The UK Government has been urged to do more to reunite unaccompanied refugee children in Europe with their families in the UK. The call came from Bilal, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee.
The Syrian teenager joined forces with Unicef UK and Citizens UK to call on the Government to redouble efforts to help lone children, thousands of whom are stranded, following months in dangerous camps across Europe. Many of these refugee children have a legal right to be with their families who are waiting for them in the UK.
Bilal from Daraa, in southern Syria, said: “I want to help refugee children in Europe because they are constantly exposed to and subject to danger, humiliation and abuse. I have seen many of them in Calais. They are vulnerable and in desperate need of safety and protection. I hope the Government acts soon and helps them.”
Conflict in his homeland forced Bilal to flee his home without his parents, who had to stay in Syria to care for his elderly grandparents.
The young refugee was finally reunited with his older brother in the UK at the end of March, after travelling for more than a year from Syria.
Unicef UK is calling on the UK Government to take urgent action to reunite refugee children like Bilal with their families in the UK, by speeding up existing family reunion procedures, sending immigration officials to Europe to process cases swiftly, and widening existing laws to allow children to be reunited with extended family.
“The Government has said that unaccompanied children should be brought to the UK if they have family here, yet these children’s cases are moving far too slowly,” Unicef UK Deputy Executive Director Lily Caprani said. “It’s time for the Government to fulfil its commitments now, and get these children to their families. We know that right now there are at least 157 refugee children in Calais who should be living safely with their family in the UK.”
“The children in Calais are the nearest and most visible cases of children who are fleeing conflict and making dangerous journeys in search of safety, yet have a legal right to live in safety with their families in the UK. By taking immediate action for these 157 children, the Government can take a crucial first step to show it is serious about its recent commitments to refugee children,” Caprani added.
Rabbi Janet Darley of the South London Liberal Synagogue, spokesperson for Citizens UK, said: “While we are delighted that a few unaccompanied children in Calais are finally being rightfully reunited with their UK-based families, each stage of the process is still taking far too long. At the current rate, it will take a year to reunite all the children in Calais with their families in the UK. Children’s lives are being put at risk, and we know of at least two boys who have died while trying to reunite with their families in the UK. The Government must speed up this reunification process to prevent further tragic deaths.”
Unicef UK and Citizens UK pointed out that under existing UK immigration rules about refugee family reunion, children can be reunited with parents, but not extended family members.
These rules fail to recognise that after years of conflict, many of these children have been orphaned – but they may have grandparents, aunts and uncles, or adult brothers and sisters in the UK who could care for them.
By widening the rules, the UK can ensure children living in conflict regions can be reunited with their families safely and legally, rather than having to risk their lives on dangerous journeys through Europe to reach their families.