‘When I was a child in Afghanistan I loved to watch my uncle play chess. Now I have joined the local club here.” Samir is grinning as he talks about settling into life on England’s south coast. “I’m very happy here, just being with my family, going for walks to look at the Christmas lights. It’s really beautiful.”
After arriving in Greece alone two years ago, when he was just 16, and spending many months homeless and terrified in the port city of Patras, Samir recently made a journey that most refugees can only dream about. He said goodbye to the friends he had made in a camp for unaccompanied minors – other teenagers from Somalia, Iraq and Palestine – and travelled safely and legally to join his father and sister in the UK.
There were no lorries or dinghies involved; he was given a plane ticket and arrived at Heathrow. “My sister came to meet me and she was so excited that she wanted to take me straight to London to show me Oxford Street, but I was too tired,” he says. “So we just went to an Afghan restaurant. That was so good after such a long time, to eat real Afghan food again.”
But for the lawyers and campaigners who fought for months to bring him here, Samir’s happiness is bittersweet. He is one of the last unaccompanied young refugees to arrive in the UK under the EU family reunion laws that ended with Brexit.
“These are the final cases,” says Beth Gardiner-Smith, head of the child refugee charity Safe Passage. “We have one or two more children transferring to family here from France in the next couple of weeks, but these are the last young people coming through our Greek office.”
After the Home Office admitted in 2018 it was planning to end family reunion when the UK left the EU after Brexit, there was a scramble by lawyers and families to complete applications by the deadline of 31 December 2020. The children who managed to achieve that are now here, but the door has been slammed shut behind them.
For Gardiner-Smith, it is painful to see a safe route to the UK shut down just as the tragic cost of illegal journeys is becoming increasingly evident in the Channel.
“It’s just such a waste of all the work we did showing that this route works,” says Gardiner-Smith. “It is so frustrating. The need is still there, children are still asking for our help in Greece, we are seeing lots of young Afghans arriving who have family in the UK.
“We want to help them but we only have the very restrictive British immigration rules. Children can’t join uncles or aunts or siblings – these are the majority of our cases. Even joining a parent will be very difficult.
“We are already seeing children get tired of the legal route and vanish to make their own way to the UK.”
Safe Passage was set up in 2015 when the refugee crisis saw thousands of children travelling through Europe during the Syrian war. In France, lawyers found children living alone in the Calais camp and fought in British courts for them to join family in the UK.
Since then, hundreds of children have safely joined uncles, aunts and cousins in Britain.
Mohamed is another one of the final arrivals. He is living in the Midlands now and celebrating his 18th birthday this week with his aunt after a difficult few years that saw the Home Office refuse him family reunion three times.
“I love England – it is so safe and organised. I was living for years in a refugee camp in Iran after my family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran wanted to send us back to Afghanistan but we stayed, living in hiding.
“I left on my own and reached Greece, which was a very bad place for refugees. I met a social worker who said there is a group called Safe Passage [who] will help you,” says Mohamed.
“They did – they helped my aunt, we found a solicitor and after refusing me three times, finally I got the evidence I needed. It was unbelievable to come here on the plane; it was like being born again. I am so grateful.
“I wish I had the power to help the friends I have left living in tents in Greece; some have been there for many years and they are so afraid.”
Like many of the children who applied for a family reunion visa, his case suffered multiple delays as the Home Office requested he provide more and more evidence.
“I was refused three times, they didn’t believe me because I was missing documents and information,” he says. “I was so sad.
“I couldn’t focus on anything, my aunt was in the UK and I was alone in Lesbos and Athens, but friends helped get money so a lawyer could get me a DNA test. Finally, I’m here.”
Even when it was available to families, those granted a right to remain under the EU reunion process faced long delays. In cases highlighted by the Guardian, children were left living alone in dangerous conditions despite having the legal right to be in the UK.
But without it, the future is bleak for unaccompanied minors stranded in Europe.
While Samir finally celebrates being with his sister, his thoughts are with the people he left behind. There are more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors living in Greece, many of them without a safe place to stay.
“I thought I was young to be travelling alone,” he says. “But when I got to Greece there were so many children and some were much younger than me. I was homeless for the first six months – it was very scary.
“When I did get a place in a shelter for underage boys, there was one small boy there, just 13 years old. He had family here in the UK – two uncles – but nobody with him. I was a year and five months in the camp and every time a new boy got his family reunion and left – to Holland, to Germany – this boy was crying. When I left, he cried. I wish someone could help him.”
Samir’s father is in Afghanistan now, desperately trying to get permission to bring his wife and their other children to the UK. Even though he is now a British citizen, he is finding it difficult to get permission for them to travel.
Gardiner-Smith says her team are trying to help children in an increasingly difficult atmosphere in Greece. “The Greek government introduced hostile legislation, similar to what the UK government is trying to bring in. If you have come through Turkey then most asylum seekers are deemed inadmissible.
“Although it doesn’t apply to under 15s, a lot of our unaccompanied minors are between 15 and 17 and their support is cut off.”
The immigration bill now going through parliament will, she fears, make things worse in Greece as well, and she is working with a handful of supportive politicians in an effort to get provision for family reunion increased.
“There will be two tiers of asylum seekers and those who arrived irregularly will be deprived of the right to family reunion,” Gardiner-Smith says.
“We know what this means realistically – it means more people getting into small boats to try to join their families here.”
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