The UK’s broken refugee policy is delivering scared children into the hands of people smugglers | Alf Dubs

When I was a child, I had to leave my mother behind as I fled the Nazis on the Kindertransport. I still remember the moment my father met me at Liverpool Street station in London. My mother had been refused an exit permit, but at the last minute she managed to escape and joined my father and me in the city. Only then, all together, were we able to start rebuilding our lives.

Sadly, many refugee children are torn from their families as they flee war or persecution, or are separated on long and dangerous journeys to safety. Between 2015 and 2019, refugee family reunion was a safe route for families to be reunited in the UK: more than 29,000 people were granted visas, 90% of which were for women and children. But more recently, the government’s immigration rules have been failing refugee children who were previously able to rely on this system to enable them to join family members.

All too often, government policy is restricting refugee children from being reunited with family members. First, children outside the UK who are separated from their families are now prevented from joining refugee aunts, uncles, grandparents and adult siblings in the UK due to entry conditionsthat are extremely hard to meet, such as fees that can cost thousands of pounds.

Second, separated refugee children in the UK do not have the right to bring their parents or siblings to join them under the family reunion rules. This policy leaves these children without their family, unless their loved ones attempt a dangerous journey to reach them.

Furthermore, Afghans resettled in the UK from evacuations in 2021 are entirely excluded from refugee family reunion. Children were separated from their mothers and fathers during the chaos of the evacuations from Afghanistan and are still waiting, nearly three years later, for the government to open a reunion pathway for them to be able to join their parents in the UK, despite the promises made to them.

Even where children may be eligible to apply for family reunion, extreme delays in the system can cause children to lose hope and attempt dangerous journeys instead. As of August 2023, two-thirds of the children the charity Safe Passage International supports who wish to reunite with family had to wait longer than the Home Office’s standard processing time of 12 weeks for an initial decision.

Between January 2021 and August 2023, more than a quarter of the children Safe Passage International has been supporting became so desperate that, to the best of the charity’s knowledge, they travelled to the UK on small boats or on the back of a lorry instead. In comparison, between 2016 and 2023, of the many children Safe Passage International helped to reunite with their family under the EU’s Dublin III regulation, only one risked a dangerous journey.

Ruthless people smugglers are capitalising on these policy failings and the desperation of unaccompanied children, who are particularly vulnerable to smugglers’ promises to reunite them with their families. Smugglers offer children a risky alternative, one which means they could reach their family in just a few days. As children grow more desperate, they become more and more likely to take this risk.

These policy failings have other consequences beyond dangerous Channel crossings. The Refugee Council works with children in the UK whose separation from family has led to difficulties in school and a loss of interest in learning, playing and even eating, because they miss their families so much.

Refugee children are left waiting in dangerous situations, from hiding from the Taliban in exploitative conditions to sleeping homeless in northern France. Most of the children Safe Passage International works with experience depression, PTSD, anxiety and even self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

The Refugee Council and Safe Passage International have published five recommendations that the government could adopt to facilitate family reunion. These include removing barriers to children joining non-parent adult relatives in the UK, and amending the rules to allow refugee children in the UK to sponsor parents and siblings.

I urge the government to implement these recommendations, which we estimate could result in 1,000 additional family reunion visas, including 300 for unaccompanied children. Recent polling carried out by Safe Passage International shows that 74% of the British public agree that child refugees should have a safe way to reunite with family in the UK, so they can just focus on being children again.

The Guardian

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