GUEST BLOG from Lucy Leon, Policy & Practice Adviser – Refugee & Migrant Children at The Children’s Society.
Ten years ago, Parliament demanded that the Home Office, in all of its immigration and asylum functions, must promote and protect the welfare of children. But a decade later some policies still fail in this duty, particularly the one that makes it almost impossible for child refugees, alone in the UK, to be reunited with their family.
The policy issue
The Government agrees that children need their parents and recognises its safeguarding duty (Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009). However its policy to prevent children from sponsoring family members to come over to the UK contradicts these principles.
The Home Office claim it’s for safeguarding reasons, to protect children from making dangerous journeys to the UK. However as last month’s Refugee Council, Amnesty and Save the Children report shows, justification for this policy is unsubstantiated. All the interviews for this report showed that these children’s journeys were made in urgent haste and to escape danger; that their choices were limited, and their prime motivation was to search for safety and that none of those interviewed had been aware of the family reunion policies of different countries when they were making their journeys.
But what about the lone children in the UK, left heart-broken because they can’t hug their mum or take care of their baby sister. Most of them go to sleep at night not knowing if their family is still alive.
It’s disingenuous to argue for this policy on safeguarding grounds when the mounting evidence, including last month’s Refugee Council, Amnesty, and Save the Children report, shows how damaging it is for children in the UK and the devastating effect it has their lives, wellbeing and mental health.
Preventing dangerous journeys
Despite its stated intention, anecdotal experience from our services suggests this policy may potentially encourage families including children, and even unaccompanied children, to make dangerous journeys to the UK.
Over the last year we have worked with several young people whose unaccompanied younger siblings were stranded outside of their home countries, with no safe legal routes to family reunion and forced into perilous journeys to safety. The UK-based siblings continue to be traumatised by what is happening to their loved ones and will not be at peace until they know their siblings are safe. We’re extremely concerned that young people in similar situations will have no other option but to make the dangerous journey to the UK alone.
A central issue for young people is loss
In 2018, of the 1,327 unaccompanied children  who received an initial decision while they were still under the age of18, 815 children – around 61% – were granted refugee status or humanitarian protection meaning that the government recognised their need for international protection from persecution and human rights abuses. These children will have been through a myriad of experiences, some fleeing war, some will have witnessed parents and other loved ones being harmed or killed and some will simply never know what has happened to family members. In other cases, young refugees may have contact with family, but cannot go home because it’s not safe.
Whatever the background, we know a lack of a familial support network can have a profound effect on their mental health, well-being and sense of identity. Our own Distress Signals research  examined the mental health needs of unaccompanied young people. We found that separation from family members was a key source of anxiety, stress and heartache for these young people and can leave young refugees struggling for years after arrival in the UK.
Our experience also shows for those few that are still in contact with family members, the sense of loss, guilt and desperation that they feel in not being able to be reunited is tremendous and leads some to self-harm or suicidal thoughts. This is particularly challenging when they know their family members are still in danger.
Understanding children’s best interests
The UK’s care system is not without its problems and currently too many children are placed too far away from their homes, with disastrous consequences . Nevertheless, at its core the care system understands that family relationships are important to children. There are many children in care who are desperate to be with their parents and siblings but for a range of reasons it is not safe for them to do so. However, they can maintain some contact with parents and siblings, even if they can’t live together, which is crucial for their well-being and best interests.
To really put into practice the duty enshrined in law ten years ago, the Home Office needs to understand this as well: children need to be safe, they need to be with whatever family they have left and they need to be listened to. These are all key aspects of their best interests.
This anti-family reunion policy – which treats children in a less favourable way than adults– has damaging consequences for the children that need our protection and for whom the Secretary of State has a clear responsibility to protect.