The family have been waiting nearly four years to be brought to the UK and are running out of money to buy medication for their seven-year-old, who has been unable to receive proper hospital care in Iraq.
The UK government initially accepted the family’s application for help in December 2019 and gave them final approval in February 2020 under the UK Resettlement Scheme, a relocation programme for vulnerable refugees who have been referred by the UN.
But they are still waiting to be brought to Britain.
Speaking to The Independent from their home in Erbil, Iraq, the 40-year-old father, Yawar, described how the agonising wait was affecting his ill son. “My eldest son needs special drugs because of his epilepsy and it is a struggle to get this medication, but I would do anything I can for my child.
“The medication is not controlling his epileptic bouts completely and for the past two days we haven’t gotten any sleep, neither he nor us. The last time we saw the doctor he increased my son’s dosage to the highest possible and said that if that doesn’t work then there is nothing else for him. His epilepsy is still not controlled.”
His eldest son is not able to communicate with other children and also suffers from hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain and causes delayed development. The youngest son, who is four years old, has also had problems with his development and suffers from social isolation, lawyers aiding the family have said.
Yawar and his wife fled Syria in 2014 after Isis attacked his hometown city of Kobani in the north of the country. The success of Isis in the region generated a wave of some 400,000 refugees into Turkey. His two sons were born after the couple fled to Iraq.
Launched in 2020, the UK’s Resettlement Scheme (UKRS) initially aimed to bring around 5,000 vulnerable refugees to Britain in its first year from countries such as Syria and Sudan.
However, the Home Office scrapped the target and said that the numbers would be “kept under review”. Since 2020, only 2,407 people have been relocated and many are forced to wait years before they are moved.
According to a report by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the UK has not provided the agency with a quota for the UKRS since 2020 and the agency has been told to restrict any new referrals. Any refugee referrals have been limited to “highly exceptional cases on an ad-hoc basis, amounting to a handful per year”.
The International Organisation for Migration has carried out an assessment of the family’s needs, and told the UK government that they would need a home without stairs and with wheelchair access. The Home Office told the family that they did not have any suitable accommodation for them to live in the UK.
In June 2021, NHS England assessed the family’s case and told the government that the eldest son would also need treatment at a regional paediatric neurosciences/surgery centre.
Lawyers supporting the family have told the Home Office that Iraq’s state-run hospitals are “deeply inadequate and the only proper support available is at private hospitals, which [our client] cannot afford”. They added that even the private hospitals in Iraq cannot treat hydrocephalus.
Amid the worsening security situation in the Middle East, Iran fired missiles into Erbil, Iraq this week, near where the family are living. On hearing the missile attacks, Yawar fled with his family to the street. He said: “It was very scary in the middle of the night for children to live in this fear.”
He and his family have now been able to return home. He added that, while he works during the day at a market, he struggles to afford his son’s medication and has got into debt trying to pay the family’s bills.
His 33-year-old wife is also struggling with her mental health as she is left to look after their two sons. He added: “When I first received the news that my application was accepted I was over the moon because I just wanted my children to have a better life, but now with the delays I am gradually feeling frustrated as the process is prolonged. I just want my children to get the treatment they need, for them to go to school, and for them to live a normal life like other children.”
Neither of his children are able to go to school and his family are shunned by others when they take their disabled son outside the house, he said. “When we go out, people look at us in a strange way. It just makes us feel very bad. They look at our children because of how they behave. There is not much acceptance of disability.”
In October 2022, officials at the Home Office told the family’s lawyers that they were “aware of the urgent nature of this case” and that they would “continue to take steps to source suitable accommodation” for the family.
Analysis by the charity Refugee Council found that the number of refugees being resettled by the UK is at the lowest level for a decade. In the year to September 2023, only 766 were resettled.
Jon Featonby, chief policy analyst at the charity, said: “This family’s case is a clear illustration of the urgent need to improve resettlement, which is one of the only existing ‘safe routes’ for refugees to come to the UK but is at its lowest level for over a decade.”
He said that the Refugee Council have been calling on the government to expand safe routes for refugees to come to the UK but instead there has been “no meaningful commitment” to help.
Mr Featonby added: “The government must make it a priority to reduce dangerous Channel crossings by providing safe passage to our shores.”
Fionnuala Gregan, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis, which has been supporting the family’s case, said: “We are extremely concerned for the welfare of this family of four, including two children with disabilities, which include delayed development, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
“We are concerned that while the family experiences ongoing delay in their being resettled to the UK, they face food scarcity, growing debt and are unable to access adequate healthcare for their children’s disabilities.
“While the family await resettlement to the UK, they bear witness to a deteriorating security situation in Iraq, which has included drone strikes to a US military base located just a few kilometres from their home and recent Iranian missile attacks which targeted residential areas in Erbil, Iraq. Should the delays continue, the family fear the risk of becoming trapped in an increasingly precarious situation in Iraq.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection for those who genuinely need it through our safe and legal routes. Since 2015, we have offered a place to almost half a million men, women and children seeking safety, including those from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as family members of refugees.
“We are committed to finding accommodation to support ongoing resettlement, but for certain cases where specific housing is required, the speed at which individuals can be resettled in the UK can be impacted.”