April 22, 2021
I am originally from Syria and came to the UK with my children through the refugee family reunion route in 2018, in order to join my husband who was then in Scotland as a refugee. Because of the conflict, my family fled Syria in 2012. I immigrated together with my mother, younger sister, husband and our two children to Egypt. My youngest child was a baby – only three months old at the time. At the time, we were the last people able to take a flight from Syria to Egypt. The Egyptian authorities introduced a ban on Syrians entering the country after our flight. After 3 years stay with us in Egypt my husband continued his asylum journey in search of a safe and secure place for his family and entered the UK to claim asylum in 2015.
In Egypt we lived in constant fear; there were times where thieves broke into our house, and some people tried to kidnap my son. At the time he was very young. We increasingly felt insecure both at home and in the streets. Also, the living cost in Egypt was expensive. Our vulnerability further increased when my husband left Egypt in search of a safe country for his family and after the expiry of the long awaited 30-days family reunion visa granted to us in 2018. We were asked to collect the visa from the UK Embassy one day before the expiry date. This meant that we did not have enough time to get an exit visa. We re-applied for the family reunion visa; however, this took 3 more months to be processed.
The Impact of Family Separation
In Egypt life was expensive and I had to work to earn living for the family. We were living in rented accommodation, which felt very insecure. The area we lived in was very crowded, and we experienced incidents of robbery. My mother would look after the children while I was at work.
My mother is over 60 years old, we fled Syria and lived together for 6 years in Egypt. My mother would look after the children while I was at work. I worked two part-time jobs; in the absence of their father and a mother, who was mostly away from home due to work and to earn a living, for my children my mother was everything for them – she is their mother and we are a family. The current UK law does not treat elderly parents like my mother as a member of the family unit and hence when my husband got his refugee status, we were forced to start the family reunification application process without my mother. This was really really difficult and hard decision, but we had no other option.
I had difficult time in Egypt, but I feel that I was lucky in that at least I was able to work and pay the bills. I knew many migrant families headed by single mothers who could not work and experienced financial difficulties and other insecurities. It took my husband about three years to be granted refugee status in the UK. During this period he was an asylum seeker, with no papers, no income, and no right to work.
Our experience of family separation was terrible. Yet, we were hopeful that one day we would be reunited as a family. My husband tells me he started planning and gathering relevant documents to help with the family reunification process before he was even given permission to stay in the UK. Fortunately, he was granted refugee status in 2017 with the right to sponsor his family. My experience is that places like Cairo are insecure and increase the vulnerability of migrant families like ours. After my son’s kidnapping incident, my family and I felt as though we were often being followed by robbers, and we experienced constant fear walking in the streets – as well as at home.
The Family Reunion Process
Our family reunion process was complex and long. We reunited with my husband after three year of family separation – though we feel that part of our family is still in Egypt. My children see my mother and sister as motherly figures; they have played a key role in my children’s lives. We started planning for family reunion after my husband’s safe arrival in the UK. In 2017, supported by a solicitor and the Red Cross refugee support service in Glasgow, he submitted the application. Unlike in England there is legal aid in Scotland, and so my husband was lucky as he was able get the financial support to cover the solicitor’s fee. I know in England there is no legal aid for refugee family reunion. I my case we did not do the DNA and TB tests.
After many years of waiting, in 2018 the children and I were granted 30-days visas – but the visa reached our hands only one day before the expiry date. I think this happened because of the complexity of the system; our application and the paperwork moved between the UK Embassies (visa processing centres) in Egypt and Jordan. It was impossible to get an exit visa and purchase tickets for a flight within one day. The visa expired. We were forced to re-apply for a visa which took another 3 months to be processed.
Changing the Current Family Reunion Rules
From my experience, obtaining an exit visa in Egypt is extremely difficult and costly. It involved paying a middleman to help in the process, as well as getting a paper about our asylum/refugee status from the UNHCR office in Egypt. The 30-days visa therefore does not provide adequate time for refugee families, like mine, to do all the preparation needed – including obtaining exit visas and purchasing flight tickets.
My husband came to the UK as an asylum seeker in 2015 and was granted asylum protection after two-and-half years of waiting. The refugee status he had allowed him to sponsor his children and wife only. This meant I had to be separated from my family – my elderly mother in her 60s, and my younger sister who is now 24 years old. We lived together as a family before fleeing Syria because of the conflict, then for 6 years we lived together as migrants in Egypt.
Although I am grateful that I was able to reunite with my husband, the effects of the separation from my other family members has been challenging and unbearable. I call on the UK government to change the refugee family reunion rules, so that refugees can live together with their children and siblings and partners. I also urge the UK government to change the 30-days family reunion visas so that people have enough time to prepare to join their sponsor in the UK.
Concerns with the New Plan for Immigration
My husband entered the UK by boat as there was no safer route for him to come to the UK to claim asylum. At the time I was with my children in Egypt. He sponsored us on the Family Reunion visa to join him in the UK when he was granted refugee status. Only a few and very lucky people enter the UK regularly by visa. Most refugees risk their lives to enter the UK by dangerous routes. The new Home Office Immigration proposal intends to penalise all refugees who enter the country by irregular routes – e.g. by boat, lorry or other. This policy will not stop people fleeing persecution from entering the UK. The reason for this is that there are no safer and legal routes available.
The proposed Temporary Protection visa will prevent refugees from reuniting with their loved ones. It will discourage refugees’ integration and push many more asylum seekers and refugees into destitution and increase mental health problems. All of these factors in turn will increase the pressure on the country’s public services. The Home Office’s refugee resettlement programme cannot solve the problem of refugee’s protection needs. Many Syrians in the refugee camps have not benefited from the resettlement programme.
The government should therefore remove the Temporary Protection visa and improve the restrictive Immigration policy and expand the family reunion rules based on the recommendations of the Families Together coalition.