Source: Safe Passage/ICN
History was made this morning when dozens of families facing indefinite separation due to Covid-19 were reunited in the UK, as part of a rescue operation by the British and Greek governments. Following nearly two months of bilateral effort by the Greek and British authorities, supported by refugee charity Safe Passage International, around 50 people flew from Athens to London on a flight to reunite refugees with their family in the UK.
The UK is thought to be the first country to facilitate refugee family reunion from Greece since Europe went into lockdown.
Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of Safe Passage International said: "Today's flight demonstrates what can be achieved when countries work together in the best interests of refugees. The British and Greek governments have shown real leadership in reuniting these families despite the travel difficulties and we now urge the UK and other countries across Europe to continue these efforts to reunite the families still waiting and ensure no one is left behind."
Passengers on the flight all had permission from the British government to join their relatives in the UK but found themselves stranded in Greece when commercial flights were suspended in mid-March. Safe Passage worked in collaboration with Labour peer Lord Dubs and Conservative peer, the Earl of Dundee, to encourage both governments to find an alternative solution. Today's transfer was facilitated using a Greek repatriation flight already bound for the UK to collect Greek citizens.
Lord Dubs said: "This is a cause for celebration, and I'm delighted that the British and Greek governments have managed to cooperate to get this to happen. I hope it is only a start because there are other children across Europe who want to join their family in Britain under the Dublin III family reunion and there are other children who are in the Greek camps who may not have family here but also need to be helped to find safety."
Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, Parish Priest, Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception and Chair, Justice & Peace Commission, Diocese of Westminster commented: "this is great news for the 52 vulnerable asylum seekers who will today be reunited with their families in the UK through the perseverance of Safe Passage and Lord Dubs. During the COVID19 crisis vulnerable groups risk being forgotten and this is only a start. In particular, as Lord Dubs points out, there are other children left in the Greek camps both with and without family in the UK. We need to ensure they also are safe."
Eirini Agapidaki, Greek Special Secretary for Unaccompanied Minors, coordinated the Greek operation and said "It is with great pleasure that we announce the reunification of families to the UK during this pandemic. Amongst the passengers are children that will finally be with their siblings, men and women to finally reunified with their spouses.
"When you put yourself into their shoes and you experience the mixed feelings they usually have - anticipation together with distress, hope and uncertainty - you realise the vital significance of the reunification process. Today, around 50 more people will have the opportunity to step into a different, better future."
Those on today's flight had already been in Greece for months if not years, often in precarious conditions in camps on the Greek islands. Many of their UK families have been closely involved in the campaign, recently signing an open letter to the British Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary asking for the government's help to bring their loved ones to safety.
One family member, a university student whose younger brother has joined him from the Greek island of Samos, said: "It's been five years since I've been able to properly see my brother, and all I've been able to think about is getting him to safety with me here. Now it's finally happening, we'll finally be together and able to relax. I know he's looking forward to studying, playing sports and having a normal life."
Barbara Kentish of People Not Walls, which works with destitute refugees in northern France, said: "I am so grateful for all the work done by Safe Passage and others in lobbying for these 52 asylum seekers to rejoin their families. We can feel overwhelmed by the numbers of people suffering, abandoned or dying in the current crisis, but by focusing on one issue, in one place, at one time, Safe Passage has shown the importance of never losing hope, and achieving miracles. This news is indeed a boost and encouragement for all those working with exiles on the move, and of course the exiles themselves. Well done to Safe Passage and Lord Dubs."
For more information about Safe Passage see: www.safepassage.org.uk/
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