The Home Office has said it will not allow a group of stranded refugee children to join their families in the UK if their cases do not make it through the Greek asylum system by 31 December when the EU family reunification programme comes to an end.
Around 20 children who are eligible to join their relatives in the UK under the current family reunification scheme are still waiting for their cases to be completed in Greece, before the UK government ends the programme when it leaves the EU on the 31st December.
The NGO Safe Passage, which is assisting the children, says some are currently homeless and that many cases are experiencing delays getting through the Greek asylum system on time.
The Guardian has seen a letter in which the Home Office states that it will not contact the Greek authorities about the cases, or extend the deadline to allow children who have made applications in Greece but whose cases have not been completed to enter the UK after 31 December.
Family members trying to get young relatives to safety in the UK through the reunification programme have called for the deadline to be extended.
Ali*, a Syrian refugee living in the UK, has a niece and nephew stranded in Greece whose cases have been delayed.
Mohamed and Hana*, his brother’s children, are 16 and 17. Like Ali they are from Afrin, a Kurdish region of Syria controlled by Turkish-backed militias.
Ali is desperately worried about their safety in Greece and about the possibility they will be sent back to Afrin.
“The situation there is not just bad, it is very bad. There are many terrorist groups, Isis, al-Nusra. They have destroyed our villages. If I was to tell you about the situation for the children of Afrin I would speak all day. There is no future, no education.”
Now the teenagers are alone and trapped in Greece. It is unlikely that their documents will arrive in time for lawyers at Safe Passage to make a formal application for their cases to be transferred to the UK.
In order to apply for a family reunion transfer under the EU’s “Dublin law”, young people under 18 must first apply for asylum in their country of entry. Once this application has been processed their documents are sent to the countries’ Dublin unit where a request is made to the UK to accept a transfer. None of the young people have been able to complete all the steps required and time is fast running out.
‘Please help us’
Ali cried as he talked about the loss of family reunion. “It is making us so stressed that the UK will leave the European Union and complicate our situation. We hope the UK will help all the children who are alone and have family waiting to care for them. I have a great, peaceful life here. I want my niece and nephew to be part of it.
“From every family with a child in Greece, please help us.”
Every day he speaks to his young relatives. “I am always in contact with them. They miss their family, their parents, their home. They need relief after this hard journey, they are very unhappy. I also speak with my brother all the time, he wants to know when they will be safe. He tells me: ‘I have lost two pieces of my heart.’”
After the UK leaves the EU, more limited British family reunion laws will apply. They do not allow people to join siblings, aunts or uncles, most of the cases Safe Passage deals with.
A request for transfer under the Dublin family reunion process must come from the sending country – in this case Greece. The Home Office said it is not responsible for delays on the Greek side.
But in recent cases highlighted by the Guardian, Greek authorities sped up their efforts after being contacted by the UK.
Ahmed was stuck in Lesbos, and when the Guardian contacted the Home Office it wrote to the Greek authorities. Within a day they were able to give him a date for a flight.
Sandy Protogerou, head of Safe Passage International in Greece, said the UK could be more flexible. “Children are waiting longer than usual for cases to be processed here, partly because of the Covid situation. We have about 20 cases waiting now and we understand that the Greeks are trying to prioritise UK cases because of the urgency.
“But it is the UK Home Office who request that cases are officially registered first in Greece. So it is only the UK who can be flexible on the requirements of the Dublin system. Several of our young people are from Syria, they are trapped all over Greece, some are homeless, there is huge pressure on accommodation for refugees here.”
The NGO Better Days also works with young people trying to reach the UK from Greece.
Lawyer Iris Pappa said: “We have children of 15 or 16 with family in the UK, they have nobody here. If the UK stops family reunification they will be trapped here alone and unprotected. More children will keep coming next year and the lack of this safe route is very worrying.”
In a statement, the Home Office told the Guardian that it was fulfilling its legal obligations under the EU family reunification scheme and would process all cases that enter the system in the UK before the end of the transition period.
“In order for the UK to consider the transfer of an unaccompanied child and comply with the Dublin regulation, we require the sending state to submit a ‘take charge request’, which is a well-established process.”
It added: “The government has a statutory duty to conduct a public consultation on family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the EU. We will lay a statement before parliament providing further details by 10 February 2021.”
* Not their real names