The UK government is deliberately and destructively preventing child refugees from being with their families, Amnesty International UK, the Refugee Council and Save the Children said in a new 38-page joint report released yesterday.
Without My Family shows how the UK government’s refugee family reunion rules, which block child refugees in the UK from being reunited with their families, are at odds with national law and a flagrant breach of international law, causing irreversible harm to children in this country.
Current UK law allows adult refugees rebuilding their lives in the country to sponsor their immediate family members to join them.
Child refugees, however, are deprived of this right.
The UK is one of the only countries in Europe to prevent child refugees from sponsoring their family members to join them.
Based on first-hand testimonies from children and young people aged 15-25 (all of whom arrived in the UK whilst under 18) the report details the devastating effects of family separation on children who have sought safety in this country, including constant anxiety, fear for their families’ safety, and in some cases serious mental health consequences.
Social workers and other professionals spoke of their distress at witnessing the children they care for having to cope without family.
The report also points to the consistent criticism the government’s policy has been subject to, from senior judges to specialist committees of parliamentarians and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In 2018, MPs from across the political spectrum voted with an overwhelming majority to change these harmful rules.
Despite this, the government has continuously delayed and blocked the changes from happening.
Amnesty International, the Refugee Council and Save the Children are calling for urgent action to ensure child refugees are given equal opportunities to be with their families.
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said: ‘The UK government is deliberately and destructively preventing child refugees from being reunited with their families.
‘A simple change to the UK government’s policy would transform the lives of these children and help ensure they grow up safe and secure with the people they most need and love.’
Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, said: ‘The UK’s rules on refugee family reunion are a flagrant breach of the government’s legal obligations to act at all times in the best interests of the child.
‘For many separated children, being reunited with family members is indisputably in their best interests, yet in the UK we choose to keep them apart for the inhumane reason that this might deter others from seeking safety and protection.
‘Faced with the clear evidence in this report of the harm that enforced separation causes children, the Home Secretary should see reason and change these rules immediately.’
Daniela Reale, Lead Child Protection and Children on the Move for Save the Children UK, said: ‘There is clear evidence that keeping children separated from their families causes long-lasting psychological, health, social and developmental damage for children of any age.
‘Children have a right to be with their families, and governments have an obligation to protect children.
‘The UK must change the rules so child refugees can be reunited with their loved ones.’
Many of the child refugees in the UK have endured appalling horrors. They have seen their homes destroyed, loved ones killed, been tortured or fled persecution.
Children who arrive in the UK alone and seeking asylum are fleeing from armed conflict, persecution, or a range of grave human rights violations which particularly affect young people such as trafficking and enforced military conscription.
The children interviewed had fled Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria; the professionals also told of children from a wider range of countries, with whom they had worked.
Interviews with children and professionals in the UK and mainland Europe offer a detailed picture of the lives of unaccompanied child refugees in their countries of origin.
Violence and threats to their life, liberty and security were recurring themes in the children’s descriptions of what triggered their flight from their home countries.
Habib, now 17, fled Sudan after being tortured and imprisoned at just 15 years old.
He travelled to Libya, leaving behind his mother and younger siblings.
In Libya he remained unsafe, treated so badly he still spoke of his flashbacks several years later.
He finally found safety in the UK but remains separated from his family.
He said: ‘I haven’t seen my family for nearly three years now. It is a long time and I miss my mum. It is really hard.
‘It is something that you cannot forget about. You can cover it, but you can’t forget …
‘Being without your family, it is like you have a body without a soul.’
Habib was 15 years old when he was arrested by police in Sudan. He had gone to the market with his friends but never made it home.
He said he was imprisoned for a week, tortured and questioned about his father’s political associations and activities – about which Habib knew nothing.
Habib said that when he was released, his mother told him he needed to leave Sudan quickly.
He left the same day with an uncle, leaving behind his younger siblings, aged nine and 11, and a disabled brother he was very close to.
Two of his older brothers were also later imprisoned and Habib explained how difficult it was to hear about this when he was so far away from his family, especially his mother.
Habib reached Libya, where he said he experienced serious human rights abuses at the hands of smugglers.
He described how he has constant flashbacks of the moment he saw smugglers killing a baby as its mother was giving birth.
After hearing of his brothers’ imprisonment, Habib and his uncle decided to leave Libya for Europe, but they became separated.
On the journey alone to Europe, Habib said his boat capsized; he was rescued by Italian coastguards but said he saw many people drown.
Habib spent eight months in the camp in Calais known as the ‘jungle’ before coming to the UK. He has started tracing his family in the hope that he could be reunited with them as a way of moving on from the horror of the last few years.
He discovered that his mother and siblings are living in a refugee camp in Chad.
Abdat arrived in the UK as a child from Eritrea. He said: ‘Eritrea is not a good place to live. You don’t have a chance there.
‘You don’t have a chance to be safe or to study, you don’t have a chance to work so that is why I came here to be safe and to have a better life.
‘When I was in my country, I was trying to be a mechanic when I was a child but I didn’t have the chance to do it.’
For young refugees from Kuwait, the reason to flee is linked to the fact that they are stateless.
‘Bidun’ is taken from bidun jinsiyya meaning ‘without nationality’.
Bidun are denied full Kuwaiti citizenship, even though many were born in the country and their families may have lived there for generations. Their access to employment, health care, education and the state support enjoyed by Kuwaiti citizens is severely restricted.
The Bidun who have protested against this unfair system have faced violence and repression in Kuwait.
Natalie, a UK social worker who has worked with Bidun children from Kuwait, said: ‘What they have been through within their own country is just so traumatic.
‘I have had an interpreter asked to be excused whilst doing an interview, twice, because it was just too much for him … (The children) get arrested, then beaten for a few days, and then kicked out of the police station.
‘One of my boys was saying that he was made to sit on a bottle and to sit on it without clothes on. The boy was in tears telling us, and the interpreter was just beside himself having to retell it.’
Through the interviews, it became apparent that for most families, it was a last resort for children to flee to another country.
Most unaccompanied children recognised as refugees in the UK come from a handful of countries.
Most refugees remain near their country of origin. And, as many of the children interviewed for this report confirmed, they leave their homes reluctantly and long to return.
But for those from countries plagued by violence and human rights violations, returning home is not an option.
The choice of where to go is influenced by many things, but first of all by the urgent need to find safety and survive.