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The impact of family separation on child refugees in the UK

The report WITHOUT MY FAMILY: The impact of family separation on child refugees in the UK was published on Monday 13  January 2020. A full copy of the report can be read: here.

The report is published by three organisations: Amnesty International UK, the Refugee Council and Save the Children.

The research behind the report was commissioned in 2017-2018 and is based on a literature and legal review, interviews with children and young people affected by the rules, and Interviews with practitioners.

Family Reunion Unavailable to Child Refugees

The report outlines the background to the report and the reasons for the deep concerns raised, particularly when it comes to a child’s best interests:

“The UK’s rules on the rights of child refugees to sponsor visas for close family to join them are more restrictive than any country in the European Union. These provisions are set out in the Immigration Rules which define refugees, outline procedures and identify who is eligible to enter the UK, including as the family member of a refugee or person with Humanitarian Protection. They can only be changed through parliamentary procedure, although changes are proposed by the UK Government and are usually passed without debate. 

As there is no immigration rule to allow for children to make refugee family reunion applications, any child who wants to try has to make an application outside of the rules. The authors are aware of a small number of children who have done this; applications are usually refused but some are successful on appeal.

The rules contain a legal anomaly: they recognise the right of an adult to be reunited with their immediate family but deny that right to a child. It is hard to fathom how an unaccompanied child can study, make friends, and move on with their lives in the UK when they are thousands of miles from their immediate family and maybe unsure of their loved ones’ safety. There is a certain callousness in allowing adult refugees to bring their children to the UK but to leave child refugees alone”.

The report recognises that many children have ‘endured appalling horrors’, gives detailed accounts from those interviewed, and highlights the impact of prolonged separation. The report identifies ‘the difference that family reunion can make to child refugees. Professionals who work with refugee children and young people agree that the absence of their families undermines their development and puts them at risk’.   The impact of coping without the family is a ‘huge burden for a child’.  It can lead to mental health problems, and many children become lost in the system and become reliant on professionals or adults ‘who go the extra mile in their work’.

A Child’s Best Interests

Article 3 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises and requires that a child’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all decisions which affect them.  Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 effected this in UK law.  The report recognises applications will need to be made with legal assistance. 

The report recognises a ‘stark contrast between the UK’s position on family reunion in domestic legislation and policy and the Home Office’s position on reuniting families outside the UK, including when the child is in the UK asking for asylum’.

In summary,  the highly critical report concludes:

“The UK Government’s policy on refugee family reunion: 

  • prevents child refugees who have sought safety in the UK from being joined by their parents, brothers, or sisters; 
  • leaves the UK as the only EU country that refuses to grant child refugees the right to be reunited with even their closest family; and 
  • is directly at odds with national and international law, contravening the principle of the best interests of the child. 

This policy is leaving some of the most vulnerable children separated from their families at a time when they need their parents most. The UK Government’s hard-line position deliberately keeps child refugees away from their parents and in the care of local authorities. This leaves parents and siblings with an impossible choice – never to see their closest family again or embark on a dangerous journey to try to reach them”. 

The report continues: “The legal analysis carried out for this report shows that the UK’s position puts it directly in breach of its legal obligations under both national and international law”.

Quotations from children who were interviewed as part of the process make very powerful reading: 

“Just imagine yourself that someone takes you from somewhere and puts you somewhere else, for example, a desert in the Sahara. And you have got no language, no nothing. And they say, ‘live your life without your family, without anything’. It is really hard to start, you know. 

Habib, aged 17, from Sudan.

“I want them to imagine if they left their children far away from them and they want to get them. What they would do?”

Orhan, aged 18, from Syria”

Recommendations – Permitting the Right to Family Reunion

The report recommends: 

“In line with its obligations under international human rights law, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UK Government should ensure that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in all decisions and actions concerning child refugees. The Home Office should: 

  1. Permit the right to family reunion for unaccompanied children with international protection needs when this is in their best interests. This right should be formalised within the Immigration Rules for those with Humanitarian Protection status as well as for those recognised as refugees. 
  2. Ensure that family reunion rights are made accessible to former unaccompanied child refugees who are now over 18 years of age. 
  3. Commit to a broad enough definition of family for unaccompanied child refugees to enjoy their right to family life and to include child siblings and any legal or customary care givers in their country of origin”.

We wait to see how the government responds and whether they follow the recommendations.  What is clear is that a child’s best interests must remain a primary consideration.

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