News & Events

21/02/18
Overview

The global displacement and refugee crisis has seen a record 65million people displaced from their homes - among them nearly 22.5million refugees - fleeing conflict and persecution. Thousands of vulnerable and desperate people continue to arrive to Europe across the Central Mediterranean. As agencies working closely to this crisis, we know that family is a driving factor in why people risk their lives with smugglers and traffickers to reach the UK and a critical factor in supporting refugee children to successfully rebuild their lives.

The UK can make a vital contribution to children’s safety and well-being in the context of the global refugee crisis by making it easier for them to reach family in the UK via official routes. All children deserve the safety and security of being with their loved ones, yet too few children facing conflict and persecution are being supported to reunite with family members. Family separation creates additional hardship for families who have already experienced many difficulties, and it can result in children risking their lives on desperate and dangerous journeys. We share the Government’s aim of trying to reduce these life-threatening journeys, so we are calling for an improvement in the UK’s Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion.

On the 15th December, Baroness Trafford, Minister of State, Home Office, highlighted the Government’s strong support for the principle of family unity and announced that the Home Office are currently considering a new Resettlement and Asylum Strategy[1] which amongst other areas will make improvements and changes to the UK’s policies on refugee family reunification.

We are calling for the UK Government to:
  • Amend its Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion to better facilitate close family members such as adult siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have refugee or humanitarian status to sponsor children in their family to join them in the UK, where this is in the child’s best interests and the relationship between the sponsor and the child is one of dependency[2];
  • Reduce some of the conditions required of non-refugee sponsors who have settled status in the UK or British citizenship, where the child to be sponsored has a protection need;
  • Reinstate legal aid for refugee family reunion cases
The UK’s current Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion are limited
After years of living in countries affected by conflict and persecution, many children have been orphaned or don’t know where their parents are, or have been forced to flee alone – often to avoid risks such as recruitment into armed groups or forced marriage. These children may have grandparents, aunts, uncles, or adult brothers and sisters in the UK who are best placed to care for them. The UK’s current Immigration Rules provide for the right of parents with refugee or humanitarian status to sponsor their under 18-year-old children[3] to join them in the UK[4], and do not provide this right to other family members. For other family members to sponsor a child to join them, there are many extra requirements in the rules, which prove to be real obstacles.


Options for applying outside of the refugee family reunion section of the Immigration Rules are even more limited

There are many requirements that other family members have to fulfil - even when the child to be sponsored is in real danger or has lost their main carer - which rules out most other family members in practice. For example, Rule 319X of Part 8 the Immigration Rules includes requirements such as having no recourse to public funds for maintenance or accommodation, paying an application fee, and proving “serious and compelling family or other considerations which make exclusion of the child undesirable”. Maintenance and accommodation requirements are often difficult to fulfil if a family member has recently been granted refugee status.

Families who fall outside of the UK’s Refugee Family Reunion Rules – including intended sponsors who were recognised as refugees but have since naturalised as British citizens – have to rely on a UK Entry Clearance Officer exercising their discretion to admit a child as an exceptional case outside of the Rules. They exercise this discretion extremely rarely, because:
  • Very few children apply – since they and their families are informed that their cases fall outside of the Rules. Why would families go through a complex process when they are advised from the outset that they don’t have a case?
  • There is no legal aid available for most of these cases, despite their complexity.
  • The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration Report 2016 found that when applications are made, UK Entry Clearance Officers often initially reject them[7] and then the family has to appeal or re-submit their cases, even though the children are still living in danger while waiting for the cases to be resolved. This is very common even in cases that fall within the Rules, and even more difficult for cases that fall outside of them[8]. Relying on Entry Clearance Officer discretion results in inconsistent decisions that leave vulnerable children at risk.

Since 2012 legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunion cases despite the fact that these cases routinely involve difficult procedures. Without legal aid assistance, applicants rarely know what evidence is required, how to collate it and present it, with the consequence that applications are regularly refused and appeals are lost.
This has resulted in long delays, keeping families apart for longer than necessary and often forcing family members in war zones to take repeated risks to cross borders to reach British embassies to overcome procedural errors. Where it may be in a child’s best interests to join their relative(s) in the UK, eg. where the child has lost their parents, or the child has no suitable care and is dependent on a relative in the UK (sibling, uncle, aunt or grandparent), their application should be facilitated.



