The importance of family at this time of crisis
A few weeks ago, David Cameron delivered his Christmas message to the nation. He said:
'If there is one thing people want at Christmas, it’s the security of having the family around them and a home that is safe.'
While the Christmas reference would not resonate with all, for refugees the importance of security, home and family could hardly be more poignant. Unsafe in their own country due to conflict, torture and other persecutions, refugees are forced to flee – often becoming separated from family members, including their nearest and dearest.
Insecurity in countries neighbouring conflict – sometimes experiencing conflict themselves – compels many to move on. Many take grave risks in the hands of people smugglers and on journeys across arid deserts or deep waters, exposed to cold and wet or suffocating in the back of lorries or the holds of ships. For many refugees, these journeys are undertaken in the hope of being reunited with loved ones.
Joy and tragedy for families of refugees
Although barely begun, this year has already brought more than its fair share of both tragedy and joy in this typical refugee story.
Among the most joyous moments was on New Year’s Day, when Rose and Ahmad were reunited at the arrival gate at Heathrow, after three heart-wrenching years of separation due to the conflict in Syria. This was a euphoric moment, not only for Rose but for a host of family members who had come to see Rose reunited with her fiancée. When the photo of the long-parted couple went viral on Twitter, it became a beautiful moment that thousands of others shared.
— Rose Alhomsi (@tweets4peace) January 1, 2016
But there was no joyful reunion between brother and sister when a 15-year-old Afghan boy attempted to reach her in the UK. Shortly before New Year, he stowed away in the back of a truck hoping to get across the Channel. He was later found dead, and his sister is left to mourn while searching for answers as to what happened.
— Sally Hayden (@sallyhayd) January 4, 2016
Not everyone experiences family as loving and supportive, but for most of us in this world our families are vital foundations on which we may depend for affection, encouragement and assistance. We may feel the happiness or suffering of a family member just as keenly as they do themselves, sometimes more so.
It is an especial tragedy, therefore, that in the UK today there are many people – British citizens, refugees and others settled here – who know of family members fleeing violence and repression at home, and now caught up in the misery of the refugee migration in Europe. Caught up because – although their family here in the UK could and would dearly love to support them in their time of crisis – the immigration rules block that reunion by excessive and onerous financial and other requirements, which many people cannot meet.
An opportunity to ensure safety and security among family
All of which emphasises the importance of an amendment (no. 234) to the Immigration Bill tabled by the crossbencher Lord Hylton. It comes at a time when many from across the political parties have challenged the government to do more to ensure families can be reunited in the UK. The amendment would require an expansion of opportunities for refugees to be reunited with family here in the UK. By welcoming and acting on this amendment, the government could provide a clear demonstration of how it values ‘family’ while making an important contribution to sharing responsibility for hosting refugees.
In October last year, I visited the Hungarian borders with Croatia and Austria with Kate Allen, Amnesty UK’s Director and her counterpart in Hungary. We observed the progress of thousands of refugees hoping to find a sustainable place of safety somewhere in Europe. Among them was one young woman travelling with her little boy. She was embarrassingly grateful to borrow a mobile phone, as she was trying to make contact with her husband somewhere in Germany in the hope he could advise her where and how she should go on from here.
My colleagues have encountered many other refugees either about to embark on treacherous boat journeys or on the refugee trail in Europe hoping to be reunited with partners, parents and other family members. Many are children, including very young children and babies accompanied by mothers and other relatives hoping to reach the very same security and safety to which the Prime Minister was referring only last month.
— Kate Allen (@KateAllenAI) October 8, 2015
As the Archbishop of Canterbury urged at New Year, there is an urgent need among all societies to respond with hospitality rather than hatred.
Expanding family reunion opportunities for refugees to join family already settled here would provide the safe and legal route they desperately need. It would help provide the hospitality for which the Archbishop has called because those coming by such a route would be coming to an already settled home thereby aiding their wider integration. Refusing to do so at such a critical time will not prevent many attempting to make their own way. It will, however, mean a journey full of hardship, misery and risk of exploitation from which nobody profits save for the people smugglers.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.