Reuniting refugee families separated by conflict and bureaucracy

29 February 2016
Reuniting refugee families separated by conflict and bureaucracy

One-year-old Omar from Aleppo in Syria has rejoined his refugee parents in England after a four-month separation, thanks to the combined efforts of the British Red Cross and the ICRC's Beirut delegation.

Amid the chaos of conflict and violence, many things can get lost or left behind when people flee to safety. Family homes, treasured possessions and connections with loved ones are often the things people on the move miss the most. But also at risk are critical documents: birth certificates, passports and other official paperwork that ensures refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants can cross borders, be resettled and seek assistance in other countries. When homes and offices are reduced to rubble and people have very little time to escape, important documents are often destroyed or left behind, presenting people on the move with major problems when it comes to their legal status, resettlement and access to services.

All over the world, the ICRC helps refugees, displaced or stateless persons who do not have appropriate travel documents and therefore cannot return to their country of origin or residence, or go to a country willing to receive them.

One such case was Omar, a one-year-old baby from the besieged Syrian town of Aleppo who arrived in the UK from Lebanon this week after being separated from his parents and three siblings for almost four months. His father fled Aleppo with his wife, then pregnant with Omar, and their three children. Earlier this year he was able to secure a family reunion visa to bring his wife and children to Cardiff, Wales. But an error on Omar's passport, listing his place of birth as the Syrian capital, Damascus, stopped the newborn from boarding a plane.

"He was only eight months old when we left him – he wasn't even on solid food yet," said his mother. "The authorities in Lebanon told me if I didn't leave the country then I would never be allowed to come to the UK. They said this was my only chance. I felt threatened. My other daughter has Down's syndrome and needs a lot of care. I didn't want to leave her either, or my other children. I had to make a snap decision. Either way it was a huge sacrifice. I feel so guilty for leaving him, but I had no choice."

After hearing about the desperate situation, the British Red Cross approached the ICRC's Beirut delegation for help in overcoming the bureaucratic obstacles preventing Omar from being reunited with his parents.

"Thousands of refugees who fled to Lebanon have no valid travel documents and most can't go back home to get them," explains Christine Rechdane, head of the ICRC's Tracing Unit in Beirut.

"The ICRC has lots of experience in helping facilitate travel for refugees in Lebanon either by issuing travel documents or by spealing to the government," continues Rechdane. "After receiving a call from the British Red Cross, we quickly started discussions with the authorities to make sure Omar could get an exit visa and be reunited with his parents as quickly as possible. The Syrian people have been through unimaginable stress and hardship and it's critical that families fleeing war can stay together."

The ICRC in Lebanon has been helping refugees going to the UK in the past two years in various ways. One thing we do is issue the internationally-recognised ICRC Travel Document (ICRC TD) when not having a passport or other document is preventing resettlement or reunification. "Certain countries, such as the UK, issue their own special one-way travel document and don't need the ICRC TD. But even in those cases, we're helping refugees with administrative procedures and helping them clear their exit visas with the Lebanese authorities," explains Rechdane.

And this week, everybody's efforts finally bore fruit, when Omar arrived in England. "I was so excited to see him again," said Mousa's father after meeting his son at London's Heathrow airport. "I was going hot and cold with nerves. I was so worried that he'd have forgotten my face but he smiled when he saw me. Words can't describe how happy I am to have him back with me in time for his first birthday."