By Rumbi Bvunzawabaya
Zimbabwe International Women’s Awards were held on 3 October 2015 at the Birmingham Council Offices. I was privileged to be nominated for and awarded the Humanitarian Award.
I am passionate about people and as an Immigration and Human Rights Lawyer working with migrants I see first hand the issues that affect the migrant community in the UK.
One area that I am very passionate about is that of Children who have been separated from their parents due to immigration. I am working primarily with the Zimbabwean Community in this area.
The International Organization for Migration has characterised the largest numbers of migrants to the UK from Zimbabwe started in 1998 resulting from political and social unrest in Zimbabwe.
Prior to November 2002, Zimbabweans were free to travel to the UK without a visa and this provided a route to political asylum. In November 2002 the UK government introduced the requirement for Zimbabweans to apply for visas in order to travel to the UK, making it more difficult for them to apply for asylum.
The number of Zimbabweans applying for asylum fell and increasing numbers have sought refuge in South Africa instead.
The Zimbabweans living in the UK are made up of the following groups
• Those who have successfully regularised their Immigration Status and are naturalised as British Citizens
• Those with permanent residence
• Those with refugee status.
• There is a group who have temporary residence in the UK as students, work permit holders or have limited leave to remain on human rights grounds.
• There is a very large number of Zimbabweans living in the UK who have exhausted their asylum appeal rights and are expected to leave the UK voluntarily or await removal.
• The last group is that of people who are undocumented and live in the shadows
In all these groups there are children who have been left behind as parents have left Zimbabwe in search of better opportunities. There has been research into this area in terms of global migration and the impact on Children and families.
The story of Jane (a fictious name) is a common story which epitomises the challenges that are facing children as a result of migration. Jane aged, 12, was left in the care of a long-time family friend by her mother when she left for England to work as a maid seven years ago.
Jane has not seen her mother since, but in that time the child has tried to commit suicide twice and has been raped eight times by her foster mother’s former partner.
Please see the full report by UNICEF http://www.irinnews.org/report/72706/zimbabwe-children-left-at-home-pay-the-price-of-migration).
Children left behind form a very vulnerable group. The impact of parent’s migration on children can be devastating as it threatens the long-term well-being and development of adolescents into adulthood. Children affected by migration face several challenges in terms of education and health care as well as various psychosocial problems.
Many children left behind suffer from depressions, low self-esteem which can lead to behavioural problems, and at increased risk of poor academic performance as well as interruption of schooling.
Children who have joined their families experience residual problems as a result of the long separation. As an Immigration Solicitor I have assisted many people in regularising their immigration status in England and then subsequently in making applications for family reunion.
I have seen that for some families the reunion process is a joyous one but there is a large number of families where the family reunion is often a bittersweet experience as the parents are often not prepared for the challenges of starting to raise a child that they have never lived with.
A large proportion of the people who we encounter will have left the children in Zimbabwe when they were babies and they are reunited when the children are teenagers. Both the parents and the children struggle to bond and form a close relationship.
Children often find it difficult to bond and connect with siblings born in England. The children’s views are often not sought and disregarded.
Some of the Children who I have met have serious behavioural issues which emanate from the time that they have been separated from their parents. Some of the children have experienced physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
There is a another group of children who are trafficked to the UK to join parents who have been unable to regularise their immigration status or have been granted limited leave to remain.
Trafficked children face additional challenges of having no identity documents or lawful residence. They have limited access to health, employment, further education and resources. This limits their future prospects and leaves them in a very vulnerable position.
X came to England with agents to join her parents. She has been too afraid to even try to regularise her immigration status and has resorted to prostitution to survive. When I spoke to X she was filled with anger and disappointment at what she had been reduced to do.
So what do I do?
I have started an unregistered charity called Uhuru (Uhuru means Freedom in Swahili).
Uhuru aims to provide holistic support to parents and children who have been affected by the separation through migration.
I am very passionate about children and young people who have been affected by separation from their families. So some of the things that I am currently doing are
• raising awareness about the issues that affect families who have been separated by migration
• provide peer support for young people who have settled with their parents but are still experiencing emotional problems and provide mediation services for families who are experiencing post reunion problems
• provide training for professionals and community leaders who are working with families affected by long term separation
• arrange conferences and offer spiritual support for families affected by long term separation
In 2016 I am hosting a Women’s Conference called Freedom. Further details and tickets will start being sold at the beginning of November 2015. I am planning and preparing an empowerment conference for Children who are living in Zimbabwe who have experienced difficulties as a result of the separation from their parents.
For parents who have an online presence I have started a Facebook Group where parents communicate and chat about some of the challenges that they face giving ideas and encouragement.
Rumbi Bvunzawabaya is a UK based lawyer at RBM Solicitors