On Monday, a group of 52 asylum seekers and refugees, including 16 unaccompanied minors, flew from Greece to Britain to be reunited with their families in the UK. The transfer had been delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Under the EU Dublin III Regulation (the Dublin Treaty), family reunifications are facilitated if a close relative is already in the country of destination. As such, section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 provides that unaccompanied refugee children can lodge an asylum claim to come to the UK from another Dublin State if they have family in the UK to be reunited with. The burden of responsibility for those children lies on the State in which the child has family ties, in this case the UK, and it is up to that State to make arrangements to transfer the child.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, family reunification has been suspended across much of Europe as a natural consequence of closed borders and cancelled flights. After a six-week corona-related delay, a joint effort by the UK and Greek governments allowed a flight with over 50 migrants to go ahead and bring over 50 migrants to the UK from Athens on Monday. The individuals on the flight included people from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Many of them have been living in Greece’s overcrowded refugee camps for months, alone and in problematic sanitary conditions. There are currently 42.000 people on the Greek islands. Amongst these are at least 1500 unaccompanied minors, in addition to another 3500 unaccompanied children who are stranded on the mainland.
The UK and Greece recently committed to a Joint Action plan on migration in which they focus on family reunification, and specifically on the best interests of unaccompanied children in Greece. Monday’s flight can be considered a first direct product of this pact. Although this renewed commitment to family reunification efforts under the Dublin treaty is welcome, the pact comes with significant shortcomings.
On the one hand, the Action Plan is only valid for “as long as the UK remains bound by the Dublin Regulation.” In other words, it will only stay in force until the end of the transition period – which is less than eight months away. Once the transitional period ends, and the Dublin Treaty is no longer binding on the UK, there is no guarantee that unaccompanied minors will still be able to join their family members in the UK. Additionally, the pact only addresses unaccompanied children who qualify for family reunification. It does not satisfactorily deal with the relocation of other unaccompanied children stuck in Greece. In order to protect all children refugees adequately, relocation efforts for unaccompanied children in Greece’s refugee camps who do not have family members or relatives in the UK should be in addition to the UK’s pre-existing legal obligations under Dublin III. There is no mention of that in the Joint Action Plan.
The success of this particular flight was a result of intense advocacy by refugee families in the UK working with charities such as Safe Passage, a campaign group which fights for family reunification and two cross-party members of the House of Lords, Lord Alf Dubs (Labour) and the Earl of Dundee, a Conservative peer with responsibility for child refugees at the Council of Europe. Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of the refugee charity Safe Passage International, said in a news release: “The British and Greek governments have shown real leadership in reuniting these families despite the travel difficulties.”
Let’s hope they keep doing so in the future.