In January 2017, after many legal hours and significant political intervention, the decision to refuse the visas was reversed, and Hana, Johannas, and Marina were safely united with their uncle and grandparents in the UK. Lawyers confirm that many applications by extended family members are refused, and decision-making is very inconsistent, and often relies on whether a family is lucky enough to obtain pro bono legal and political interventions.

How will Brexit affect the rights of children to reach relatives with refugee or humanitarian status in the UK?

The EU’s Dublin III Regulation determines which EU state decides a person’s asylum application, and has served in practice as a mechanism for reuniting children with their families within Europe, while the children wait for their asylum applications to be decided. Since there are so few options under the UK’s Immigration Rules, many children have to make it to a European country in order to apply to join their relatives in the UK. The Dublin III Regulation allows children to join close relatives such as grandparents, uncles, aunts and siblings, as well as parents, while they wait for their asylum applications to be decided. As a result of leaving the European Union, the UK’s membership of the Dublin III Regulation is likely to come to an end.

In 2016 applying the Dublin III Regulation criteria, more than 700 children were transferred from other European countries to join family members in the UK. Many of these children were joining relatives who were not their parents. If, post-Brexit, children in similar circumstances will only be able to rely on the UK Immigration Rules, most of them will not fit within the current rules. Their cases are, based on existing practice, unlikely to be accepted by Entry Clearance Officers on a discretionary basis. This situation has the potential to lead to a large increase in unaccompanied children forced to take dangerous journeys with smugglers and traffickers in order to reach their family here.

The recently announced agreement between the UK and French Governments to speed up Dublin III transfers to help children to reach the safety of their family in the UK is very welcome. However, these children should never have had to make dangerous journeys to Europe to reach the safety of their families in the first place. If the UK changes its own Immigration Rules, the UK Government can better facilitate the reunification of separated families and play a role in reducing the number of dangerous journeys and prevent needless and tragic deaths[12]. By allowing children to apply for family reunification more easily from their countries and regions of origin, we will create a safe and legal route for vulnerable children to reach the UK.

We are calling for the UK Government to:
  • Amend its Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion to better facilitate close family members such as adult siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have refugee or humanitarian status to sponsor children in their family to join them in the UK, where this is in the child’s best interests and the relationship between the sponsor and the child is one of dependency[13];
  • Reduce some of the conditions required of non-refugee sponsors who have settled status in the UK or British citizenship, where the child to be sponsored has a protection need;
  • Reinstate legal aid for refugee family reunion cases


[1] http://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2017-12-15/debates/B90C7204-C90C-471D-830F-AB8B7BC45F67/Refugees(FamilyReunion)Bill(HL)#contribution-3D6063A1-ED8D-4886-B099-45012504CA4C

[2] “Dependency” infers a social, emotional or economic relationship or bond.

[3] who is not leading an independent life, is unmarried and is not a civil partner, and has not formed an independent family unit, and was part of the family unit of their parent at the time that their parent left the country of their habitual residence in order to seek asylum – Immigration Rules Part 11, paras 352D and 352FG

[4] Spouses and civil partners with refugee or humanitarian status also have the right under UK Immigration Rules to sponsor their spouses or civil partners to join them in the UK.

[5] Name changed

[6] Name changed

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/561815/ICIBI-inspection-of-family-reunion-applications-January-to-May-2016.pdf

[8] Unicef UK, The Refuge of Family, https://www.unicef.org.uk/publications/the-refuge-of-family/

[9] Name changed

[10] Name changed

[11] Name changed

[12] The changes in the Immigration Rules that we are proposing would enable a child to take on the leave status of their UK relative, who has refugee or humanitarian status, or has settled status or British citizenship. Under the Dublin III Regulation children are currently able to join their relatives in the UK who are still asylum-seekers. We are not proposing that the UK Immigration Rules should be extended to included sponsorship applications by asylum-seekers, as the children joining them would remain in an uncertain legal status in that case. This gap for children who only have asylum-seeking relatives to join should be addressed via bilateral agreements with other EU states or via an arrangement for the UK to retain some aspects of the Dublin III Regulation arrangements for receiving unaccompanied children.

[13] “Dependency” infers a social, emotional or economic relationship or bond.
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