For eight years, Kedija* and her brother Yonas were separated from their mother. The siblings survived alone in a refugee camp, were held for ransom by kidnappers and languished in a detention centre.

But thanks to the determination of their mother Semira, and assistance from UNHCR, the children – now aged 15 and 12 – are in their mother’s arms once again.

“Despite being separated for more than eight years, I never lost hope of being reunited with my kids again,” says Semira, gripping them tightly with tears of joy running down her smiling face.

The family’s story began in 2010. Semira was forced to flee Eritrea to seek safe refuge for the family, making the difficult decision to leave her two children with their grandparents.

After five years of relative stability, Kedija and Yonas were themselves forced to flee insecurity in Eritrea and cross the border into Ethiopia. Semira lost contact with them while her brother desperately searched for his niece and nephew. He eventually found them living alone in a refugee camp near the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.

Forced to flee their homeland, Kedija and Yonas were separated from their mother for eight years. © UNHCR / T. Argaz

The trio set off on their journey to reach Semira – who by now had found safety in Switzerland – striving to reach the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. But events took a dark turn at the Sudanese-Libyan border.

Kedija and Yonas were separated from their uncle and sold from one smuggler to another. Terrified and more vulnerable than ever, the siblings tried to take a boat to Europe but were intercepted and returned to Libya.

During times of displacement, separation of family members can have devastating consequences for people’s wellbeing and their ability to rebuild their lives – especially for children. Family unity is a fundamental human right and UNHCR advocates for safe and efficient family reunification.

International Day for Families on 15 May celebrates the importance of family and promotes awareness of the social and economic issues affecting families around the world.

UNHCR went in search of Kedija and Yonas and managed to locate them in a detention centre in Libya. UNHCR Senior Protection Assistant Noor Elshin says it was like finding a needle in a haystack.

“Despite having them in front of me, I still couldn’t believe that we’d actually found them.”

Shortly afterwards, Semira received the call that she had been praying for – her children had been found. “I’d spent days and nights praying for them, despite everyone around me losing hope, until the day I heard my daughter’s voice for the first time in several months,” says Semira.

UNHCR staff advocated for the release of the siblings from detention and successfully reunited them with their mother in Switzerland. © UNHCR / T. Argaz

Finally reunited in Switzerland, eight years of worry and longing fell away as Semira embraced her children, safe and happy at last.

Sadly, around the world the number of unaccompanied and separated children continues to grow.

Every hour, 20 children – the same number as an average Australian primary school class – run for their lives all alone, having lost their parents to violence or become separated from them.

UNHCR ensures these children have the necessities of life, psychosocial support and helps reunite children with their loved ones through family tracing services.

But the growing crisis of unaccompanied and separated children has put enormous strain on child protection efforts and resources are increasingly scarce. Every day, vulnerable children are falling through the cracks.

*All names have been changed for protection purposes

You can help give unaccompanied and separated children the support and care they need. © UNHCR / S. Ararah

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