Melanie, a caseworker in RAMFEL’s refugee and asylum team, has written about her experience reuniting refugee families. The UK government makes the process extremely difficult, leaving young children alone in extremely vulnerable circumstances for many months, creating a risk of exploitation, trafficking, and taking perilous journeys to Europe.
“He always expresses that he wants to be with family who loves him and wants him. We feel helpless that we cannot do anything about that when it comes to reuniting with us […] he is in danger because of his mental state. There is civil unrest in Ethiopia, and it is very hard to live there without a family to support you, especially if you are young.”
This is the situation of many young people with relatives they are seeking to join in the UK. Contrary to frequent, sensationalised media reports and demonising government statements, the vast majority of those crossing the Channel to come to the UK are later found to meet the stringent criteria for refugee status. 70% of asylum claims in 2023 have been successful, and over 40% of refused claims are later overturned when appealed with the Tribunal. Many of those who travel irregularly to the UK also have family members in the UK they seek to be reunited with. Due to the inaccessibility of safe routes to enter the UK, many individuals, including many young people, face this dilemma: pay smugglers to travel irregularly to the UK via dangerous means, or engage in the prohibitively bureaucratic, delay-ridden UK visa application process—for which many will be ineligible.
The types of situations which cause people to seek asylum – persecution, often in circumstances of civil conflict or targeting from violent groups or individuals – often lead refugees to be separated from their closest family members. It is widely acknowledged by the UNHCR and many countries that being able to reunite with close family members is an “essential right” for refugees. Studies have also shown the profound impact this has on refugees, both for their mental health and their ability to integrate, settle into, and begin re-establishing their lives in a new country.
While UK family reunion provisions allow refugees to apply for their spouses and children to join them in the UK, the situation is much more difficult for other family members. The nature of conflict and persecution often fractures and separates families, leading many to develop very close bonds with family members other than their children or spouses. These vitally important family relationships, including those between young adults and their parents, or even children and their parents, are not accounted for in UK immigration law.
Many of my clients have endured traumatic experiences which affected their family setups. Ahmed, a young refugee from Eritrea, fled indefinite military conscription in his country at a young age to avoid recruitment. His father, who was deployed in the military, was never heard from again. After several years in the UK, he discovered that two of his younger sisters had also fled Eritrea and were in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Several months later, he discovered that one of his sisters had been captured by Eritrean military and forcibly returned to Eritrea, where she was imprisoned at the age of 15 for fleeing the country. His younger sister, Sagal, managed to escape to Addis Ababa, where she lived with other young people in a similar situation.
We assisted Ahmed with applying for Sagal, who was then aged 15, to join him in the UK. During the application process, their mother passed away, making Ahmed the only living family member his younger sister was in touch with. Sagal had no future prospects in Ethiopia, where she had no immigration status, no adults to care for her, and no support of any kind to pay for food or accommodation, aside from the money her brother sent her. For her application to succeed, Sagal had to show ‘exceptional circumstances’ – an extremely high threshold which, even when met, the Home Office systematically refuses to acknowledge. In this instance, an independent social worker noted with shock that Sagal was “at imminent risk of significant harm“ and concluded that “I have never assessed a child to be at as at great risk of harm as [Sagal]”; despite this, after 11 months of waiting for a decision, the Home Office refused to give Sagal a visa.
At the appeal hearing challenging this decision, the judge noted that there had been ‘a total failure by [the Home Office] to carry out fair or timely decision making for refugee family reunion or to consider the evidence’. Appeal processes are lengthy and protracted and whilst waiting for her day in court, the young people Sagal was living with fled, leaving her completely alone as a child in a foreign country. Ahmed was so worried about his sister that he went to Ethiopia to care for her, despite his limited financial means, and sacrificing his own studies in the process. At the hearing, the immigration Judge expressed alarm at GD’s situation, remarking that she was in ‘the most dangerous of circumstances and found to be at risk of imminent harm’, having been described by social workers as a ‘terrified child’. In her decision, the judge raised ‘the urgency of allowing this particular child entry to the UK without further delay’, and allowed the appeal on the same day. This may sound like a happy ending, but we started working on Sagal’s visa application at the beginning of 2021 and she did not arrive in the UK until May 2023. It should not take this long to reunite a vulnerable child, living in grave danger, with their family in the UK.
These cases are illustrative of the dire circumstances faced by many young people separated from their family members in the UK. Many remain trapped in their country of origin, or in third countries, unable to obtain a visa to reach a place of safety, and unable to stay where they are due to precarious and often dangerous circumstances. Left with these options, many take matters into their own hands and undertake extremely dangerous journeys across the Sahara, risking kidnapping or imprisonment by smugglers; crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels; to reach European countries where they face street homelessness, racial abuse, or imprisonment in inhumane conditions. Many of my clients’ family members describe having nothing to lose. As one client put it, he has no life where he is, so why would he not risk his life in trying to be with his family somewhere safer?
