It causes too much anxiety and depression, especially for young people.”
Kathy Voss, Campaigns Manager at the Refugee Council, said:
“Children need their parents, and families separated by war and persecution need to be reunited in order to start to recover and move on with their lives. It is impossible to imagine the anguish of reaching safety – but without those you love.
“The war in Ukraine has brought home the traumatic decisions people often make to escape a war. We have seen how easily these rules can be changed in an emergency. We urge the Government to take this simple step – and show some compassion for all refugees escaping war and persecution.”
The Refugee Council campaigns on the importance of refugee family reunion rights for refugees and as part of the Families Together coalition, a campaign group which brings together close to a hundred charities and organisations supporting this issue. The coalition is calling for: (1) Child refugees to be able to sponsor their parents and siblings under the age of 25, (2) adult refugees to be able to sponsor their parents and their children under the age of 25; and (3) the reintroduction of legal aid for refugee family reunion.