10 December 2020

This Human Rights Day, Niamh Punton from Leeds STAR has written about the importance of family to all of us, and why it is essential to reform refugee family reunion laws. If you’d like to find out more about the Families Together campaign click here and to add your name to the Families Together open letter click here.

Family reunion for some this Christmas, but not for all…

With Christmas fast-approaching, students are beginning to leave university and return home for the festive season. After initial fears over whether going home for Christmas would be possible, the Government has worked with universities across the UK to establish mass testing capacity – enabling thousands of students to safely reunite with their families.

For Rachel, a final year student at the University of Leeds, the opportunity to be reunited couldn’t come soon enough: “Not seeing family makes you feel like you’re out of touch with what is happening in their lives”.

21-year-old Catherine, who is studying at the University of Exeter and has been unable to return home since January, has found separation tough: “I’ve been struggling emotionally…I miss being able to hug my mum”. However, the chance to safely return home for Christmas has brought her a sense of hope: “Knowing that I will be in the comfort of my home and with my family brings tears to my eyes”.

Natalia has been living in Canterbury while she completes her studies at the University for the Creative Arts and is looking forward to being reunited with family: “I’m so excited to go home for Christmas, it is what has been getting me through lockdown! I’m looking forward to having dinner with my family and playing board games together”.

Coronavirus has made us all acutely aware of how painful it is to be separated from our loved ones. But we know this separation is temporary. Sadly, this is not the case for everybody. For some young people in the UK, being kept apart from the parents they so desperately need is an everyday reality – pandemic or not.

Merhawi* arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied child refugee two years ago, having fled forced conscription in Eritrea aged 14. It took him two years to reach safety in the UK, during which time he had no contact with his family. This separation has been unbearable. Under current UK law, unlike adult refugees, child refugees such as Merhawi are unable to sponsor their family to join them in the UK. Whilst Merhawi is grateful for the support of social services, he says: “They cannot replace the love I could get from my family”.

Salim*, a 17-year-old refugee echoes this sentiment: “When you’re not able to experience the love of your family…it’s like 90% of you is missing”.

The joy that students feel as they reunite with their families over the coming weeks is something that Merhawi and Salim long for, but something that current UK family reunion rules will not allow.

Helen*, a mother of six from Cameroon, is another refugee who has had to deal with the pain of family separation due to these restrictive rules. Having arrived in the UK alone in 2015, it took Helen almost a year to be reunited with three of her children as she was unable to access legal aid support.

Their reunion “was an unforgettable moment, almost like a dream”, she says. However, the happiness that Helen felt was tinged with sadness. Due to restrictive family reunion rules she was unable to sponsor her elderly mother and other three children who were over the age of 18 to join her in the UK. For Helen: “a family is a family in its entirety, and it should not be split up…my happiness is not complete because my family remains divided”.

Whilst the Government has mobilised to allow students to return home for the festive period, for many refugees there will be no family reunion this Christmas or beyond. In relaxing coronavirus restrictions for Christmas and supporting the safe return of students to their families, the Government has seemingly recognised the importance of family to our mental health and wellbeing. However, this is not reflected in current family reunion laws. Child refugees lack the right to sponsor parents to join them in the UK, and restrictive definitions of family mean many adult refugees remain separated. For those who are eligible for family reunion, a lack of legal aid can prolong periods of separation.

While many of us reunite – albeit briefly – with our families this Christmas, it is important to remember that this is not an option for others. Many refugee families remain separated indefinitely and will continue to do so until family reunion rules are reformed.

Visit the Families Together website for more info.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Niamh Punton is part of the STAR student action group at University of Leeds

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