THE BLOG

Urgent Action From The Home Secretary Needed To Keep Children Safe

28/09/2017 11:37 BST | Updated 28/09/2017 11:37 BST

Syria is not on the front pages like it was a year ago but for the children that remain there, the war has not gone away and safety feels ever more distant.

Khaled is 16 and each day is still lived in fear. His 16 and 17-year-old cousins were recently arrested at a checkpoint and taken away. They are now moving from one frontline to another, fearing for their lives and Khaled knows he could be next.

Right now, Khaled lives with his parents. Before the war exploded they were professionals, confident about the safety they could provide for their children. They saw their children's lives leading to university, not being forced to be child soldiers. No matter what measures they take to provide security for their children, Khaled's parents know that the next time he leaves the front door he could be forcibly recruited by government forces, ISIS, Al Qaeda, or other armed groups that see the opportunity to exploit him. Khaled and his family know that where he is now is not safe for him and he has to get away.

There is somewhere safer for him to be. Khaled has a brother, Omar, who has been granted refugee status in the UK after fleeing the horrors of war. Omar is ready to take full responsibility and give his brother the future that he deserves. In the care of his older brother, Khaled can experience the love, warmth and protection that he cannot get while constantly confronted with danger in Syria.

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Omar would do anything to help his brother but under the current UK Immigration Rules he can't because he does not count as family. They do not allow an unaccompanied refugee child to be reunited with family apart from their parents. Under this strange rule, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and grandparents do not count as family.

Speaking to Omar, he is as worried about Khaled as any older brother would be. He knows his brother needs to escape the war around him and that right now the only way to his brother would be to take the dangerous route run by smugglers and traffickers across seas and land, exposing Khaled to a host of new dangers and risks of being exploited. Omar and Khaled really don't want to do this. They know it will be risky, that Khaled, who is still a child, will have to go through the long and dangerous journey by himself and would much rather use a safe option. But currently, this is not possible and Khaled can't face the danger outside his front door any longer.

Similar situations are confronting families every single day around the world. Children are caught up in the war in Syria, they have lost their homes in Afghanistan and are at risk of becoming child soldiers in Eritrea. These children are the most vulnerable but are increasingly finding themselves alone and separated from the ones they love.

For those with family in the UK, family reunion can be the best hope to find safety. When you've lost everything, your family is your home and yet the UK Immigration Rules are keeping families like Omar and Khaled apart. The UK has been generous in providing financial assistance for refugees in Syria and the region, as well as through its actions and funding commitments in Europe. However to ensure children continue to be supported in the way the UK has set out, we must make sure our own rules don't undermine these efforts. When a child has a close family member who has refugee or humanitarian status in the UK they should be able to reunite with them where this is in their best interests.

The UK Government must fix the rules around refugee family reunion and that is why at Unicef UK we have launched a new petition today, calling on the UK Government to widen the definition of family, to include elder brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

By making a simple but vital change to our own law, the Home Secretary can ensure children like Khaled are reunited with their families safely and legally from where they are, instead of having to risk their lives with traffickers and smugglers in order to reach Europe. The fact that a child is trafficked or abused every 30 minutes while taking the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy should surely be enough motivation to make this change.

Family comes in so many shapes and forms, but what it represents is what counts - love, care, protection, warmth; things that no child should be without. With the support of family, refugee children can recover and be children again.

Please join us in urging the UK Government to help reunited children like Khaled with their families.