April 22, 2021
I came to the UK as an asylum seeker, was granted refugee status in 2016, and reunited with my family in 2018, four years after I fled Eritrea. I fled Eritrea in 2014 because of political problems in the country. At the time, I was in the military service. For fear of my safety and security, I was forced to leave my family in our village without any support. My wife was living with my extended family and had the responsibility of supporting our children. My asylum journey from Eritrea to the UK was extremely challenging. I first travelled from Eritrea to Sudan, and through the Sahara Desert, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea, before finally arriving in the UK in July 2016. The journey was torturous and extremely difficult. For example, whilst crossing the Sahara Desert the car we were traveling in was involved in an accident and some of my colleagues died. At the time, I thought of my family and if I would ever be able to see my children again.
I was lucky. I crossed the Mediterranean Sea safely, entered the UK in July 2016, and in December of the same year – relatively quickly compared to other asylum seekers – I was granted refugee status with a right to sponsor my family. But I had no money to immediately start the reunification process. I was only receiving state benefits, and I had to find a job to support my family and save money to pay for their travel costs to Ethiopia, and maintenance during their stay in Ethiopia whilst waiting to receive a family reunion visa. Also, I had no money to pay for a solicitor. I was fortunate in that I managed to get agency work and was able to support my family financially. In November 2017 I approached a pro-bono solicitor that worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau in Leeds who agreed to help me make the reunification application.
The Family Reunion Process
I was reunited with my family after 4 years of family separation. The family reunification process was extremely difficult and had increased the vulnerability of my family. In early 2017 my wife, with our young children, illegally crossed from Eritrea into Ethiopia. The countries were at war at the time and the border area was dangerous. She had to travel alone with the children at night. As there was no other safe route, they had no other choice but to take this incredibly risky journey. After a three month stay in the refugee camps, they paid money to a middleman working in the camp to help them move to the capital city of Ethiopia – Addis Ababa. My family made this decision as it was impossible to communicate with the UK Embassy regarding the family reunion application process from the refugee camp.
The move to Addis Ababa exposed my family to more dangers and increased security risks. At the time, in 2018, there was political instability in Ethiopia which threatened the safety of my family. The living costs in Addis Ababa were also high. My wife did not speak the local language, she had no relatives for support, and she experienced problems getting the refugee ID card from the Ethiopian refugee agency in Addis Ababa. The lack of the ID papers in turn prevented my solicitor in the UK from making the visa application. The experience of my family in the refugee camps in Northern Ethiopia was extremely bad. Even when my wife and children moved to Addis Ababa (the capital city) they experienced a multitude of problems.
These problems hindered the visa application process and increased the vulnerability of my family. For weeks my wife visited the office without success, and therefore she was forced to pay £300 (10,000 local Ethiopian Birr) to a middleman to help process the issuance of the ID papers. We lodged the family reunion application in November 2017. The process of doing the DNA test was not easy; my wife finally managed to take the test after two appointment cancellations. Each time her appointment was cancelled, she had to wait another month to get a new appointment. The TB test process was relatively easy, however I had to pay money for my family to do these tests which brought additional financial pressure.
My family had to wait for about 9 months in Addis Ababa. Living expenses and rent was expensive. Also, the house and area in which my family were staying was not secure; my wife was living in constant fear and she had extreme worries about the safety of our children. There were times at night when there would be people knocking on the door, or the house would flood. In December 2018 my family was granted 30 days visas to come to the UK. This decision brought great relief in our life. I immediately purchased their flight tickets to come to the UK. However, I understand from the experiences of other refugees that the 30 days visa is not always enough time for people to prepare.
Changing the Current Family Reunion Rules
I feel that the reunification process increased the vulnerability of my family. First, they were forced to take a highly risky journey to cross from Eritrea into Ethiopia, and their safety was further threatened when they arrived in Addis Ababa. I call on the UK government to introduce a better family reunification process that protects the safety and security of children and vulnerable mothers.