No matter how hard they try to stay together, war and conflict often splits families apart.

We hear of mothers torn apart from their children and partners in the mayhem and desperate struggle of fleeing a war zone, and families ending up in different countries or even continents. 

Every child should be able to live safely with their loved ones, but conflict and persecution can leave some with no option but to flee their homes and leave their families behind. For the few who find a place of safety in the UK, callous rules condemn them to a life without their parents or siblings.

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These children are recognised as refugees. Yet unlike adults, they are denied the right to be joined by their closest family members.

We heard so many of these truly heart-rending stories that we commissioned research with our Families Together coalition partners Refugee Council and Save the Children and what we found was truly chilling – the UK Government is deliberately and destructively preventing child refugees from being with their families, choosing instead to leave these vulnerable, traumatised children in the care of local authorities.

 simple change to the UK Government’s policy would transform the lives of these children and help to ensure they grow up safe and secure with the people they need and love the most. 

Our Without My Family report details exactly how the UK Government’s refugee family reunion rules – which block child refugees in the UK from being reunited with their families – are at odds with national law and a flagrant breach of international law and are likely to cause irreversible harm to children seeking safety in this country. 

Current UK law allows adult refugees rebuilding their lives here to sponsor their immediate family members to join them. Child refugees, however, are deprived of this right. The UK is one of the only countries in Europe to prevent child refugees from sponsoring their family members to join them.

We have all read the cries of outrage about “swarms of migrants”; this attitude is not only inhumane – it is inaccurate. Only 1,070 children – fewer than three a day – were recognised as refugees in the UK over the last year.

Having fled conflict, persecution and human rights abuses, the UK Government itself has recognised their refugee status and stated that it would be unsafe for them to return to the country they escaped. Yet, despite acknowledging their vulnerability, it blocks these children from being reunited with their family members. 

Our report is based on first-hand testimonies from children and young people aged 15-25 (all of whom arrived in the UK whilst under 18). They shared their often harrowing stories which illustrate the devastating effects of family separation on children who have sought safety in this country, including constant anxiety, fear for their families’ safety, and in some cases serious mental health consequences. 

Habib*, 17, shared his story of fleeing Sudan after being tortured and imprisoned at just 15 years old. He travelled to Libya, leaving behind his mother and younger siblings.

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In Libya he remained unsafe, treated so badly he still speaks of suffering post-traumatic flashbacks several years later. He finally found safety in the UK but remains separated from his family.

Habib told us: “I haven’t seen my family for nearly three years now. It is a long time and I miss my mum. It is really hard. It is something that you cannot forget about. You can cover it, but you can’t forget… Being without your family, it is like you have a body without a soul”

In 2016, Rifat was 15 and living in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo in Syria with his parents, three sisters and younger brother. He was targeted for recruitment into an armed group and his parents feared for his life.

Eventually, Rifat’s parents had to make the unimaginable decision to send him away from Syria in order to save his life. Rifat now lives in the UK with a foster family and has not seen his parents or siblings for about 16 months and has been unable to contact them.

He does not know whether they are alive or dead, every day he moves between grief and hope.

We asked some of the children interviewed what they would say to the UK Government: Pamir, 17, from Afghanistan said: “I want them to imagine if they left their children far away from them and they want to get them. What they would do?”

Habib said: “Just imagine yourself that someone takes you from somewhere and puts you somewhere else, for example, a desert in the Sahara. And you have got no language, no nothing.

And they say, ‘Live your life without your family, without anything.’ It is really hard to start, you know.”

We say to the UK Government that it is time to uphold its human rights obligations – to ensure the best interests of the child are the primary consideration in all decisions concerning child refugees, and that these vulnerable young people are spared the continuing trauma of being separated from their loved ones.

*name has been changed 

Naomi McAuliffe is programme director at Amnesty International Scotland.