It is no exaggeration that UK politics is chaotic at the moment. We still do not know what will happen on the Brexit deadline of 31 October. One of the issues hanging in the balance is how the UK will treat some of the most vulnerable people – unaccompanied child asylum seekers – after leaving the EU.
According to an article published in the Guardian, the Home Office is planning to put an end to family reunification for asylum-seeking children in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Dublin III regulation allows asylum seeking children who have made it to an EU country to reunite with family members living in another EU country. For instance, if an unaccompanied child refugee arrives in Greece but has an uncle in the UK as their closest relative, the Dublin rule (which states that asylum applicants must stay in the first EU country in which they arrive) can be waived and the child can apply for family unification with their uncle. Because this is an EU law, it would not automatically apply to the UK once it leaves and the Home Office has chosen to scrap it if it leaves the European Union without a deal.
According to the Home Office, cases which are currently open may progress, however no new cases would be processed after 1 November.
Several charities and politicians have warned of the dire consequences if family reunification ends, as it could leave children subject to homelessness, poverty and exploitation. It could also lead to more children turning to people traffickers to attempt the perilous journey across the Channel from France to Britain to reunite with separated family members. This includes around 64 children currently in northern France.
Worryingly, there has been an increase in sea arrivals in Greece, straining the already overcrowded reception centres on the Greek islands. In late August, 650 people, including 240 children, arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in the span of just a few hours, leading to a number of alarmed news reports of a possible return to a return to the scenes of the 2015 crisis. We are a long way away from that, but August saw more than double the number of arrivals compared to last year (4,320 compared to 9,334), with a continued increase in September – although it should be kept in mind that this is an increase from the relatively low arrival figures of 2018.
This has led to the Greek government announcing emergency measures to deal with the numbers, including working with the EU and NATO to boost border patrols, moving asylum seekers from its islands to the mainland and speeding up deportations. It also announced it plans to shorten the asylum process by removing the right to appeal for rejected asylum applications.
With few legal pathways out of Greece, the number of recent arrivals is worrying as reception centres in the Greek islands are already struggling to cope. For instance, there are around 10,400 people in the Moria camp which was built to accommodate just 3,000. Reception and identification centres are stretched beyond capacity in Lesbos and Samos, as well as Kos, Chios and Leros. In Lesbos, 73 children were reportedly referred to MSF’s paediatric mental health teams, including for attempted suicide and self-harm.
There have been 2,450 requests for family reunification through the Greek authorities to the UK since 2013. 700 of these were from the first six months of 2019 alone.
Charities have warned that if the UK ends family reunification, there could be a rise in displaced children attempting to cross the Channel in an attempt to join their relatives in Britain.
The number of asylum seekers attempting to cross the Channel from France to Britain in small boats, is already growing. At the end of August this year, 32 people were rescued from a boat attempting to cross the Channel, whose strong currents and cold water make it one of the most dangerous crossings in the world. Home Secretary Priti Patel has said that more asylum seekers must be sent back to prevent the number of arrivals from swelling.
Ending family reunification could leave the Dubs amendment as the last remaining legal pathway for asylum seeking children to reunite with their families. The Dubs amendment was passed by Lord Alf Dubs, who came to Britain as a child refugee fleeing the Nazi regime under the Kindertranpsort scheme 80 years ago. His amendment offers a “specified number” of unaccompanied child refugees safe passage to Britain, which following debate was decided to be 350. 270 children have been able to come to Britain so far.
While the Dublin III Regulation is not a perfect one–it is plagued by long wait times, with children waiting months or even years before they are able to come to Britain–it has allowed over 800 children to reunite with their families. Reducing the legal pathways for children seeking asylum to enter Britain does not mean they will not come, or that they will not try. But it means they will face greater risks of poverty, homelessness, exploitation – and even risks to their lives should they attempt the dangerous crossing from France to Britain.
Importantly, leaving the EU with a deal does not guarantee family reunification will continue, it simply means it would need to be negotiated with the EU. It could be scrapped in the end or it could not. But leaving without a deal ensures more children’s safety will be at risk at a time when the numbers of arrivals are growing substantially.