UK accused of stranding vulnerable refugees after Brexit

Exclusive: Torture survivors and lone children stuck in Greece and Italy after Home Office ‘deliberately’ ends cooperation on family reunions

The Home Office has been accused of failing to reunite vulnerable refugees who have the right to join family in the UK under EU law, leaving lone children and torture survivors stranded.

The government faced widespread criticism when it announced that family reunion law would no longer apply after the UK left the EU, and it promised that cases under way on that date would be allowed to proceed.

But charity Safe Passage and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have told the Guardian that since Brexit there has been no clear legal way to arrange transfers. Lawyers in Greece and Italy said the Home Office has stopped responding to requests to rearrange family reunions delayed by Covid.

One Afghan couple, both victims of severe torture under the Taliban, have been stuck in Greece for nearly a year after being given legal permission to join their son and his family in the UK.

Ewaz, 71, and Safora Faqiri, 64, arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in January 2019. The couple, from Baghlan province in Afghanistan, had been beaten and tortured by the Taliban, which left them both with false teeth. “They really beat me, especially in the legs. They knew my son lived in the UK,” said Ewaz, who uses a walking stick because of the beating.

Their family reunion application was granted last August, and under EU law they should have travelled to the UK within six months. But Covid flight restrictions led to delays in theirs, and many other cases. Their lawyers said that because the UK has left the EU, there is no clear route to rearrange their transfer.

“Our grandchildren ask us every day why we aren’t coming to their house,” said Ewaz. “We’ve been living like this for a long time and we are feeling really hopeless.”

“I’ve been feeling really depressed,” said Safora, holding back tears. She has serious health problems and has been scared to leave the house during the strict Greek lockdown. “I’m just hoping there is a way to get out of this situation as soon as possible.”

“The only person who can help us is our son,” Ewaz added. “Please don’t put us in our grave here in Greece.”

Lawyers said theirs is one of at least 80 cases of individuals with a right to be in the UK who have been stranded because the Home Office has not made it clear how the transfers can go ahead outside EU law.

Amanda Muñoz de Toro, from Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid, is the couple’s lawyer. She said the current problems are in a long line of difficulties created by the Home Office.

“It took the Fenix team, and our legal partners in the UK, three applications and five appeals for the UK to finally grant permission for the couple to join their son. Throughout the 18-month process, the UK repeatedly took steps to frustrate the process and avoid their legal obligations.

“Although it was the responsibility of Greece to transfer the couple before the six-month deadline, before Brexit, there were options to ask for an extension. As a result of the UK’s exit from the EU, there is no longer a legal procedure for these cases. Without a legal framework to pressure, this is now a political issue rather than a legal one.”

Safe Passage said it had seen similar problems in Italy and France.

“Before Brexit, there was a clear process for children to join their families in the UK, but since then the government has failed to communicate effectively with European authorities,” said Bethany Gardiner-Smith, the NGO’s chief executive.

Ali, a 17-year-old boy from Eritrea, has been alone in Italy since last summer waiting to join his family in the UK. He said: “My life has got worse since Brexit. I received a positive answer for my family reunion 10 months ago, but I live always in false hope. The next day, the next month, I think I’ll be going to my family in England. I hate my life.”

Ali’s lawyers said they believe the Home Office has deliberately stopped engaging because the six-month transfer deadline has passed, which means they may be able to avoid accepting his case.

“Flights were cancelled many times because of Covid,” said Giulia Guietti, a lawyer from the Italian refugee and asylum-seeker organisation Cidas. “We needed to rearrange the transfer but from 1 January, after Brexit, the Home Office stopped replying to every single communication. Not only to us, but they don’t reply to the Italian Dublin [regulation] unit. They do respond to some cases. But ones where the deadline has passed and they need to give permission again, they don’t. We are almost certain this is deliberate.”

A UNHCR spokesperson in Italy said it was also worried about the lack of information coming out of the UK. “Long waiting times for the family reunion procedure under the Dublin regulation have been further complicated in the months following the UK’s exit from the EU.

“Without clear answers, minors often lose faith in the possibility of reuniting through a regular procedure and decide to try to reach their families on their own, risking abuse and exploitation.”

In a response, the Home Office said: “Protecting vulnerable children is an absolute priority for the government. In 2019, the UK received more asylum claims from unaccompanied children than any other European country, including Greece and Italy. Once the UK accepts a request to transfer a child, it is the responsibility of the country that submitted it to make necessary arrangements to complete the transfer and we work with them to ensure this happens as quickly as possible.

“The UK provides a number of routes for people to reunite with family members in the UK under our immigration rules.”

Contributors

Harriet Grant and Katy Fallon

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fortress Europe: the millions spent on military-grade tech to deter refugees
We map out the rising number of high-tech surveillance and deterrent systems facing asylum seekers along EU borders

Kaamil Ahmed and Lorenzo Tondo

06, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Greece will not be ‘gateway’ to Europe for Afghans fleeing Taliban, say officials
Athens calls for a united response, as refugees already in Lesbos hope their asylum claims will now be reconsidered

Katy Fallon

26, Aug, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘The need is still there’: last young refugees arrive in UK as family reunion route closes
Activists lament that a safe, legal way into Britain has closed with Brexit, when stranded children need it as much as ever

Harriet Grant

22, Dec, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
‘Cruel’ trafficker accused of torturing refugees found guilty in Ethiopia
Tewelde Goitom reportedly ran a brutal and lucrative trade extorting migrants desperate to reach Europe from Libya

By Kaleab Girma and Sally Hayden in Ethiopia

30, Apr, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Greek police arrest Dutch journalist for helping Afghan asylum seeker
Ingeborg Beugel was detained for ‘facilitating the illegal stay of a foreigner’ and faces up to a year in jail

Katy Fallon

24, Jun, 2021 @2:31 PM

Article image
Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks
A Guardian analysis finds EU countries used brutal tactics to stop nearly 40,000 asylum seekers crossing borders

Lorenzo Tondo

05, May, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
'Please help us': child refugees running out of time to reach UK before Brexit
Desperate relatives in Britain plead with Home Office for flexibility as paperwork holdups delay family reunions while deadline looms

Harriet Grant

24, Dec, 2020 @4:09 AM

Article image
Italy using anti-mafia laws to scapegoat migrant boat drivers, report finds
A decades-long policy of criminalising asylum seekers is filling prisons with innocent men, according to analysis by rights groups

Lorenzo Tondo

15, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Helping refugees starving in Poland’s icy border forests is illegal – but it’s not the real crime | Anna Alboth
The asylum seekers on the Poland-Belarus border are not aggressors: they are desperate pawns in a disgusting political struggle

Anna Alboth

08, Dec, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
EU states cooperating informally to deny refugees asylum rights – report
Beatings, thefts and dog attacks are just some of the border police practices migrants say they face when pushed back from Europe’s frontiers

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo and Helena Smith in Athens

12, May, 2021 @2:04 PM