Opinion

Sudan's year of war: How British government has failed UK residents with family in Sudan

The Sudan conflict is barely deemed newsworthy anymore but, for those with no safe route to join their close families in the UK, it remains a living nightmare one year after the war began, writes Nick Beales from refugee support group RAMFEL

Sudan conflict protest

Sudanese protesters outside Downing Street in April 2023 call for the the war in Sudan between the military and the RSF to end. Image: Shutterstock / Zakariya Irfan

One year ago, Sudan was thrust into turmoil as war broke out in Khartoum. Today, the World Health Organisation estimates that nearly eight million people have been displaced and the United Nations describe the conflict as the “world’s worst hunger crisis.” Make no mistake, with the world’s attention understandably focused on the massacre taking place in Gaza, those in Sudan are still suffering unimaginable horrors.

As with Gaza, the British government has done nothing to offer safe passage to those in Sudan, even those with clear UK family ties. This stands in stark contrast to the UK’s response to the war in Ukraine, where bespoke schemes were introduced allowing Ukrainians in the UK to sponsor both immediate and extended family members, with greatly reduced application bureaucracy. This was the right thing to do, but should not be the exception.

Shortly after the conflict in Sudan started though, the government made clear that no such schemes would be introduced. Then-immigration minister Robert Jenrick wrote that the government would “continue to provide safe and legal routes to the UK for those that require it”, suggesting that people in Sudan did not require such routes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Those trapped in Sudan with loved ones in the UK desperately require safe routes to be opened up, and the absence of them means many have been left with no option but to take alternative, dangerous journeys in search of safety and family reunification.

At Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL), we were working with 14 people in Sudan when the war started. 13 of these were unaccompanied children. All had exceptionally close family ties in the UK and all were looking to apply for family reunion. One year later, only two have been granted visas to the UK, with one requiring a court to intervene after the government argued that the war was not a change of circumstance.

It’s not just that the government has not introduced any sort of scheme for those in Sudan though. It’s that they haven’t even adapted the application process in recognition of the situation on the ground.

The UK’s Khartoum Visa Application Centre (VAC) closed swiftly last April. For those applying for family reunion from overseas, it is a requirement that they enrol biometrics at a VAC. If this is not done, the UK government will not even consider their case.

The closure of Khartoum’s VAC meant that people in Sudan could no longer even apply for a visa. Whilst for many of our clients in Sudan the chances of being issued a UK visa under extremely restrictive family reunion rules were already slim without an appeal to the independent immigration courts, the VAC’s closure literally made it impossible to even get the government to consider their applications. In short, those in Sudan simply could not secure UK visas after the war started, yet at the same time the government was repeatedly parroting the need for people to use so-called “safe and legal routes”.

Staggeringly, the government’s response to this was to tell unaccompanied children in Sudan to travel to neighbouring countries and attend a VAC, but to do so “at their own risk”. If they did not, then they effectively could not apply to come to the UK. Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman seemed quite content with these children making irregular journeys to other African nations, but have spent the last several years proposing ever more extreme measures in response to refugees making irregular journeys to the UK.

With such stark options, understandably some in Sudan had no choice but to flee and seek alternative routes to safety. One of the children we represent made it as far as Libya, where he is now arbitrarily detained without trial. A teenage girl we represent was trafficked to South Sudan, another country with no VAC. She was raped en route. In neither case, have these children even got as far as getting the UK government to consider their applications for reunification with their loved ones in the UK. This is the inevitable result of an inflexible system that simply is not fit for purpose in conflict zones like Sudan and Gaza.

Sadly, the Sudanese conflict is barely deemed newsworthy anymore, and the lack of safe routes for those in the country is a distant afterthought. For those in the UK trying to reunite with loved ones though, this remains a living nightmare.

The UK could still do the right thing though. They responded swiftly and compassionately to the war in Ukraine, with evidence suggesting that the public favour a welcoming, flexible and fair migration system. The government’s effective failure to even allow those in Sudan to apply for visas is anything but fair or flexible. Though the Illegal Migration Act, the government’s latest anti-refugee bill, is an appalling piece of legislation it does promise that more safe routes will be created. On the anniversary of the Sudanese conflict, a scheme allowing those in Sudan to reunite with UK family members with reduced and flexible bureaucracy would be an excellent place to start and would reducing the risk of unaccompanied children such as our clients embarking on dangerous journeys.

Nick Beales is the head of campaigning at Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL).

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