The UK Home Office's policy for child refugees who attempt to reunite with their parents and siblings in Britain is discriminatory with “devastating” consequences, the High Court has heard.
The government is being challenged over how it deals with refugees aged under 18 who try to bring their families to the UK by a 19-year-old refugee from Eritrea. He arrived in the UK at 14, after fleeing forced military recruitment.
Lawyers for the teenager argued that it is “considerably more difficult” for refugee children to reunite with their families in the UK, while being “straightforward” for adult refugees who attempt to bring their immediate family to the country.
They say a Home Office policy that allows adult refugees to sponsor their spouses and children under 18 does not provide for refugee children to sponsor their immediate families, who instead have to apply for permission outside of the usual rules.
The Home Office, which is defending the claim, says that allowing child refugees to sponsor close relatives as adults do could incentivise some families to send their children to the UK to act as “anchors” for their own asylum applications.
The High Court in London heard the teenager — only known as DM — supported his parents and five siblings in their applications to come to the UK.
His family’s bids were refused in June 2021 and, while they won an appeal in April, the family is still waiting for confirmation they can come to the UK, the court was told.
Lawyers for the teenager argued that the Home Office’s policy discriminates against child refugees seeking family reunion “with devastating and well-evidenced consequences”. They added that they have to face a “difficult and often inaccessible” process.
“It is, generally speaking, in the best interests of unaccompanied refugee children to be reunited with their immediate family,” Raza Husain QC said.
However, compared with adults sponsoring their immediate family, “the hurdles for refugee children are usually more demanding as a matter of substance and a matter of process,” he said.
In written submissions, Mr Husain said that even when families are granted leave to remain in the UK in “exceptional circumstances”, it can be for a limited time and with no recourse to public funds.
The barrister said that child refugees can face a traumatic journey and then have “survivor’s guilt” about the conditions their parents and siblings remain in.
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The court was told DM’s family had been living in “desperate poverty” in Ethiopia, but were displaced by conflict and now live “destitute” in the capital Addis Ababa.
In a written statement, DM said he felt “it was my fault that they were living in such a bad way in Ethiopia” after their initial application was denied.
“I had hopes of doing well at school and making a good life for myself and my family in the UK — but this is not going to be possible if I am spending all of my time dealing with the Home Office and worrying about my family,” he said.
“I wonder how many British people would be able to carry on with their day-to-day lives if they knew their entire family was in danger and couldn’t even see them or help them.
“Part of me thinks that people do not believe the situation. If they do believe me, it means they just do not care.”
The teenager said it was “not humane” to expect children to be separated from their families.
“I know that some refugees end up killing themselves because they are not able to bring their family, and I can honestly understand how children and young people are driven to do this — given how lonely this country can be for them,” he concluded.
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The UNHCR — the UN refugee agency — has intervened in the claim.
“To ensure that applications by child refugees in the UK are considered in a consistent, positive, human and expeditious manner in line with their best interests, all child refugees must have an unqualified right to apply for family reunification,” Sonali Naik QC, for the agency, said in written submissions.
Lisa Giovannetti QC, for the Home Office, said that it usually will be in the best interests of children not to be separated from their families.
“However, the strength of that consideration will vary from case to case, depending on the age, maturity, personal history and life experiences of the child, and all the individual circumstances of the case,” she continued in written submissions.
“In general terms, there is a legitimate concern not to encourage or incentivise families to send a child on a long and dangerous journey to claim asylum with the expectation that the rest of the family will then be entitled to join them.”
Ms Giovannetti said that applications from family members outside of the policy are “considered on a case-by-case basis”.
The barrister added that child refugees “will be moving towards an adult life and greater independence, and away from a ‘nuclear family’ relationship with parents and siblings”.
“This is materially different to the position of refugees who are married or in a committed relationship and intend to live together permanently as partners… and their dependent minor children,” she continued.
“The difficult policy issues raised by this claim are not properly capable of resolution in the courts, and the executive should be afforded a wide margin of appreciation."
Mr Justice Lavender will give his decision on the claim at a later date.