We can’t turn our backs on this global human tragedy

Written By: Thangam Debbonaire
Published: February 14, 2017 Last modified: February 14, 2017

The world is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), an unprecedented 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide for various reasons including famine, war, poverty, climate change and internal repression. That total roughly equals this country’s entire population. Of those, 21.3 million are classed as refugees.

An International Rescue Committee report published in March last year described the rapid acceleration of the problem. In 2010, 10,000 people a day were displaced from their homes, and by 2014 that number had quadrupled.

The UK has legal obligations to refugees under international law. There is a rigorous process of assessment before someone is granted refugee status, and only then are they allowed to apply for work and look for somewhere to live. The refugees I have met have all been determined to do everything they can to contribute to the UK. They have also been determined to be reunited with their families.

As chair of the all-party group on refugees, I initiated a public inquiry entitled “Refugees Welcome?”, which has just completed four oral evidence sessions. We have received hundreds of pieces of written evidence.  The refugees we heard from in person gave powerful testimony about their difficult journeys, their painful experiences in their countries of origin, and their desire to contribute to and be part of this country, which has welcome them. They also spoke about periods of destitution and poverty after being granted status. They spoke of their natural desire to be reunited with their family as soon as possible.

This is a highly gendered issue. Women and children are far more likely to have been left behind than men. Their only hope of escape is to wait for a male family member to reach a country of sanctuary and then apply for reunion. Recent research by the Red Cross shows that 95 per cent of applicants waiting to join family members in the UK through refugee family reunion are women and children. It also found that the process was not safe.

Fifty-one per cent of the families Red Cross helped in 2014 were at risk of violence, torture or harassment during the process of applying for family reunion, so the process is not safe. The British Red Cross said that, to date in 2016, it has supported the travel of 1,551 people accepted by the Home Office under refugee family reunion, 580 of whom were from Syria. As of the beginning of September, 767 children granted family reunion visas had arrived in the UK after assistance from the British Red Cross, 280 of whom were from Syria. Those are hardly huge numbers. In its 2015 research, Not So Straightforward, the British Red Cross found that the current UK policy for refugee family union is not simple, not affordable and not safe.

The system is failing many women and children. Women for Refugee Women knows of many women in the UK who have had to flee from danger without their children and then struggled to bring their children to join them. The problems include, first, delays from the Home Office. If a woman has waited many years in the asylum process, her children back home may be older than 18 by the time she has been granted status, so they are not allowed the automatic right to join her.

Second, there are the costs of accessing family reunion rights. A woman whom Women for Refugee Women knows well entered the UK in 2007 after being imprisoned in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a human rights activist. She left behind her children, aged 12, 15 and 17. It was three and a half years before she was called for her first asylum interview, and she was not granted status until 2013. By then, her children, still vulnerable, were 23, 21 and 18, and were therefore refused the right to join her. She is still struggling to find a legal route to be reunited with them. She has already spent £600 per child on the first application and has been told that she needs to spend still more for the appeal. As can be imagined, those sums are an incredible burden for a refugee woman who can access only very low-paid jobs due to her interrupted employment history.

I recently met two brothers. Both were Syrian. One was granted status quickly, but the other was still in the process after being in detention. Their parents are still in Syria. They cannot come on the resettlement scheme or on family reunion, even though the first brother now has a full-time job and has said he is willing and able to support them.

The UK, unlike most European Union states, does not allow children to bring family members to join them here. Under the Dublin regulation – EU regulation 604/2013 – they can be transferred to another EU member state if they have a relative living there, but that just moves children around the EU and places more burdens on the states that receive the most refugees. It does not allow children already here and granted status to bring their parents here.

Someone fleeing war, torture or conflict may have lost relatives or been separated from parents or children. They may have been cared for by an aunt or an older sibling. They may have a wider idea of family than the nuclear family of Western social policy. Their children may have reached 18 by the time their status is confirmed, but they may still need protection or be dependent. If refugee family reunion rules in the UK are to ensure the security of refugees’ family members and family unity, they must address relationships of dependence beyond those currently permitted.

