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Refugees separated from their families are prevented from integrating in UK, study finds

31st Jan 2018

Refugees living in the UK are prevented from successfully integrating into British life because they are unable to be reunited with their loved ones facing danger overseas, Oxfam and the Refugee Council warned today.

A new research report, Safe but not Settled, reveals that separation from loved ones prevents many refugee rebuilding their lives in the UK.

The report details cases of refugees becoming desperate, and even suicidal, because of the distress caused by UK Government rules which prevent families from being reunited. 
 Many refugees were plagued by worry, which left them unable to focus on finding work, making friends or learning English. In a few cases, refugees were so anxious they rarely left their homes. Some refugees end up in poverty as they struggle to pay for the legal costs of applying to bring their family here.

The separation can also have practical consequences, with refugees becoming overwhelmed by extra caring responsibilities that restrict the time they can spend on activities to help them settle in to UK life. One young Syrian man, Joram, became the sole carer for his eight-year-old sister and parents, both of whom have serious medical conditions. His brother, who used to share the responsibility of looking after the family, is trapped in Lebanon and ineligible to join them here. 

The report comes ahead of a crucial debate in Parliament in March where MPs will consider changing the law to enable more refugees to be reunited with their loved ones. Current rules only allow adult refugees to be reunited with their spouses and children younger than 18. Additionally legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunion since 2013, making it even more difficult for families separated by war and persecution to reunite. 

The report finds that where families are able to reunite, the benefits can be immense with dramatic improvements on people's ability to learn English, find work and rebuild their lives.

The Refugee Council and Oxfam say that the existing rules are restrictive and unfair, failing to recognise that families come in all shapes and sizes. They urge the Government to change the rules so that more refugee families can live together. They also call for legal aid to be reintroduced so that refugees who have lost everything can get the support they need to navigate the complicated process of being reunited with their families

Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, said: "As this report makes crystal clear, refugee families living in the UK are just like most other families in the UK: the safety of their loved ones is of utmost importance. The evidence is clear: reuniting refugee families gives them the best chance of living settled and fulfilling lives. Denying them the chance to restore their family ties condemns then to a future of anguish and guilt, with the anxiety of separation undermining their mental health. We urge the Government to do better by refugees and amend the unfair, restrictive UK rules that prevent refugee families from being reunited just when they need each other the most."

Sally Copley, Oxfam's head of policy, programmes and campaigns, said: "We all know how important family are when it comes to feeling safe, loved and secure. Most people would be shocked to discover that families are being torn apart simply because a brother or sister is over 18 and therefore not eligible to join their parents and siblings in the UK. 

"Refugees want to be able to play an active role in their communities and be able to learn English, but all too often they face pointless hurdles because of a system that keeps them separated from their family.  This in turns destroys their confidence to go out, make friends and be part of their community. As this study shows, it is not only harmful but also damaging to their chances of integrating successfully."

The report includes the story of Aster, who was persecuted in Eritrea on account of her religion and forced to flee or face death. After a long and perilous journey, including time spent in prison where she was abused, Aster finally arrived in the UK in 2016. 

Despite being finally safe, Aster is desperately worried about her children. She knows the chances of reuniting with them are slim: her daughter faces conscription into Eritrea's notoriously brutal military. Although her two sons have managed to escape to Ethiopia, they are both seriously ill with no one to care for them and as young adults are no longer eligible to join her here. She knows that there is slim chance of being reunited with them because two of them are 18 or over.

She said: "When I think of my children, I am always sad and I cannot enjoy life or take any part in anything … I'm doing my best but I can't fully concentrate on anything I do, all the time I am stressed thinking about the day when I will be reunited with my children."


To arrange an interview, please contact:

  • At Oxfam: Kai Tabacek on 07584 265 077 /
  • At the Refugee Council: Olivia Dunn on 020 7346 1214 / 07880 556931 /

Download a copy of the report here.

Notes to editors

The report coincides with the launch of the #FamiliesTogether campaign calling for changes to the rules on refugee family reunion. It is supported by a coalition of five organisations: Amnesty International UK, British Red Cross, Oxfam, Refugee Council and UNHCR. They are backing the Refugee Family Reunion Bill that returns to Parliament on 16 March. The private member's bill was introduced by Angus MacNeil MP in support of the campaign and is co-sponsored by MPs from all the main political parties. It calls for:

  • Child refugees to be able to sponsor their parents and siblings under the age of 25. 
  • Adult refugees to be able to sponsor their parents; their children under the age of 25; and their siblings under the age of 25.
  • The reintroduction of legal aid for refugee family reunion. 

The study is based on the experiences of 44 refugee families living in the UK, as related by their Refugee Council caseworkers. Half of the families considered are from Syria while the others come from Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia Iraq, Somalia and South Sudan. In 11 of the 44 cases, people were reunited with some or all of their separated family members. In almost three-quarters (32 out of 44) of the cases, the separated family members were not eligible for refugee family reunion under existing rules.

For updates, please follow @oxfamgbpress