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20 November 2017updated 04 Sep 2021 3:29pm

We must change cruel laws that keep refugee children from their families in Britain

Even one vulnerable child dying in the sea or being sold into slavery is too many.

By George Howarth

Today is World Children’s Day, marking the anniversary of the UN General Assembly adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the world’s promise to uphold children’s rights regardless of their race, religion, ability or any other status.

That’s why today more than 800 schools are campaigning with Unicef to change the law around refugee family reunion. Under current rules, most children who find themselves alone and who have family in the UK who are not their parents can only reach them safely and legally once they are in Europe. This pushes children already fleeing danger into the hands of criminals in a desperate attempt to reach the safety of adult siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents in the UK.

Last year our compassion saw 700 of these children reunited with family in Britain under the European Union Dublin rule. But with this rule being reliant on an EU agreement, Brexit is likely to see the UK leave the system all together, denying children of a rare, lifesaving legal route to family waiting for them in the UK.

We needn’t settle for such a devastating outcome for children. This is our time to show them, and our global partners, that the UK’s compassion will not only withstand but be strengthened as we redefine our position in the world.

This is why Unicef UK is pushing the Home Office to fix our own refugee family reunion laws, which currently don’t recognise grandparents, elder siblings, uncles or aunts as family – only parents. Most sensible people would recognise a big sister as close family, especially if it meant getting a child out of the hands of smugglers and traffickers who exploit them in unimaginable ways as they attempt to flee war, poverty and destruction.

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Most would also acknowledge that the realities these children are fleeing mean they are likely to no longer have parents at all, or have lost them along the way. Yet, sadly, our law fails to reflect this.   

The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, did acknowledge this problem when pushed in parliament last week. He even said that he hopes the British tradition of tolerance and generosity grows after we leave the EU. And he has a point – if the government did act and fix our own rules it would end the need for these children to make dangerous and often deadly journeys into Europe, as they do under the current system.

It’s a welcome ambition but, right now, the government has made no commitment, and the Brexit bill currently before parliament makes no mention of the problem. A child’s life is worth more than posturing, and we urgently need the rhetoric to be converted to action.

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Now is time to ensure the British system recognises family for what it is – uncles, aunts, grandparents and big brothers and sisters at the very least. Doing so would mean these children fleeing war, violence and persecution who have lost everything can reach loved ones safely, legally and far more quickly, and be given the chance to have a childhood. It would not only protect lives but be a powerful mark of Britain’s compassion and ambition to stand tall on the world stage.

Today, we’ll be taking Unicef’s call to Amber Rudd at Home Office questions, urging her to stand by the UK’s moral and legal commitment to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable children. Even one child dying in the sea or being sold into slavery is one too many, and far from what we, as a country, have signed up for under international law. We can, and must, do better. 

Angela Crawley is the SNP MP for Lanark and Hamilton East, George Howarth is the Labour MP for Knowsley, and Mohammad Yasin is the Labour MP for Bedford