April 22, 2021
My name is Sami Tola, I am a refugee originally from Eritrea. I was reunited with my wife, after 5 years of family separation, in March 2020 before the COVID-19 lockdown was introduced. But I remain separated from my daughter who is only one-year old. My wife, originally from Ethiopia, came to the UK through the refugee family reunion process, 2 years after we lodged the visa application; her initial application was refused and we had to appeal the refusal decision in a court which further delayed the reunification process. I fled Eritrea to Sudan after my father was arrested because of political reasons during the Eritrea – Ethiopia border conflict 1998 – 2002.
At the time I left Eritrea I was very young, and my mother was deceased. I do not have information about my father’s whereabouts. Before I came to the UK via Libya and the Mediterranean Sea I lived in Sudan for some years where I met and got married to my wife. At the time of leaving Sudan I was working in South Sudan, and my wife was staying in Khartoum, Sudan. Because of the conflict in South Sudan, and associated security risks and other problems in Khartoum, I left my wife without any support and continued my asylum journey to come to the UK. Life was challenging for my wife in Sudan when I left, and she had to return to Ethiopia to stay with her extended family.
The Family Reunion Process
It took 5 years of planning and visa application process to reunite with my wife, but I remain separated from my daughter. Supported by good friends and a paid private solicitor I lodged the family reunion visa application for my wife in early 2018. The application was refused and while waiting for the court hearing date, I visited my wife in Ethiopia in 2018 and our first child was conceived during the visit. Although we informed the embassy about the pregnancy in good time, they only granted the visa for my wife. The newly born baby’s application was refused twice on the grounds of not submitting the DNA and TB certificates on time. Both certificates were submitted to the embassy late because of lack of smooth communication channels.
My wife was given only 27 days to prepare to come to the UK because the visa arrived late. It was not even 30 days! For fear that she could loss the visa we had to make a difficult decision for my wife to come to the UK by leaving the baby with the grandparents. At the time my wife left Ethiopia our baby had an outstanding visa application, and we were hoping that the embassy would grant the visa and one of us could return to Ethiopia to bring the baby to UK. But the application was refused in July 2020, and again we missed the appeal deadline, and I made another visa application in Sept.
The impact of Family Separation
My asylum journey via the Sahara Desert, Libya, the Mediterranean Sea and the years I had spent in Sudan was harrowing. I have depressing memories and difficult experiences. The experience of family separation together with the difficulties I experienced during my asylum journey affected my wellbeing. Luckily, I crossed the Mediterranean Sea safely and arrived in the UK in August 2014 and was granted refugee status in Jan 2015. I was granted asylum relatively quickly compared to other refugees, but the challenges of delayed family reunion since being granted refugee has continued to impact the stability and wellbeing of my family. My wife was supported by her parents during her stay in Ethiopia and I felt bad for not been able to support her emotionally and materially. The UK Embassy granted the visa to my wife and at the same time refused the application of our daughter.
Our daughter was born in June 2019, conceived after I visited my wife in 2018 (post asylum flight). The application for our daughter was refused twice on the grounds that we did not submit DNA and TB certificates on time; the delay happened because of the complication of the family reunion process and lack of smooth communication channels between the embassy and the solicitor and my wife. Therefore, my wife because of fear of losing her visa was forced to leave our daughter in Ethiopia with the grandparents and come to the UK to join me. And after spending two months with me (March – June) she has temporarily returned to our daughter in July 2020 as the baby is too young to be left in the hands of the grandparents. I feel the family reunion process that has forced us to be in this situation is unfair and did not take into consideration the human rights of the child and the family and needs changing.
Changing the Current Family Reunion Rules
The complexity of the refugee family reunion visa application process which contributed to the refusal decisions and associated financial costs has significantly affected my family’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, and finance. My wife and I did not have the time to enjoy our reunion as our daughter remains separated from us. Currently, for example, my wife is temporarily back to Ethiopia to spend some time with our daughter whilst I engage with the solicitor to make another application. It is extremely difficult situation to find yourself in and I would like to ask the UK government to make the family reunion process to be compassionate and humane.
As a family we feel the whole family reunion system and process is not fair. Also, the 30 days visa is not enough for families to plan flight to come to the UK and resolve issues like the one we experienced. If the visa granted to my wife for example was 90 days, this period would have enabled my wife at least to stay with the baby until the visa issue was resolved.