Research published by the Refugee Council, Amnesty International, and Save the Children showed that the UK is deliberately preventing children from being with their families causing irreversible harm to children. Their calls for action led to the passing of the Refugee Family reunion Bill on the 16th of March 2018. Yet, the UK is still failing to put the best interests of children at the heart of their action.
According to official data, around 12,248 minors traveling alone have been granted protection in the UK since 2010. The Home Office has declared that this number is a testament to the UK’s commitment to helping vulnerable children. Yet, as little as 700 came through official routes, meaning a large majority came through dangerous channel crossings or hidden in lorries. There are currently over 4,000 unaccompanied children just in Greece alone. Charities, such as Choose Love, are calling on the Home Office to relocate some of these children to the UK as other European countries are doing. But with current COVID restrictions and the impending Brexit withdrawal, the UK is taking no new relocations and is set to make any legal relocation through family reunions virtually impossible.
UK Law on Refugee Family Reunion for Children
In the UK, the Immigration Rules determine which refugees in the UK can sponsor family members to join them and which family members can be sponsored. According to the rules, adult refugees in the UK can sponsor their partners or their children provided they are under 18. However, child refugees are explicitly excluded from this provision. This means that children can only apply for family reunion through the ‘exceptional or compassionate circumstances’ element of the Home Office policy. Leaving the result up to the discretion of the Home Office. This discretion is exercised very rarely, and the number of discretionary visas has been decreasing in recent years, with just 65 family reunion visas being granted outside of the Immigration Rules between 2013 and 2015. Thus, in practical terms, the Home Office fails to tackle the injustice caused to the majority of child refugees by excluding them from having family reunion rights under the Immigration Rules.
The Family Reunion Bill seeks to allow refugee children in the UK to sponsor their close relatives to come to the UK, expand the criteria so that young people who have turned 18 and elderly parents can join relatives in the UK, and reintroduce legal aid for family reunion applications. The Family Together Campaign resulted in the Bill passing its second reading in 2018, yet two years later we are no further along the process in which this bill becomes law and can be enforced. The Bill has stalled in the commons due to delays from the government in granting a money resolution.
Now Brexit is upon us and the UK government appears to be doing a complete U-turn on their promise to reunite refugee children. Currently under the Dublin Regulation – the only safe transfer route for refugees in Europe – allows refugee children in Europe to be reunited with family members in the UK. However, after Brexit, this legal route is set to stop. In May, the government published a draft Brexit proposal to replace family reunions but lawyers have described the text as a ‘blank cheque to people smugglers’ that strips people of their family reunion rights and makes the system entirely discretionary. The document highlights the government’s intention to ensure family reunion is no longer a mandatory obligation, stating that the EU may only request that an unaccompanied child be sent to the UK with no assurance that the Home Office will act on it. It also states that the UK government will stop ‘conferring rights’ to refugees or give the recourse to the courts. This deprives children of their right to appeal, it also denies them the ability to access the exceptional circumstances path which is currently the only route enabling them to sponsor their parents to join them in the UK.
With time running out for a UK-EU agreement, in June a cross-party group of MPs tried to table an amendment to protect current family reunion rules in the Immigration Bill, but the government voted it down. Lord Dubs has been leading the rally for the NC29 amendment which seeks to protect family reunions and preserve safe and legal routes to the UK for children who do not have family here. But no agreement has been made. The topic has been removed from the few negotiations that remain. There is a real danger that any hope for progressive policy surrounding family reunion in the UK will be lost.
The Impact of Family Separation on Children
‘Family is everything, an absolute magnificent thing. When you say family, it is simple, it is everything. Family is life. They give you inspiration and everything to move forward with this life… I haven’t seen my family for nearly three years now. It is a long time and I miss my mum. I cannot explain what this feels like. A mum is, she gives me life… She is like my beating heart. Being without your family, it is like you have a body without a soul. How can I explain that? It is like a car without an engine… I want to be with my family, and I am going to be a good man. I am going to go far. I can encourage other people and help everyone.’ Habib, 17, from Sudan.
