A bill that would enable refugees to reunite with loved ones in safety – described by campaigners as having the potential to be ‘life changing’ for refugees – passed its second reading in the House of Lords today (Friday 8 July).
Currently, many refugees in the UK endure indefinite separation from their loved ones due to the UK’s restrictive family reunion rules which prevent them from being reunited here. This includes unaccompanied refugee children who are unable to sponsor any family members to join them. Liberal Democrat Peer, Sarah Ludford, has tabled a private member’s bill that seeks to change this by expanding family reunion entitlements for all refugees, as well as reintroduce legal aid for such cases.
The UK’s current family reunion rules are very restrictive. They mean that adult refugees can only reunite with their partner or dependent children. Child refugees who arrive alone in the UK cannot sponsor any family members to join them here in the UK – not even their parents – which sets the UK apart from almost all other countries in Europe.
Even where a refugee is entitled to reunite with a family member, the process for reuniting is often long and complex, requiring support from a solicitor. But legal aid has not been available to refugees seeking to reunite with their family members since legal aid was reformed in 2012.
The Home Secretary’s new Nationality and Borders Act makes it even harder for refugees who have not come to the UK directly to reunite with their family members – even when they have been recognised by the UK government as genuinely in need of protection and have been granted leave to remain. These refugees, classed as ‘Group 2’ refugees, will need to meet additional criteria in order to be able to bring their loved ones to join them. This increases the risk that families will be needlessly kept apart, causing untold damage to the individuals affected.
Prolonged separation from family members is incredibly damaging to refugees. Research from organisations including the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Save the Children and others consistently shows that family separation negatively impacts the mental health of refugees in the UK and slows down their integration into their new communities. While this holds true for all those affected by family separation, it is particularly acute for refugee children separated from the support and care of their parents.
Baroness Ludford’s Bill seeks to change this inhumane situation and bring refugee families together. If it became law, this bill would give children the right to sponsor their parents and siblings, ensuring that child refugees can be raised by their parents wherever possible, within a family unit, rather than cared for by the UK’s social services. The bill would also enable adult refugees to sponsor a wider range of family members, including their elderly parents and siblings. Importantly, the bill would also reintroduce legal aid for family reunion cases, ensuring that refugees are able to access their entitlements to reunite with their loved ones.
If enacted, this bill would apply equally to all those with refugee status in the UK, countering the change implemented by the recent Nationality and Borders Act which restricts access to family reunion for those refugees who have made their own way to the UK to claim asylum.
The bill is supported by the Families Together coalition – a group of leading organisations working with refugees in the UK, including Amnesty International UK, the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, and Oxfam. It builds on a similar Bill introduced by Baroness Ludford last year, which ran out of time to be debated in the House of Commons before the end of that parliamentary session.
Speaking about the impact of being apart from loved ones, one young refugee said: “Although we are now safe from persecution and are very glad to be here, living in a new place without family support is affecting our minds and hearts.
“Most of the time, we are lonely and depressed for we miss them always. Without family, we feel insecure and uncomfortable, and feel that there is no one that we can trust completely. This is mentally and emotionally very hard. It is also damaging.
“Hostile immigration policy seems to treat us as enemies, and we cannot be sure that anyone is really on our side. Without families, we are abandoned children, and we are not old enough to handle all of this. And we worry about our families all the time because we know that they are not safe. We live in hope that we will see them again, but we also feel that the government is doing everything possible to make sure that we never do. This makes us desperate.”
Speaking on behalf of the Families Together Coalition, Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “One of the cruellest impact of any war or conflict is that it so often tears families apart. We saw that when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and desperate mothers had no choice but to hand their babies over to American troops to try and save them. Family separation is happening everyday in Ukraine and in many other conflicts across the world.
“It is vital these families are supported to be together again when they find safety – not prevented, by restrictive and unfair rules, from reuniting. There is so much evidence for the vital difference family reunion makes to refugees’ ability to recover from all they have been through and integrate into their new communities. It is no exaggeration to say that the difference this bill could make to refugees could be life changing.”
Introducing her Bill this afternoon, Baroness Sarah Ludford said: “Permitting a refugee to be with their family will greatly improve their chance of leading a stable, well-integrated life without threat to their well-being and mental health. Imagine trying to move forward with your life and work while worrying about the safety of family back home.”