LONDON: Delays by the UK’s Home Office that are keeping an 11-year-old Syrian girl with severe mental health issues apart from her mother are “putting her life at risk,” according to experts providing support and working to reunite the family.
The girl, from Al-Harah in southern Syria, arrived in the UK in 2021 to join her 28-year-old brother. Her mother was imprisoned in September 2020 by Syrian authorities after army officers accused her of unauthorized filming with a phone, the family told the Independent newspaper.
Relatives were subsequently told the women had been killed in a prison bombing. It later emerged that she was alive but by that time the girl had traveled to the UK. The mother was released from prison in February 2022 and in September the family applied for a family reunion visa that would allow her to join her children in the UK.
The Home Office is supposed to make a decision about such applications within three months. However, the family has been waiting for more than four and a half months and authorities have requested further evidence to explain why the girl cannot return to the war-torn country and be reunited with her mother there.
Mental health professionals who have been caring for the girl have submitted medical evidence to the Home Office stating that she feels “hopeless about ever being reunited with her mother and/or feeling ‘better’, and she is also reporting that she wants to die.”
They continued: “She presents as broadly mute, tearful, tense … she usually sits with her fists covering her mouth, often picking at the skin on her hands until she bleeds. She has expressed that her only desire is to be reunited with her mother, that she feels emotionally and physically exhausted, she has thoughts to hurt herself which she has acted upon.”
A family therapist said that on the advice of mental health professionals, the girl’s brother quit his job so that he could supervise his sister and prevent her from harming herself. They highlighted the significant effect this has had on his family life as he has several special-needs children to care for.
The therapist gave the professional opinion that the brother would struggle to provide his sister with the long-term care she requires.
Nick O’Loughnan, a solicitor acting on the girl’s behalf, told the Independent: “I am deeply concerned that the Home Office is questioning why this extremely vulnerable and traumatized young girl cannot return to a war zone.
“The secretary of state has a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the UK. I think that it is obvious that this is a complete dereliction of duty.
“The delay in the outcome is affecting our client’s mental health so severely that it is placing her life at risk. Every day that passes without a positive decision furthers our client’s trauma and places great strain on the lives of her caregivers in the UK.”
UK government rules allow a parent to apply for a family reunion visa so that a spouse or children under the age of 18 can join them, but children cannot apply for a visa for a parent using the same process.
Instead, they must submit a “leave outside the rules” application asking the Home Office to grant permission for a migrant to enter the country because there are exceptional circumstances.
The rights of the family are enshrined under international human rights law, and the UN’s Refugee Agency has emphasized the importance of reuniting families in efforts to care for child refugees.
A Home Office spokesperson told the Independent the mother’s visa application was under active consideration, “with the well-being of those involved central to the thinking of decision-makers.”