In July, the Home Office published updated guidance on refugee family reunion, which set out details of types of cases where exceptional circumstances may apply – for example, in the case of dependent children over the age of 18. It is important that there are exceptional circumstances, and it is a welcome sign that the Government recognise the importance of family reunion, but it is not enough. People are usually granted leave to remain in exceptional circumstances for only 33 months, and they may be subject to other restrictions to which those granted refugee status are not subject. Those restrictions are left to the discretion of Home Office officials, which does not give them the certainty that a change in the rules would provide.

The home affairs select committee reviewed the work of the immigration directorates: “It seems to us perverse that children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way as an adult would be able to do. The right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees just as it does to adults. The Government should amend the immigration rules to allow refugee children to act as sponsors for their close family.”

The same committee, in a later report, stated: “Family reunion of migrants has been shown to have benefits in terms of integration and support networks, in addition to the human rights requirements of allowing families to be together, and there is clear scope for further measures to facilitate women and children joining husbands, fathers and other male relatives who have reached the UK… We also recommend that the UK broaden the scope of family reunion rules”.

Our system needs to be properly implemented to fulfil our legal and moral obligations. The effect of cuts to legal aid is that refugees and UK citizens struggle to be reunited with their family members. Legal aid for specialist legal help for family reunion was cut by the coalition Government in 2013, on the grounds that it was considered a straightforward immigration matter that did not warrant the need for specialist legal support.

The evidence, however, from the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Women for Refugee Women and my own caseload shows that many of the cases are far from straightforward – they are complex and require specialist legal advisers. Given what is at stake for families, there should be legal aid provision to assist refugees making family reunion applications.

Further, those refugees who have been granted citizenship cannot sponsor family members in the same way as those only with refugee status. That seems particularly harsh. They are subject to the same minimum income and other requirements of the spousal visa process as other UK citizens. I understand why that has happened, but it is difficult for newly arrived people to meet such conditions – or those who have arrived here from war zones, it seems unnecessarily harsh.

Rather than simply turning down an application if there is not enough information, it would be helpful if the Home Office asked for more information. The Refugee Council reported to me that applicants are not being given the opportunity to submit further evidence for their application when their supporting documentation is deemed insufficient. They are simply told that their application has been turned down, which forces them into lengthy and costly appeals processes. During that time, refugees who want to come here continue to live in precarious conditions, often in a third country – for example, if they have fled Syria, they might be in a camp in a neighbouring country such as Lebanon.

That would save the Government money on the appeals process and, most importantly, it would end the practice of leaving families stuck in vulnerable and precarious situations for months on end, waiting for an appeal to be heard. The Government should revise their practice guidance to officials carrying out the process and to move to asking for more information, rather than simply rejecting a family if there is insufficient information.

Demonstrating a relationship involves further complications. In applications for a sponsor’s spouse, whether through marriage or civil partnership, as well as an unmarried partner, the applicant must demonstrate a “subsisting relationship” that preceded the sponsor’s application for asylum, as well as the intention to live together permanently. Again, I understand why that has come about, but hope that ministers accept that relationships and marriages happen, and children are born, while refugees remain in third countries awaiting decisions on resettlement.

The rules exclude such families from reuniting, because they are deemed to be post-flight families. For unmarried and same-sex partners, applications must also demonstrate that the couple “have been living together in a relationship akin to marriage or civil partnership which has subsisted for two years or more.”

The process should be safe. The British Red Cross report, Not So Straightforward, described how, although the initial application for family reunion can be made online, the following process requires family members wishing to join relatives here in the UK to travel to their closest visa application centre. The report highlighted examples of families risking their lives to travel to an embassy, crossing conflict zones, or of people being turned away from the embassy when they arrived, even when they had appointments.

These are people have fled from war, persecution and torture. Many of them have gone through terrible journeys to reach sanctuary in the UK. Many are children. Surely it is not too much to ask that they are allowed to be reunited quickly, safely and easily with their families. After all, is that not what we would want if it happened to us?

Thangam Debbonaire is an Opposition whip. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate