‘All I think of is my brother’: UK refugee family reunions disrupted by Covid-19

By Harriet Grant

After seven months of waiting, Ahmed* had everything ready for his younger brother. Finally, 18-year-old Wahid was due to arrive from the Greek island of Samos under family reunion laws.

But on 19 March, as Covid-19 took hold across Europe, the Greek authorities called to tell him the transfer had been cancelled because of the growing restrictions on flights. Greece had suspended direct flights to the UK but indirect routes are still available.

The UN refugee agency told the Guardian that most European countries have suspended transfers. According to charity Safe Passage, Greek authorities have stopped 52 family reunion transfers to the UK alone. The charity say they are concerned that the numbers of cancelled reunions could stretch into the hundreds.

“It was so disappointing,” Ahmed said. “We had everything planned, I had rented a room for him here, he was so excited to finally be joining me.”

The Home Office has said it is the responsibility of the sending country to organise the transfer. In a statement, the Home Office said: “The Home Office is continuing to process Dublin cases, including children, as far as the current restrictions in place across Europe permit. Once accepted, the arrangements to complete a transfer are the responsibility of the sending state. We continue to receive transfers, including of children, into the UK under the Dublin III regulation and remain committed to meeting our obligations.”

But lawyers and Safe Passage say the Home Office does have an obligation to help make the transfers happen.

Anastasia Solopova, at Wilson Solicitors, is working to help a 15-year-old Kuwaiti boy stranded in Samos despite having permission to join his refugee brother in the UK. “There are obligations on both the UK and the state in which the child is located to ensure that the transfer takes place as quickly as possible”, she said. “Importantly, the Home Office must have the child’s best interests as a primary consideration in all procedures under the Dublin regulation.

“The Home Office must act urgently while indirect flights are still available. We have asked the Home Office co-operate with the Greek authorities to transfer my client to the UK. Otherwise my client, an unaccompanied and extremely vulnerable child, may be stranded in the dangerous conditions of the Samos reception identification centre for months on end.”

The process of family reunion is a lengthy one, taking up to a year to arrange, while minors waiting for transfer often live in uncertain and difficult conditions.

The Guardian also spoke to Ibrahim, originally from Afghanistan, who spent months going through the family reunion process. He is worried his brother won’t be protected from Covid-19 in France, where he has no support.

“We went through a long process to prove he is my brother,” he said. “Finally, after 10 months, on 6 March we were told he can come. Now nobody can travel. We lost all our family, our mum, sister, brother and he is just 15. He has no friends or family in France so day by day all I think about is my brother and he worries the same.”

Safe Passage director Beth Gardiner-Smith said the Home Office needs to take a proactive role in bringing the young people to be safe with their families.

She said: “We all appreciate that the government is under enormous pressure but we are asking for some creative thinking.

“The Home Office could include these young people in their plans to use charter flights to rescue British people who are stranded in Europe. In 2015 when the jungle camp in Calais was demolished, the UK government took matters into their own hands. There was a situation where 1,000 children were going to be dispersed and rather than wait for French action they decided to be proactive and bring the children to the UK.”

A spokesperson for UNHCR told the Guardian that family reunion transfers should continue. “While Dublin transfers are suspended by most if not all EU countries, UNHCR is advocating to maintain transfers for family reunion purposes especially for unaccompanied children in view of their particular vulnerability.”

Ahmed said: “I am prepared to pay for Wahid’s flight, but the Greek authorities say I can’t do that. I need the UK Home Office to help me make this happen.”

He is terrified that his brother will end up on the streets during a strict lockdown.“I have been paying for a room for him but the landlord says he can only stay in his place until 12 April. Refugees on Samos don’t even have tents, he will have to go and sleep in the wood.”

“We don’t know how long this lockdown will last and I don’t know if airports will close tomorrow or next week. I just want my brother to be safe with me, that is the only way I know he will be safe.”

*Some names have been changed