LONDON, UK – Wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt and dirty Converse, Ahmed* looks like any other typical 15-year-old boy in London. But his story is anything but typical.
“I left Syria with my father and my older brother. It wasn’t safe – Syria, that is. My father told me Syria wasn’t safe so we left, like many others. I remember being happy because I wouldn’t have to go to school… I probably hadn’t done my Maths homework,” Ahmed told The Globe Post.
He laughed at his own joke, before going on to explain how his father had died on the way from Syria to Europe, and he was separated from his brother. He entered the U.K. alone in 2017 and has been alone ever since.
Ahmed has contacted the Red Cross family tracing service in hopes of finding his brother. Even if he is found, however, the government will not permit him to join Ahmed in the U.K.
Under the current law, the U.K. is one of only two European countries that doesn’t grant child refugees the right to be reunited with even their closest family members.
Meanwhile, on the other side of London, Ayesha* is a 54-year-old mother, who fled Iraq, after receiving death threats, for her religious activism. She has spent her last three years in the U.K. “just worrying” about her children that remain back home, in Iraq.
“It is my son I worry about more,” she told The Globe Post. “My daughter is bigger and she is married. She has her own family now. My son is left alone. I won’t be able to go back to see him on his wedding day. And, they can’t come here because, under your British law, they are adults.”
After a beat, she added, “They are adults, I know, but I can’t help it – I’m still their mother. What else do I do? They all say I’m lucky. That I’m safe living here, but I’m not living. Just breathing. I wouldn’t wish this type of luck on anyone.”
There are thousands of Ahmeds and Ayeshas living in the U.K. Many refugees don’t even make it into the country but for the lucky few that win the lottery, what does starting a new life look like?
A recent report by Oxfam and the Refugee Council found that British refugees are being left “desperate,” sometimes to the point of being suicidal, due to immigration laws preventing families from being reunited.
The current law only allows for adult refugees to apply for their spouses and dependent children, under the age of 18, to join them. All other relationships that form vital support networks are not included.
The controversy lies over the narrow, vague definition of the term ‘family,’ which creates yet another institutionalized disadvantage for refugees. Not only is the current system damaging for the mental health of the three-quarters of refugee families that are separated within the UK, but it also affects British society as “heartbroken” refugees are often unable to integrate.
The report points out that “successful integration requires work and mental energy that is often not available to refugees experiencing family separation.”
The basic logic follows that if a refugee is under the mental, emotional and psychological stress of worrying about their families, they would understandably find it difficult to learn a new language, make friends, play an active role in their community and think of the U.K. as a long-term home.
This suggests that welcoming refugees and helping them create fulfilling lives isn’t just a purely altruistic humanitarian act — it is mutually beneficial.
When questioned about her English classes, Ayesha responded, “I go but I don’t really like it. I’m not going to live here alone forever. One day, I hope to go back home, and then I won’t need English anymore.”
Ayesha’s willingness to return to danger for her family is indicative of the lengths that refugees often go to, such as saving their small benefit payments to afford legal costs, resorting to paying smugglers or even returning to conflict zones, to reunite with their loved ones.
The report coincides with the launch of the ‘Families Together’ campaign, which is backed by five leading human rights organizations: Amnesty International UK, British Red Cross, Oxfam, Refugee Council and UNHCR.
Sally Copley, Oxfam’s head of policy, programmes, and campaigns, told The Independent that “we all know how important family is when it comes to feeling safe, loved and secure… they (refugees) all too often face pointless hurdles because of a system that keeps them separated from their family.”
On Friday, there will be a House of Commons vote on Angus McNeil’s private member’s bill on refugee family reunion. It has been met with good support and is co-sponsored by MPs from all the main political parties.
The bill calls for a wider range of family members to join refugees living in the U.K., as well as the reintroduction of legal aid, to help refugees that have lost everything afford the process of reuniting with their family.
On the topic of the bill moving through Westminster, Mr. McNeil said “the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill is not about party politics — it is simply a question of humanity and compassion.”
It is now a waiting game to see if the bill will pass and, if it does, there are several more stages before it becomes law. Regardless, in the post-Brexit political climate, with an anti-immigration sentiment on the rise, this is a much-needed story of Britain taking an easy first step to lessen the injustices felt by one of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized groups.
It also counters the regressive and dangerous trend in Europe that has seen refugee rights to family reunion being restricted, such as in the case of Germany or Sweden.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Program Director, said the government “not only can but must do more to support refugees.”
Referring to the Immigration Minister’s Red Box op-ed against the bill, Mr. Valdez Symonds told The Globe Post: “It was very disappointing… but we hope the department will now rethink its position after an informed and passionate debate, and the great turnout of MPs from both sides of the House in support of the bill.”
“This issue isn’t about politics – it is about family and humanity,” he later added.
However, one can’t help but ask, is it too little too late?
To this, Ahmed responded, “I haven’t started studying politics yet so I don’t know about all of that. But I think it sounds like a good thing? I don’t know. My father always said to celebrate the small wins. We celebrated every border we crossed from home to here.”
When asked what he’s now celebrating, Ahmed smiled and said, “The next time will be when my brother comes. We’ll celebrate together. He’s a very bad dancer.”
Update: On March 16, despite the government’s opposition to the McNeil’s Bill, many Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and some Tory MPs spoke in favor of the bill at its second reading at the House of Commons. The bill needed 100 lawmakers to pass to the next stage — 129 MPs voted in support of reuniting refugee families.
*All names have been changed (for safety reasons, individuals wish to remain anonymous)