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Family is a cornerstone of society – we must support child refugees

Throughout this year and particularly the long period of Coronavirus-induced lockdown, there are many things we‘ve found ourselves reflecting on. From memories of our past and how lucky we are in certain ways to what – and who – is really important to us; we’ve had a lot of time to think.

Spending so much time with my wife and five children, I’ve definitely been reminded of how lucky I am to have them. None the less, I’ve also been sadly missing other family members. Like Muslims across the world, we celebrated Eid over Skype this year. It was quite a change! However, it hasn’t been the first time I’ve been separated from my family.

As a child, I was forced to flee my homeland and become a refugee when I was just 13 years old

Life as a child refugee: Multiple challenges, multiple hardships

Nasser Haghamed with a friend in a cafe aged 15 in Sudan, 1978 

I arrived here in the UK in 1982. I’d fled my homeland, Eritrea, several years before. Like many other displaced people, I had several false starts before I arrived here. I’d spent two years in Sudan and another two in Saudi Arabia. This was then followed by a brief stint studying in Libya and an even briefer one in Egypt.

There are so many ways in which refugees are held back. For me, one of the starkest was my education. With every new country I arrived in, I would have to pick up schooling where I left off – but in an entirely new environment, culture and language . I would take one step forward, and moving again would set me two steps back. I know that in several ways I was one of the lucky ones. I never had to live in a refugee camp.

In camps, even long before the coronavirus outbreak, funds were stretched, people were forced to shelter from extreme weather in just a tent and food was scarce.

As would be expected, people living in refugee camps around the world have been in a state of perpetual anxiety. They’ve been bracing for an onslaught of Covid-19, unable to socially distance and often without facilities to wash their hands – a luxury we take for granted every day.

The recent fire in Moria refugee camp, Greece, displaced 13,000 people – leaving them without the temporary shelter they relied upon. I cannot imagine this level of hardship. What I do know however is what it’s like to be separated from my family.

My father, who’d been an opposition activist in Eritrea, went to Saudi Arabia ahead of us to settle there and arrange our visas. As a child, I didn’t really understand the full extent of what was happening. I just missed the man who used to drive me to school every day, buy me sweets, toys and clothes, and play with me.

When we managed to get to Sudan, he came to meet us briefly, but soon went back to Saudi Arabia. We were then separated for another two years.

Even though I was older, the time when I missed my family the most was aged 19 when I came to London alone. It was incredibly tough and I felt like I didn’t belong.

Family reunification: A vital right

A Syrian child refugee in one of many camps where we work.

It is my personal experiences that I draw on when thinking of the families who are separated today. Families who desperately want – and need – to be together.

Because of current UK asylum law, there are children much younger than I was who are here entirely on their own and cannot sponsor a family member to join them. Current UK rules on refugee family reunion are preventing families from being together – exactly when they need each other most. And this is something we desperately need to change.

Adult refugees rebuilding their lives in the UK are able to sponsor immediate family members to join them. However, the UK is still one of the only European countries to deprive child refugees of the right to sponsor their families to do the same.

Family members who are separated and not covered by the rules are therefore left with two harsh ‘choices’: either stay put in insecure and dangerous places or embark on expensive, unregulated and unsafe journeys.

No child should be forced to face this reality.

When you are forced to flee to a new country, you have to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and go through countless emotional difficulties. The last thing you want is to be alone. Inevitably you worry about your family, who’ll be facing their own struggles in other countries’ hostile environments. And of course, gradually this private toll becomes a public one, as psychological distress leads to more reliance on state support.

For so many who have fled war and persecution, the uncertainty of having fled your home therefore never ends. Without the security of family, it’s seemingly indefinite.

We welcome refugees: Joining the call

Islamic Relief USA’s visit to 
Germany during the refugee crisis.

We desperately need change. Child refugees deserve better.

And that’s why more than 60 high profile celebrities, actors, singers, comedians and artists, including Islamic Relief UK ambassador Asma Khan, have written to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on him to reunite refugee families.

They join the Families Together coalition, of which Islamic Relief is a member.

The Immigration Bill currently going through Parliament presents a real opportunity to swiftly and easily correct this injustice – and provide a safe and legal alternative route to those forced to make dangerous Channel crossings.

I welcome this call from celebrities and join them in urging the government to accept amendments to the Immigration Bill.

These vital changes will finally allow all child refugees separated from their families by war, violence and persecution to finally be given the chance to be with their families when they need them most.

We must not let the Covid-19 crisis close our borders and close our hearts. In the face of great adversity: we must do what is right and fair.

Families belong together.

Families Together Coalition 

Islamic Relief is a member of the Families Together coalition, calling for refugee family reunion. Read the celebrity letter and add your name here.

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