The government frequently cites UNHCR resettlement schemes as an alternative option for individuals in Sagal and Ahmed’s circumstances. This is disingenuous, as individuals must be selected for resettlement by the UNHCR; there is no application process. These schemes also apply only to individuals who are already displaced outside of their home country, and who are able to register with the UNHCR. The criteria for resettlement are opaque, and the Home Office ultimately decides the types and the number of individuals who will be permitted to resettle in the UK. Very few people qualify; in 2022, only 1,185 people were resettled in the UK; and less than 1% of the refugee population in the world is resettled. Most importantly, when choosing who to resettle in the UK, the UNHCR prioritizes the most vulnerable individuals, not their family ties to the UK, leaving many refugees in third countries stranded despite having clear family connections here.
Abdi, who was separated from his mother at a young age after she fled Somalia, was so desperate to be reunited with his only surviving family members (his brothers in the UK, Abshir and Mohammed) that he considered taking a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. The dangers of this journey are evident: in 2023, the UNHCR estimated 2,539 individuals had gone missing or died attempting to come to Europe. After Abshir’s mother died in 2015 leaving him alone in a foreign country with no one to care for him, his eldest brother Mohammed applied for him to come to the UK. When his visa application was refused twice, Abshir travelled to Europe irregularly. Abdi now found himself in the same situation as his older Abshir brother had; as his eldest brother said, ‘If someone’s family is abroad, they will do as much as they can to join them, they will try to cross regardless of the consequences, as he feels that he has ‘no future there at all’.
Abshir repeatedly urged his younger brother against travelling irregularly, warning him about his own traumatic journey in which he witnessed friends dying, and experienced a traumatic period of imprisonment with adults in desperate, dire circumstances. Abshir and Mohammed wanted nothing more than to protect Abdi from having to experience the horrors which continue to haunt Abshir, a bright young man who has since managed to settle into his life in the UK and aims to work in the medical profession. In Abshir’s words, “The only hope he has is to come and be reunited with us. If not, the only route he has to go down is the one that I did, the smuggler’s route.”
Abshir’s patience and willingness to engage in the lengthy and invasive visa application process eventually paid off for his brother, but only after nearly 3 years of work and suffering for the family. After months of preparing copious evidence, Abdi’s application was submitted in January 2022, only to be refused over a year later. The UNHCR, who assessed Abdi and his brothers, warned that he was at risk of embarking on a dangerous journey to reach Europe; this was reiterated by Abdi’s two brothers in the UK, and by Abdi himself. The Home Office, however, refused his application partly on the basis that it was merely ‘speculation’ that Abdi might take this dangerous journey. When the case went to a hearing at the Immigration Tribunal, however, the judge noted that:
I find that if this appeal was refused, the Appellant would undertake the dangerous and illegal journey to the UK. The result of all of this would lead to unjustifiably harsh consequences for the Appellant if he was refused entry clearance.
The immensity of the risk, and the difficulty of the choices facing individuals in this situation cannot be overstated. In this case, the UNCHR noted that remaining in Ethiopia would put Abdi ‘at risk of exploitation and abuse’. The UNHCR acknowledges the appalling situation of refugee camps in Ethiopia, citing risks of starvation or malnutrition, and explaining that ‘the situation of children without any support is dire’, with many forced into labour in order to feed themselves. These grim realities were blithely ignored by the Home Office in their assessment that it was reasonable to refuse JD’s visa application to join his brother, demonstrating a deference to UNHCR only when it suits the UK government.
The government repeatedly urges individuals to take so-called ‘safe and legal routes’ to the UK rather than embarking on dangerous journeys. Yet the reality for those who require visas to enter the UK is that the process is so complex, restrictive, and lengthy that either they cannot navigate the application process; they are not eligible for any visas; or they cannot wait years for the outcome of an application while they remain in immediate danger.
Our clients who were able to benefit from free legal representation to make these applications are the exceptions which prove the rule: that it is incredibly difficult, if not virtually impossible, for many to enter the UK on a visa, even to join family members here who are ready to support them. This is due to very strict, narrow definitions of family members in the Immigration Rules; bureaucratic and legal complexities; as well as long delays and poor quality decision-making by the Home Office, as evidenced by the large number of negative decisions which are overturned by judges. There has never been a greater need for effective safe routes to the UK which are genuinely accessible and which would enable families to be reunited without a long, traumatic wait.
The government, in passing their latest cruel anti-refugee legislation, promised further routes would be introduced. Months later though, nothing has changed and more and more people, including teenagers such as our clients, are left with no option but to embark on dangerous journeys as they seek safety and reunification with their loved ones.