“Family is everything. Family is life. They give you inspiration. I haven’t seen my family for nearly three years now. Being without your family, it is like you have a body without a soul.”

Habib, 17, from Sudan 

No child should have to face being alone and away from everything they know. But this is the last option left for children who seek asylum in the UK. Despite the Home Office stating they do in fact provide safe legal routes, their policy on family reunion is actively damaging children’s chances to rebuild their life, and potentially their welfare under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Currently, UK immigration policy states only adults can sponsor their family members to join them, but unaccompanied children cannot, even for their closest blood relatives. The UK is the only EU country that refuses them this right, despite the fact they have been recognised legally as refugees and therefore under threat of persecution if they returned to the country they came from. 

Amnesty International and 50 other organisations have been campaigning for change to give children the right to sponsor family members to join them, to combat the negative effects of separation. Their Without my Family report is only the latest in their campaigning attempts over the last three years against these immigration policies. 

The UK Home Office reported 7,482 family reunion visas were issued to partners and children of those previously granted asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK last year, 37% more than the previous year. The high fees for these visas are far beyond almost every family, take years to save for and are not available to children under 18. 

The Immigration Act or EU Withdrawal Bill passed into law on November 11th, without the Lord Dubs amendment that sought to explicitly uphold protection for unaccompanied child refugees and family reunification. Children’s wellbeing and their ability to rebuild their lives now rests on the EU and UK negotiations; the government stated it is seeking a new arrangement on this particular issue. Once free movement ends after the 31st December, the protection afforded currently under the Dublin III regulations for family reunion will no longer apply. 

This comes as two children lost their lives trying to cross the Channel to seek safety just a week earlier. As all other routes are closed, more and more people will continue to make this perilous journey in small boats in desperation. Despite this, the government continues to criminalise what is a blatant last resort to reach safety. People send children ahead to try and reach safety alone, or they could have lost their family members along the way.

Finally arriving in the UK does not guarantee the end to their journey or stability. 

Having fled conflict and potentially experiencing much trauma at home and on their journey, some children have been held in Kent Intake Unit for over 24 hours with no access to beds. Children’s first experiences prioritise their immigration status, rather than a duty of care for their welfare.

1,072 unaccompanied children were accepted into the UK in 2018 (around 46% of all applicants), and 71 under Humanitarian Protection.  This is around 7% of the unaccompanied children who applied for asylum in EU countries and a tiny fraction of children seeking refuge overall. The actual number of unaccompanied children who have arrived in the UK this year is not available. The Kent Refugee Action Network has stated this is "deliberate" to avoid a "public outcry" over not only the numbers of children, but the treatment they face. 

The vast majority of unaccompanied children have fled countries such as Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan, from witnessing conflict and violence, FGM and human rights violations such as enforced military conscription. For many children, fleeing their country was an absolute last resort. Evidence shows child refugees are more vulnerable to psychological distress than non-refugee children. Habib described the continuous nature of the effect of his family’s absence "something burning from inside you that you cannot switch off. It is deep, a deep impact." Ordinary everyday occurrences of family life have the potential to be a "key part of psychological recovery" that these children consistently miss out on. Their considerable experience of trauma is only made worse by prolonged separation and uncertainty.

The BBC reported last year that over 1,400 children had waited more than five years for a decision on their asylum claim after which they receive five years of leave before applying for indefinite leave to remain. The majority will become "looked after children", and moved to care homes under the statutory duty of a local authority. Kent Council has taken in over 400 unaccompanied children, and has been struggling to cope without further support from the government for months. 

However care orders, where courts order local councils to take on care arrangements, are rare so no one takes formal parental responsibility of the unaccompanied child. Children in England and Wales specifically do not have a right to a legal guardian

The government justifies their policy denying reunion by saying providing these rights to children would give "unscrupulous gangs incentives to send children on dangerous journeys alone". In fact, by punishing them through a brutal and hostile system, these children are at greater risk of slipping through the cracks and being exposed to exploitation and abuse. Amnesty’s report attested to children exposed to significant harm through criminal exploitation and abuse, in a desperate effort to belong or find connection through ultimately harmful relationships. These risks can close off opportunities for reaching their potential and living a fulfilled meaningful life as they grow up. 

Research released by Coram Children’s Legal Centre in 2019 estimated at 831 foreign national young people in the youth secure estate including secure children’s homes. These of course are not all unaccompanied children. Immigration rules are very complex to navigate, for professionals let alone for children. Care workers may not have taken steps to acquire them citizenship even if they could have applied. If children face criminal proceedings, they could get picked up by the Home Office and face detention or removal proceedings upon release. Victims of trafficking, often correlating with those who haven’t known to lodge an asylum claim, can face criminal proceedings and potentially deportation. 

Many children interviewed talked of professionals such as social workers and foster carers played a crucial role in increasing the 'belonging' children felt. There are many cases of incredible professionals and foster carers working in the sector. However, hostile environment policies continue to place undue pressures on staff and local authorities to undertake immigration enforcement measures rather than allowing them to focus on children’s welfare. 

The disastrous fire that destroyed the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, and action by police to destroy temporary living arrangements of asylum seekers stuck in Calais, showed the importance of reaching out the hand of compassion to unaccompanied young people. Displaced children and young people are not safe in these situations, and not ensuring their rights to reunion leaves them ever more precarious.

Rather than allow separation to compound trauma, formalising the right to family reunion for children could transform their lives. Social workers should also be supported with training to best support children's specific welfare needs. Protection for not just the child they are, but also to become the person they can be is an absolute necessity.

You can support the campaign to reunite asylum seeking children and their families at Families Together.

Safe Passage also campaigns to bring about safe, legal routes for children to find sanctuary in the UK. 

Rachel Trafford is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors all over the UK that work with individuals, businesses and on behalf of those seeking asylum.