Refugees living in the UK are prevented from successfully integrating into British life because they are unable to be reunited with their loved ones facing danger, Oxfam and the Refugee Council warned today.
A new report, Safe but not Settled, highlights how refugees’ gruelling experiences of conflict, persecution or abuse are exacerbated by the UK’s restrictive approach to refugee family reunion.
Current rules only allow adult refugees to be reunited with their spouses and children younger than 18, when family members are located outside of the EU. Furthermore, legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunion since 2013 (excluding exceptional case funding), making it even more difficult for families separated by war and persecution to reunite.
This approach means, for example, “that three children who escaped to the UK with their parents cannot bring their grandparents to join them, regardless of how close they were to them before they left, a separation that has left the children distressed to the extent of self- harm. It means that Sayid, whose teenage brother is fleeing both ISIS (also known as Daesh) and the Syrian army, cannot reunite with him in safety in the UK.” It means that siblings are scattered across continents, as young people under 18 can reunite with family members elsewhere – but those over 18, cannot.
The psychological and practical cost of such rules are profound. Thirty-three of the 44 families interviewed in the report were unable to focus on activities essential to integration, such as learning English, because they were preoccupied with worries about family members, experiencing feelings of guilt or struggling with mental health problems.
Aster, an Eritrean woman who was persecuted for her religion and forced to flee, shares her story in the report. After a long and perilous journey, including time in prison where she was physically and sexually abused, she finally arrived in the UK in 2016. Despite being finally safe, Aster is desperately worried about her children.
She knows the chances of reuniting with them are slim. Her two sons have managed to escape to Ethiopia, but they have both contracted malaria and have no one to care for them – and, as they have now turned 18, they are no longer eligible to join her here. It was too dangerous for Aster’s daughter, aged just 16, to travel with her brothers – so she now lives alone in Eritrea. Her options are slim: marry for her own protection, or be conscripted into the army.
Aster said: “When I think of my children, I am always sad and I cannot enjoy life or take any part in anything…I’m doing my best, but I can’t fully concentrate on anything I do, all the time I am stressed, thinking about the day when I will be reunited with my children.”
For many refugees, family reunion is prohibitively expensive due to the lack of legal aid. While the application itself is free, legal advice and interpreters are often needed to help newcomers navigate the UK’s convoluted immigration rules. The report notes that “there can be very many costs hidden in the application process: in one case, a family reunion application was delayed because the family could not afford to fly a separated child to the nearest UK embassy to be interviewed for the application.”
The report comes ahead of a crucial debate in Parliament, where MPs will consider changing the law to enable more refugees to be reunited with their loved ones. The Refugee Family Reunion Bill will be debated on 16th March, and calls for:
- Child refugees to be able to sponsor their parents and siblings under the age of 25.
- Adult refugees to be able to sponsor their parents; their children under the age of 25; and their siblings under the age of 25.
- The reintroduction of legal aid for refugee family reunion.
The report demonstrates, with irrefutable evidence, the human cost of separation. This bill gives us the chance to make a difference: can you write to your MP, and ask them to attend the debate?
The anguish of separation is, for so many people, beyond imagination or comprehension. But for those fragmented families, it is an all too painful reality. This Bill is our chance to help loved ones to reunite, and give families the opportunity to start the next chapter of their lives – together.
Help Refugees is proud to support the #FamiliesTogether campaign, led by Amnesty International UK, British Red Cross, Oxfam, Refugee Council and UNHCR. Can you write to your MP, and ask them to support the campaign’s asks on the 16th March 2016? Thank you.