A debate in Westminster Hall last week has kept up the pressure on the government over the issue of refugee family reunion. Alex Fraser, from our refugee support team, explains why it is such an important issue.
At its heart, family reunion is about keeping loved ones together. That simple yearning we all have to be with our mum, dad, son or daughter.
But family reunion is also a safe and legal route to protection that refugees can pursue in order to bring loved ones to the UK.
Yet the system could work so much better. We believe it should be an important part of the UK’s response to the refugee crisis.
A better system would reunite families torn apart by war and persecution. A better system would not force families to try the dangerous journeys into Europe offered by smugglers.
A system stacked against you
One month ago, we helped a mother and her four young children from Aleppo join their husband and father in the UK.
We also helped Ahmed get his family here from Yemen. “I have no words to explain how much I was happy when I first saw my family,” he said. “Because of British Red Cross today I am able to eat, sleep, laugh and enjoy my time with my children as all parents do.”
In fact, this year the British Red Cross has helped over 2,000 people, accepted by the Home Office under family reunion rules, travel to the UK. Of those, 944 were from Syria and 1,522 were children.
While this may appear positive, we see several ways in which the system is stacked against the people we are there to support.
We recently came across a 17-year-old Syrian boy who was abducted and tortured for four days on his way to lodging his family reunion application in Turkey.
Why was he in Turkey? In a word: paperwork.
He had to attend a British embassy in person in order to submit a signed paper copy of his family reunion application. You can also be asked to provide other original documents and attend an interview.
If there is no functioning embassy in the country, like in Syria, then family members are forced to make dangerous journeys across borders to complete their applications.
Secondly, applying for a family reunion visa is expensive and often complex. People used to be able to use legal aid for refugee family reunion. But for the majority this was stopped in 2013, which means people have to pay for the legal support many require to apply.
Thirdly, people are often not given the opportunity to submit further evidence for their application if it’s needed, which ultimately costs the British taxpayer and refugee families.
Giving applicants the opportunity to provide more evidence, rather than simply refusing them, would save the government money on appeals and prevent families being left in vulnerable situations while the appeals process takes place.
Finally, the eligibility for family reunion is needlessly restrictive. We see families torn apart because the rules do not allow young people over 18 to reunite with their parents here. Similarly, child refugees in the UK are not allowed to sponsor their parents to join them here.
Applications can be considered ‘outside the rules’ if there are exceptional or compassionate reasons to do so. But we know in the last three years only 65 cases have been granted outside the rules. This is despite record numbers of people seeking protection.
Simplifying the rules
Thankfully, we are now starting to build the momentum we need for change. Last week’s debate in Westminster Hall saw politicians openly discuss the flaws in the family reunion system. They cited our report, ‘Not So Straightforward’, which sets out the issues and our recommendations.
All of these problems with the current system, we believe, are a result of treating refugee family reunion as an immigration issue, rather than the protection issue it is.
No one chooses to become a refugee. No one chooses to place their family on board a deadly boat unless this is the only choice they have left. People deserve better than this. They deserve to be safe and be together.
Simplifying refugee family reunion, treating it as part of the refugee and asylum process – as a safe and legal route to protection – would do just that. It would make a huge difference to the lives of people we are there to support.
- The British Red Cross is the largest provider of support to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
- This year, we have helped over 2,000 people reunite with their family in the UK.