“We feel so isolated.”
That’s what one refugee, Royar told me about his experience of living in the UK when I caught up with him. At the time we were speaking, we could hear Lord Dubs in the background explaining his efforts in the Lords to block the changes the Withdrawal Agreement makes to the law on family reunion.
The sheer sense of grief in his voice was my first introduction to one of our country’s most inhumane immigration laws. Amid mounting tensions in the region and with the outbreak of war, Royar (not his real name) was forced to flee Lebanon with his parents and in 2017 sought refuge in the UK. I can remember the day even now, when they arrived with nothing more than a few suitcases and the clothes on their backs, with tragic tales from the life they left behind.
But like many others fleeing conflict, Royar’s plight has been exacerbated by separation from his family. He left behind two brothers; brothers that he loves and depends on. This agonising separation has inflicted immeasurably pain upon a family already grief-stricken by the horrors of war.
“How can we start a new life when my family has been torn apart?”
“How can we start a new life when my family has been torn apart?” Those words rang out as I read through the letter that Royar and his parents had been dreading. After nearly six months of anxiously waiting for an update on his brothers, he received the news that in application for what he thought was family reunification through the United Nations Refugees Council, his case had been brought to a halt: “Family reunification applications have to be made through the Home Office,” it read.
Royar and his parents were visibly distressed by this news: “We are so confused, we thought that we could apply through the UN. We just want our family to be with us.”
Although family connections in a resettlement country, such as the UK, will be taken into account by the United Nations, this does not guarantee resettlement as, ultimately, the Home Office has the final say. But, as Conservative MPs have shown when they recently defeated a bid to force Boris Johnson to act to reunite unaccompanied child refugees, the UK’s ever-restrictive approach to immigration means the likelihood of Royar being reunited with his brothers is unlikely.
While international law recognises that families are entitled to protection in relation to family members, it is left to individual states to define what is meant by ‘family’. In the UK, the government’s definition of family for the purposes of immigration is founded on an understanding of the ‘nuclear family’, which excludes grandparents, adult siblings and children aged 18 and over.
Opportunities for refugees to bring family members to live with them in the UK have been further impeded by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which made swingeing cuts to legal aid in England and Wales from April 2013. Advice and representation relating to refugee family reunion were taken out of the scope of legal aid, because the government considered it a ‘straightforward immigration matter’ that did not warrant the need for specialist legal advice.
While in 2016, the Home Office published a revised version of its family policy, giving greater clarity on when compassionate circumstances may apply, this continues to depend on the discretion of the decision maker. And From January to September 2017, only 49 visas were issued outside the immigration rules in refugee family reunion cases. Indeed, according to the Scottish Refugee Council, there has been no government focus on family reunion as a specific issue apart from general settlement.
When I explained the law to Royar, he told me: “My parents say they feel they will never see their sons again”. “We’re just so stuck and don’t know what to do. We thought procedures for family reunions were much more simpler.” Despite the turmoil of learning that he is still no further forward in reuniting with his brothers, I encouraged him to keep trying.
Trapped in Lebanon
After many months, outraged by the insurmountable challenges that no refugee should be forced to endure when simply trying to escape conflict, I began helping Royar and his parents in their efforts to bring back the rest of the family.
From helping to fill out various documents, to offering what advice I could, we eventually managed to work together to submit their application last year. But as I write this story, regardless of the fact that their family needs them, Royar’s brothers still remain trapped in Lebanon. “One of my brothers is very ill”, he tells me, “he’s got a problem with his heart and can’t get proper treatment.”
The process of applying for family reunion is complicated, involving: collation of documents; sourcing information on how the application is to be made in a particular country; correspondence and communication with a Visa Application Centre or sometimes British mission; submitting an on-line or paper application and being called for interview, the interview and decision process.
To date, Royar has had no professional support. He was told that if he paid £5000 in fees, he would have a “legal expert” prepare his family’s application, although this was with no guarantee of success. “But there is no way we can afford to pay this,” he tells me.
Psychological and physical trauma
Refugees seek relatives – it is the natural human safety strategy. Indeed, families belong together and to be separated from loved ones, as I have learnt with Royar, is a source of immense psychological and physical trauma. That was borne out during one frightening occasion when Royar’s father, Ahbid, pleaded with me to come to their home.
Royar’s mother lay on the floor, suffering some sort of attack. Her condition was deteriorating. Unable to overcome a language barrier, I phoned for an ambulance grasping her hand. I could sense a fearful expression on her face; an expression that only a parent longing for the presence of her children could display.
Having witnessed Royar’s predicament, one gets a measure of just how inhumane our asylum laws really are. And having successfully stripped our right to free movement in its latest bid to isolate us further, it would appear this government has no intention of addressing the dehumanising effects of the laws that govern refugees.
But instead of lauding fantasies of sovereignty and the protection of borders, the government must pose itself this question: if the country is a truly tolerant one, how are we helping refugees escape the horrors of conflict when at the same time we are subjecting them to the horrors of separation?