Amnesty International and the Refugee Council spoke to refugee children about their family life and how they cope without them now. Their stories showed that family relations, often taken for granted, can not be replaced. The family’s absence affects a child’s safety, hinders their integration into a new society, and affects their psychological well-being. One of the most prominent topics from both children and professionals was how the ordinary practices of family life work to protect children from the traumatic experiences they have lived through. They also revealed how children shoulder a huge burden; they are safe but have to live with the uncertainty of the safety of their family. The lack of family reunion rights for children in the UK makes it difficult for children to deal with these fears and anxieties. The system renders them almost powerless to do anything to try to save their family from danger. Refugee children often experience multiple traumas putting them more at risk of psychological stress and evidence suggests that children’s separation from their family can amplify the vulnerabilities they face as a result of displacement.
Also, there is a concern that domestic legal frameworks offer limited care and protection to unaccompanied children. The UK has a well-known track record of failing those placed in their care. While the majority of unaccompanied child refugees in the UK will become ‘looked after children’ and ‘accommodated’ under Section 20 of the Children Act (1989), the obligations on local authorities under Section 20 do not extend to parental responsibility. As a result, children don’t have a right to a legal guardian and so there is no one with parental responsibility looking out for them. Without a family unit, many unaccompanied children create their own family like groups with other young children. However, there is a real danger that they will find their sense of belonging in groups that will do them harm, such as through drug-related criminal exploitation, sexual exploitation, and unequal and abusive intimate relationships. This is a trend that the UK is seeing across young people bought up in care regardless of their citizenship status. The UK’s care system is not fit for purpose and often results in young people unable to thrive in society and the impact on refugees is no different and even likely to be more acute.
Further, by removing legal routes for family reunification children are exposed to an increased risk of exploitation. They may be living in conflict zones, in hiding, or unstable environments. It promotes the need for children to take dangerous journeys where they are at risk of sexual abuse, torture, and increasingly hostile environments. For example, hundreds of unaccompanied children are sleeping on the streets of Calais with no access to food or water due to the increasing police brutality in the areas. Recent evictions of the camps have seen many children being sent to adult shelters where the risk of exploitation is high.
Research conducted by Oxfam UK and the Refugee Council in 2017-18, although not specific to children, found that reunions with family members aided refugees’ integration, while continued separation from key family members had a devastating impact on refugees. In several cases, long separation left them feeling unable to rebuild their lives in the UK. Three-quarters of the families in that study reported feeling unable to focus on activities essential to integration, such as learning English, because they were preoccupied with worries about family members, felt guilty, or were struggling with mental health problems.
An Indefensible Policy
In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2020, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said the UK would welcome people through safe and legal routes. Refugee family reunion should be one such route, enabling families separated by war, violence, and persecution to be together again. However, the operation of the route currently leaves too many family members facing unnecessary and dangerous journeys. It leaves children at risk, alone, isolated, and unable to thrive.
Ideas that family reunification policy will increase the number of children taking dangerous journeys which the UK government often quotes in defense of their policies are unfounded. In fact, in other countries where family reunion is allowed, such policies are seen to actively improve conditions for children. Professionals time and time again have shown the importance of family in the well-being and educational success of refugee children. Not to mention that such policies go against the UK’s commitment to international law and human rights obligations; it is failing to fulfill its commitment under the UN Convention of the Rights to the Child to ensure that the best interests of the child guide its policies and practices. In some cases, it has also been found to be in disproportionate breach of the right to respect for family life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Moreover, when it comes to family reunions, the UK stands alone among European countries in its disregard for the best interests of child refugees.
The UK government must put the best interest of the child above unfounded, prejudiced opinion. They must work to fight for the right of family reunification to be a key part of the exit bill from the EU. They need to enforce a policy that is evidence-based and in line with their international commitments. These policies can not be stalled or postponed any longer. These policies have real impacts on real people and the government would do well to remember that.