UK’s strict refugee visa rules traps children in war zones: Experts

Children are being trapped in war zones due to “impossible” bureaucratic requirements imposed on one of the few legal asylum routes, according to a charity’s findings. The government promotes family reunion processes to help refugees reunite with loved ones in Britain safely. However, a new report by Ramfel, a charity supporting vulnerable migrants, claims the scheme is “not fit for purpose,” leaving applicants abandoned and at risk of trafficking or death.

Ramfel reported that when conflict erupted in Sudan became war zones in April 2023, they were supporting 14 people who qualified for the UK scheme. Over a year later, eight remain trapped, facing extreme risks. Several are children who fled Eritrea, a repressive dictatorship with forced conscription. Two boys saw a loved one killed during a raid in Sudan. Some teenagers have now fled Sudan through irregular routes, with one detained in Libya and another trafficked to South Sudan and raped.

Only two of the children from Sudan have arrived in the UK. Despite closing its visa application center in Khartoum, the government has not waived requirements for applicants to provide fingerprints and biometric information in person. A Home Office letter stated, “Visa Application Centres are open and operating in neighbouring countries,” but advised that travel across Sudan is conducted at personal risk.

An Eritrean refugee in the UK, Yusef, shared his struggle to bring his two young brothers, aged 17 and 14, to join him. After their parents’ deaths, they fled alone to Sudan, where they lived in a refugee camp until the conflict began. Yusef applied for family reunion, but the Home Office cited the lack of a tuberculosis testing facility and a visa center in Sudan as reasons for refusal. His brothers fled to Egypt, living irregularly and fearing arrest and deportation.

Yusef, who came to the UK as a teenager in 2018 and now has refugee status, questioned why his brothers could not fly to Britain from Sudan. The Home Office did not consider bypassing biometric enrolment for the children in October last year, and Ramfel is now trying to register them in Cairo. Yusef vowed to continue his efforts, saying, “I’m the only person they have, I am the only one that can help them.”

Ramfel called the Sudan war an example of the “abject failure” of the family reunion process, primarily for children and spouses of UK residents, with siblings and other close relatives eligible only under a more restricted scheme. The charity argues that this situation forces more refugees onto dangerous irregular routes, including small boat crossings over the English Channel, which are at a record high.

Nick Beales, head of campaigning at Ramfel, stated, “The UK’s family reunion system is not fit for purpose and this report shows that it does not act as an effective safe route for refugees seeking to come to the UK. For people in places such as Sudan and Gaza, they are prevented from even applying for family reunion due to the government’s inflexible and unreasonable insistence on them attending non-existent visa application centres. This leaves those in conflict zones, including unaccompanied children, with no choice but to take dangerous journeys in search of family reunification.”

Ramfel urged the next government to create a process allowing those with loved ones in the UK to swiftly and safely secure visas for legal travel to Britain. Home Office figures show that 9,764 refugees were granted family reunion visas in 2023, half of whom were children. The department stated that fingerprints and facial images are necessary for identity and suitability checks on foreign nationals subject to immigration control, and people unable to travel to visa application centers “can contact us to explain their circumstances.”

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