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22 December 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 4:34pm

For many refugees, fleeing violence also means losing their families

More must - and can - be done to prevent families being torn apart. 

By karl pike

One word comes up a lot when you meet refugees: family. Recently in Grande Synthe I met two young men – brothers – from Iraq. Their other two brothers were in the UK as refugees and they wanted to be reunited as a family. Right now the rules don’t offer a clear, safe and legal route for them both. They were living near a trunk road in a camp full of young families with children, where smugglers exploit vulnerability and tell refugees they can get onto a lorry and make it to the UK. Dangerous journeys are being forced upon desperate people because the other options either aren’t accessible or they don’t exist.

The destruction of family life is everywhere in this crisis. Families have lost loved ones because of the violence, and refugees who have survived to flee have been divided from their families across borders and continents. For many refugees the daily family life we enjoy – getting together for a meal, taking the kids to school, taking a walk at the weekend, the normal stuff we all understandably take for granted – has been devastated.

I’ve met refugees who have lost their family forever, and refugees who don’t know where their family members are. I’ve met refugees who know where their family are, but aren’t able to see them, and refugees who are desperately trying to reunite with their families, but can’t bring them to safety.

Take the refugee who is desperately searching for his child. Having paid smugglers to get through the tunnel, this man had reached down from the insides of a lorry to hoist up his child, but at the sound of what a smuggler took to be the authorities, the child was swiped away from the father and the lorry sealed. The last time this father saw his child was in the arms of a smuggler before a steel door turned everything dark. As a father I can’t imagine living with that image.

In Lebanon – which its government says has seen two million refugees arrive – I met a guy living in Mount Lebanon with other Syrian refugees, mostly from Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. His wife was living in Turkey with their newborn child who he hadn’t yet met. With the legal limbo many Syrians are dealing with in Lebanon, he couldn’t travel to Turkey to see his family. Understandably he couldn’t see much hope. Towards the end of our meeting we gathered outside with the other residents in the last of the sun setting behind the mountain. It was beautiful, and the children living there were delighted to have some visitors. In one way it was great to see people getting together to help one another. But these were parts of families, divided from their loves ones elsewhere. Many had long lost hope of an early return to their homes, despite some having decided to reside in Mount Lebanon because of its proximity to Syria. They all just desperately needed to be whole again.

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At the British Red Cross, trying to reunite refugee families is a significant part of our response to the crisis. We can help trace families who are divided, as we are trying to do for the Syrian father I mentioned separated from his child on the road. We’ve reunited 300 families in the UK through refugee family reunion so far this year, divided after fleeing horrific violence, having lived in constant fear for their loved ones, having witnessed their family home destroyed.

But the rules limit what we can do. Currently a refugee can be joined by their spouse and under-18 children, but anyone else would need to be granted a visa exceptionally outside the rules. That doesn’t happen much – and in fact the number granted visas outside of the rules has fallen during the refugee crisis, from 77 in 2011 to just 12 in 2014.

Typically if a refugee has three children, and one is 19, the 19-year-old is not eligible and the family has to decide to either divide or stay in the country where they face extreme risk. If an elderly mother lives with the family, she typically isn’t eligible for refugee family reunion. If a refugee’s only surviving family is an older sibling, they aren’t eligible. People and families are complicated, and examples of heartbreak and the inhumanity of the rules pile up each month. Recently a Syrian-born Palestinian refugee came to us for help in bringing his wife and children to join him in the UK. The family had fled Syria to Lebanon. Unfortunately, their eldest son was aged 20 at the time of making the application. His wife and younger children were granted visas, but his eldest son was refused due to his age. The family is now divided.

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For refugees who have made it to Europe the Dublin Regulation, sometimes referred to as Dublin III, provides some family reunion rights. But this isn’t applied fairly or proactively across the European Union and again it is restrictive.

These aren’t simple issues of course, and every country’s asylum system has its maddening bureaucratic tendencies. But right now the UK Government could be doing so much more to help reunite families and take in more refugees. If we accept, as I think the UK Government does, that we are living through a worsening refugee crisis where we have to think far more ambitiously about our global response, then we need to move away from a business-as-usual approach in some of the existing ways we help people.

Through the Immigration Bill we worked with a cross-party group of MPs, supported by our friends at the Refugee Council, to put forward an amendment to the rules allowing for more of a refugee’s family members to apply to join them. Another amendment from the Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham asked for a review – which would be helpful, but the refugee crisis is now and people could be helped without a review. Bringing more refugee families together would be one of the most effective ways for the Government to do more to help right now – strengthening an existing safe and legal route for refugees. There is of course no humanitarian solution to the refugee crisis. Only politics can end wars. But this change would help avoid potentially life-threatening journeys for refugees across Europe, and it would mean the UK helping thousands more refugees every year.

Unfortunately there wasn’t sufficient time in the Commons to vote on extending family reunion – but today the Immigration Bill will be debated in the House of Lords. There are many issues within it – including factors related to destitution in the asylum system – that need to be fixed. But we hope there will be the opportunity for much needed reforms too, including expanding the rules for refugee family reunion.