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The UK Must Do More to Reunite Families Separated by Conflict

29/03/2016 12:25 | Updated 29 March 2016

In her evocative poem 'Home', the Kenyan-born Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire writes: "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well." This verse should ring loudly in the ears of world leaders arriving in Geneva this week for a high-level meeting, called by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, that aims to secure a greater commitment from the international community to help Syrian refugees fleeing the country's brutal five-year conflict.

Since the refugee crisis began, some in the media and increasingly our Government have been pre-occupied by the number of refugees arriving on European shores, and how best to stem the flow of people. Policies have increasingly focussed on imposing draconian measures aimed at turning vulnerable people back towards the horrors from which they are fleeing. Instead, we should focus on how we can better help the men, women and children - families, just like yours and mine - who, through no fault of their own, have been forced to make desperate journeys in search of safety in neighbouring countries and beyond.

Some aspects of the UK Government's response to the crisis should be commended. Our Government has done more than any other European nation in providing much needed aid to refugees in countries neighbouring Syria. We welcomed the Prime Minister's pledge to resettle 20,000 refugees over the course of this parliament. But the Government's response must be proportionate to the scale of the crisis, and it is wrong to set an arbitrary upper limit on a crisis on this scale. With thousands still risking their lives in search safety, the UNHCR conference on Wednesday [30 March] offers our Government an excellent opportunity to increase its commitment.

At Refugee Action, we believe one way the Government could do more is by changing existing family reunion rules, so that families who have been torn apart by conflict can be reunited in safety here in the UK. It is a belief shared by over ninety leading public figures including Dame Vivienne Westwood, Juliet Stevenson, Lauren Laverne, David Morrissey and Paloma Faith too, in an open letter to the Prime Minister last week.

Our Government currently applies very restrictive rules that determine how refugees can bring their loved ones to live with them here in Britain. Too often these rules ignore the complex relationships that affect families torn apart by war - so that siblings, whose parents are missing or dead, cannot be reunited across borders and grandparents are not entitled to look after their grandchildren.

Only recently Refugee Action met with a Syrian man called Omar who was smuggled in to the UK on a lorry last year. Like other refugees, he has survived unimaginable horrors and is delighted to have reached safety here in the UK. He is at pains to express his gratitude for the support and welcome he has received since he arrived here, but for Omar his freedom is coupled with a deep sadness too, as his family remain stranded in Turkey. While family reunion rules might allow his wife and teenage son to join him, the outlook for other members of his family - dependent on his care and support - is bleak.

It does not have to be this way. By easing the restrictions on family reunion rules now, the UK Government can provide families stranded across Europe and elsewhere, with a legal route to safety here in the UK. In doing so, the Government will not only save lives, it will provide refugees already living here with the much needed support and care of their loved-ones.

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