Eligibility for family reunion must be expanded, campaigners say

Campaigners call for a wider definition of the family, for purposes of refugee family reunion

A coalition of organisations – UNHCR-UK, the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Oxfam and Amnesty – have launched the #FamiliesTogether campaign, which seeks to improve the framework for refugee family reunion. On Monday, we published an article that explains their first ask: for unaccompanied child refugees in the UK to have the right to sponsor their families’ safe passage to reunite with them. Today, we’ll explain the second ask: an expansion of who qualifies as family, so that young people who have turned 18, and elderly parents, can be reunited and live in safety with their families in the UK.


International law acknowledges that families are entitled to protection. Yet under this principle, it is left to individual states to define what is meant by ‘family’ – and the UK has adopted a very restrictive definition, for the purposes of refugee reunion.


Under the refugee family reunion rules, the only family members explicitly allowed to join adult refugees are their spouse/partner and their dependent children who are under the age of 18. Grandparents, parents, siblings and children who have turned 18 are not, for this purpose, considered family – however strong their ties of love are, and however dependent they are on their family members who have reached the UK.


The Refugee Council detailed the case of “one young Syrian man, Joram, who became the sole carer for his eight-year-old sister and parents, both of whom have serious medical conditions. His brother, who used to share the responsibility of looking after the family, is trapped in Lebanon and ineligible to join them here [in the UK].”


While the Home Office’s policy on refugee family reunion does have scope for family members categorised as ‘ineligible’ to be granted safe passage, caseworkers are instructed to do so exclusively in exceptional or compassionate circumstances. Furthermore, the stringent requirements placed on these circumstances means the definition of “exceptional” is rendered extremely narrow – and practically dependent on the discretion of the decision maker.


The campaign calls for an expansion of who qualifies as family within the refugee family reunion rules, so that young people who have turned 18, and elderly parents, can be reunited and live in safety with their family in the UK. We want them to have a chance to rebuild their lives so they can have safe, happy futures together.



The guidance

In July 2016, the Home Office published updated guidance on refugee family reunion that detailed some of the cases where exceptional circumstances may apply. In particular, the updated guidelines address the case of dependent children over the age of 18, acknowledging that in exceptional circumstances reunion may be allowed with the family member upon whom the person is dependent. This suggests that there is some governmental recognition of the importance of family reunion, and the deficiencies of the system as it currently stands. However, these are guidelines, not rules – meaning a level of uncertainty remains for families, who must rely on the discretion of Home Office decision makers.


The current guidance is complex, with the threshold for exceptional circumstances set very high. The guidelines state, explicitly, that cases where other types of family member will be allowed to join are “rare”. Without legal aid, which was removed from refugee family reunion cases in making an application for family reunion outside the rules borders on the impossible due to the complex rules and guidance as well as the expertise required to collect, organise and present evidence. This means that even if the Government’s guidance provides dependent adults and elderly parents with a possible legal route to join their family in the UK, it is highly unlikely that families will in practice be able to benefit from the guidance.


The human cost of separation

Separation from loved ones has had a profound effect on refugees in the UK, with many experiencing isolation, emotional distress and lack of confidence as natural corollaries of prolonged time apart from their families. The Safe but not Settled report found that, in 33 of the 44 cases investigated, family members experienced “feelings of guilt or [were] struggling with mental health problems” to separation from loved ones. This emotional turmoil in turn inhibits their ability to integrate into society and rebuild their lives, many refugees too plagued with worry to focus on finding work, making friends or learning English.


In addition, the Government’s expansion of the definition of family via guidance rather than through causes practical problems for families once they have been reunited in the UK. Individuals joining relatives in the UK through the immigration rules receive rights and benefits enjoyed by the family member they are joining, such as leave to remain in line with the family member, access to welfare support, and conventional travel documents. In the cases where leave to remain is granted outside the rules, it is and may be subject to restrictions that refugee status is not, including not having recourse to public funds. This leaves family members brought to the UK under discretionary powers in an uncertain and perilous position, left in the dark as to whether they will receive the same rights and benefits as their family members.


An expansion of the family reunion rules themselves, as opposed to additional guidance, would both clarify the legislation in this area and offer a more humane reunification policy. It is for this reason that we are asking for an expansion of who qualifies as family, so that young people who have turned 18, and elderly parents, can be reunited and live in safety with their families in the UK.


On 16th March 2018, the Family Reunion Bill will be debated in the House of Commons. If you believe that refugees settled in the UK deserve the right to live safely with their closest loved ones, please contact your MP and ask them to save the date. You can do this in just a few moments, using the Refugee Council website – after typing in your postcode, you will see who your local MP is, and you will also have a draft of the letter ready to send.

It will take less than 5 minutes to send, but could make a huge change to the lives of separated families. Thank you.

This article was written by Daniel Taylor, who volunteered as a legal caseworker in Athens for four months.