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Unicef - Syrian teenager calls on government to do more for unaccompanied refugee children

Take action and help reunite refugee children with their family in the UK: unicef.uk/FamilyReunion

Yesterday a young Syrian refugee called for the UK Government to do more to reunite unaccompanied refugee children in Europe with their families in the UK.

16-year-old Bilal* joined forces with Unicef UK and Citizens UK to call on the Government to redouble efforts to help lone children, thousands of whom are stranded, following months in dangerous camps across Europe. Many of these refugee children have a legal right to be with their families who are waiting for them in the UK.

Bilal, from Daraa, in southern Syria, said: “I want to help refugee children in Europe because they are constantly exposed to and subject to danger, humiliation and abuse. I have seen many of them in Calais. They are vulnerable and in desperate need of safety and protection. I hope the Government acts soon and helps them.”

Bilal was finally reunited with his older brother in the UK at the end of March, after travelling for more than a year from Syria. As the conflict in his homeland intensified, Bilal was forced to flee his home without his parents, who had to stay in Syria to care for his elderly grandparents.

After crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, Bilal eventually made it to Calais, but he spent seven months in the so-called Jungle before he was able to be reunited with his brother in the UK. He leaves behind him hundreds of other children who are still waiting. 

Unicef UK is calling on the UK Government to take urgent action to reunite refugee children like Bilal with their families in the UK, by speeding up existing family reunion procedures, sending immigration officials to Europe to process cases swiftly, and widening existing laws to allow children to be reunited with extended family.

Unicef UK Deputy Executive Director Lily Caprani said:

“The Government has said that unaccompanied children should be brought to the UK if they have family here, yet these children’s cases are moving far too slowly. It’s time for the Government to fulfil its commitments now, and get these children to their families. We know that right now there are at least 157 refugee children in Calais who should be living safely with their family in the UK.

“The children in Calais are the nearest and most visible cases of children who are fleeing conflict and making dangerous journeys in search of safety, yet have a legal right to live in safety with their families in the UK. By taking immediate action for these 157 children, the Government can take a crucial first step to show it is serious about its recent commitments to refugee children.”

Rabbi Janet Darley of the South London Liberal Synagogue, spokesperson for Citizens UK, said: “While we are delighted that a few unaccompanied children in Calais are finally being rightfully reunited with their UK-based families, each stage of the process is still taking far too long.  At the current rate, it will take a year to reunite all the children in Calais with their families in the UK. Children's lives are being put at risk, and we know of at least two boys who have died while trying to reunite with their families in the UK. The Government must speed up this reunification process to prevent further tragic deaths.”

Under existing UK immigration rules about refugee family reunion, children can be reunited with parents, but not extended family members. These rules fail to recognise that after years of conflict, many of these children have been orphaned – but they may have grandparents, aunts and uncles, or adult brothers and sisters in the UK who could care for them. By widening the rules, the UK can ensure children living in conflict regions can be reunited with their families safely and legally, rather than having to risk their lives on dangerous journeys through Europe to reach their families.

Note to Editors:

*Bilal’s name has been changed to protect his identity

For more information please contact:

Greg Jones, Unicef UK Press Office on +44 (0)207 375 6067 or gregj@unicef.org.uk

Joe English, Unicef UK Press Office on +44 (0)20 7375 6091 or joee@unicef.org.uk

Unicef UK Press Office +44 (0)20 7375 6030 media@unicef.org.uk


  • The Dublin III Treaty governs EU asylum applications and says that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe country they enter. In practice this means that states use Dublin III to deport refugees back to the frontier of Europe. Dublin III also says that refugees with nuclear family in a third country should claim asylum on entry to the EU and can then formally request that the third country “takes charge” of their asylum application. In practice this rarely happens, not a single child made a successful take charge application from France to Britain since the system was established in 2013.
  • The main barriers to the effective functioning of these provisions in France are the 3 month wait for a minor to be assigned a legal guardian and subsequent 6 month wait for their claim to be lodged and a take charge request issued. The minors are also deeply distrustful of the French authorities, live in highly dangerous and unstable conditions, and then have to contend with the very high standards of evidence the Home Office requires to accept the request to take charge.
  • Islington Law Centre, Bhatt Murphy and Citizens UK worked together to bring the cases of four Syrian boys to court in the UK in January. The court ruled that because of their right to family life they were entitled to be reunited with their loved ones while their asylum applications are considered in Britain. The court decided that rather than proceeding through the full and formal “take charge” process it would be sufficient, given the conditions in Calais, for the lawyers to write to the French authorities claiming asylum and that on receipt of proof of this the Home Office should admit them to the UK.
  • In recent weeks French lawyers took France to court to trigger a faster release of take charge requests, but no institutional remedy has been established to make this the norm. Meanwhile the Home Office has successfully sought permission to appeal the January decision and refused two subsequent take charge requests released via the expedited issuance following the French courts. However, on 21 March for the first time, children were reunited with their families in the UK following the Home Office accepting take charge requests. So far, 24 children from Calais have been reunited with their families in this way. Citizens UK have over 70 such live cases. We are extremely concerned that these children will be dispersed following moves to demolish sections of the camp and will be lost to the teams working to reunite them with their families.
  • There are 157 children in Calais who have a legal right to come to the UK to claim asylum under Dublin III.

About Unicef: 

Unicef is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK. For more information please visit unicef.org.uk

About Citizens UK: 

Citizens UK is the national home of community organising – a network of over 350 faith groups, schools and colleges that work together for the common good. They have been campaigning on the Syrian crisis for over 18 months and created www.refugees-welcome.org.uk to help coordinate the public’s response. So far Citizens UK efforts to persuade councils to participate in resettling Syrian refugees have persuaded 44 councils to offer 3,097 places. They’ve identified 700 private landlords who are offering properties, persuaded a dozen universities to offer £3.5 million of scholarships for refugees and successfully challenged the Prime Minister to resettle at least 1,000 people before Christmas.

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