BRISTOL, United Kingdom — On a small strip of land between two rivers, a group of young children, accompanied by their aunt and uncle, lie abandoned. Forced to flee their home, they now find themselves with no money, escape route or knowledge of their surroundings. Their hopes of reuniting with their mother in the U.K. shattered when the smuggler who promised passage from Turkey to Greece stole everything and fled.
With limited phone battery, the children call their mother pleading for help. A difficult, traumatic call to receive. Fortunately, their mother sought aid from the British Red Cross and spoke with Charlie, a member of the Family Tracing team who recently shared her insights with The Borgen Project. Charlie relayed the family’s location to Red Cross representatives in Greece and Turkey, who found the family and brought them to safety.
In the current global refugee crisis, many fleeing violence, danger and persecution find themselves in a similar position to this family. Through support for the location and reunion of refugee families, the Red Cross stands as a beacon of hope for the most vulnerable.
Separated Refugee Families
A refugee’s journey to safety is far from over after reaching a country like the U.K. Many who flee lose sight of or leave behind their family members. Charlie regularly takes calls from refugees who recount details of their traumatic journeys. Charlie explained that many smugglers take phones and money from refugees before separating family members into different lorries – a “safer” form of transport that many refugees rely on. Many do not see their relatives again.
Long-term separation from close family members is deeply damaging to refugees’ mental health. The impact is particularly pronounced for children separated from, and unable to process trauma with, their support networks. There are currently thousands of refugee children, some as young as 13, separated from their parents. The emotional, economic and physical impacts of this separation are likely to affect these children for the rest of their lives.
The Red Cross
The British Red Cross has a large branch dedicated to supporting refugees both in the U.K. and around the world. Through various services, this branch provides refugees with practical support, advocates for their rights and well-being and encourages social integration.
The international family tracing service offers a lifeline for those who have sought refuge in countries like the U.K. By gathering information about the last known location of missing relatives, dedicated workers such as Charlie enable the Red Cross to initiate the search process to locate, re-establish contact with and determine the fate of those left behind.
Often working with traumatized individuals who cannot recall specific details, the team uses a variety of techniques to extract valuable information from clients. Once the team can determine the last known location of an individual, they pass this information to the Red Cross or Red Crescent in that country, who then search for those missing, Charlie explained.
It can take years for a result, which may simply be that there is no trace of a loved one. Upsetting as this can be, Charlie believes that the team delivers ‘more good news than bad news overall’. She spoke in admiration about how maps drawn by clients can often lead Red Cross volunteers to an exact road or house where their relative is found. Regardless of the wait or outcome, Charlie said that many refugees are overcome with relief at the knowledge that teams are actively searching for their loved ones.
The Red Cross Family Reunion service
Reuniting families in the U.K. poses a new set of challenges. A successful asylum application in the U.K. legally entitles a person to reunite “with their immediate family members through a family reunion visa.” In order to apply, overseas family members must make multiple visits to their closest British Embassy or Visa Application Centre, which may be in another country. Alongside identification, applicants must provide evidence of health checks for diseases such as Tuberculosis.
A British Red Cross report from 2020 highlighted several flaws with the current family reunion visa application system. Since 2010, 90% of applicants have been women and children, predominantly from war-torn poverty-stricken countries like Eritrea, Iran, Syria and Sudan. Consequently, a long journey to a Visa Application Centre presents serious risks for these vulnerable families. The British Red Cross spoke with 100 families about the family reunion visa process and found that half had faced serious barriers and safety concerns due to current requirements, leading one-fifth of applicants to rely on smugglers.
Current Reunion Rules
Further challenges arise when attempting to prove eligibility for a family reunion visa. Under current reunion rules, refugees who enter the U.K. as children cannot reunite with their family members. A bill currently under debate in the British Parliament would, if passed, allow children to sponsor family members, facilitating their reunion with crucial support networks. The U.K. Refugee Council asserts that this would be “life-changing” for young, isolated refugees.
While legal and practical difficulties remain for separated refugee families, the Red Cross actively advocates for changes in the British Government’s policies for reuniting refugee families, to make the process safer, more practical and more accessible. Alongside this, the Family Reunion service supports applicants and their families in navigating the visa process, increasing applicants’ chances of success.
Reuniting Refugee Families
Countless refugees are separated from close family members. The Red Cross supports their reunion by locating lost family members and helping those navigating the visa application process. Charlie told The Borgen Project that through her work with the British Red Cross she feels part of “an amazingly big operation” in which each refugee family and their well-being really matters, Charlie explained.
The invaluable work of this organization is evidenced by the more than 10,000 reunited families that the Red Cross has supported over the last decade. Although there remain dangerous and restrictive barriers to reuniting refugee families, the work of the British Red Cross offers hope to vulnerable individuals around the world.
– Polly Walton