Lone child refugees stranded in Sudan could be forced to travel to the UK in small boats because British ministers are not helping those entitled to family reunion to escape the fighting, charities have warned.
Asylum seekers granted refugee status in the UK are able to apply to bring their spouse, children or younger siblings – one of the few safe and legal routes open to refugees.
To become eligible, the Home Office has said family members must submit biometrics at a visa application centre in a country neighbouring Sudan, with “travel across Sudan is conducted at your own risk”.
Nick Beales, the head of campaigns at the charity Ramfel, is supporting 10 UK residents trying to bring 13 lone child refugees, mostly from Eritrea and stranded in Sudan, to the UK. He described the government’s approach as “disgraceful”.
Beales said: “Suella Braverman [the home secretary] has said no one fleeing Sudan should travel to the UK by boat but the closure of Khartoum’s visa application centre makes it impossible to even apply to come here.”
He added it was “impossible to overstate the level of risk” these children were exposed to, such as kidnapping, trafficking and exploitation.
Many of the refugees stranded in Sudan had fled neighbouring Eritrea and were waiting in Khartoum for their visas to be processed in order to join loved ones in the UK.
A young Eritrean refugee is trying to rescue his 14-year-old sister. Smugglers took her across the Sudanese border to Juba in South Sudan but are holding her captive until family pays them £2,000.
“Even if the smugglers release her she will have to get to the British embassy in Juba. She’s only 14 how is she going to do that?” he said.
The Guardian previously reported on the case of a heavily pregnant woman stranded in Khartoum with her three-year-old daughter. Her husband, a refugee in Wolverhampton, applied for family reunion more than a year ago.
The woman and her daughter have managed to escape Khartoum and have reached Port Sudan where they are stranded at the border. She could give birth at any moment.
Another man, a 21-year-old Eritrean refugee living in the UK, said: “I was trying to bring my two brothers aged 14 and 17 here but I haven’t managed to make contact with them for more than a week. They are too young. I’m worried for their lives. I’m praying all the time that they will be safe.”
Home Office sources have accepted more could be done. “We are committed to improving and speeding up processing times for family reunion applications and acknowledge the need to dedicate more resource to support this safe and legal routes, as well as a reviewing processes to streamline decision making to make it more effective for our customers. This process is ongoing,” they said.
Beales said: “In response to the crisis in Sudan, the government must take decisive action and expedite and simplify entry clearance application processes for those applying to reunite with UK based family members. The government’s inadequate response has left vulnerable children with clear family ties in the UK in grave danger.”
Emily Graham, the head of campaigns at the charity Safe Passage International, said a safe route from Sudan was needed immediately. “This government should be doing everything it can to help refugees reach safety and family here in the UK,” she added.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The UK has carried out by far the longest and largest evacuation of any western country from Sudan, bringing 2,450 people to safety. Preventing a humanitarian emergency in Sudan is our focus right now. Alongside the UK evacuation effort, we are working with international partners and the United Nations to bring an end to fighting.”