Refugees need legal aid for family reunion, say leading NGOs

A coalition of five organizations – UNHCR-UK, the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Oxfam and Amnesty – have launched a campaign to bring refugee #FamiliesTogether. Help Refugees is proud to support their campaign, and have published a series of articles explaining the campaign’s asks. You can read the first instalment, about child sponsorship of family members, here; and the second, on the need for a broader definition of the family, here. Today, we’ll explain the third and final ask of the campaign: the reintroduction of legal aid for refugee family reunion cases.

Legal aid was removed from family reunion cases in 2013, as part of a broader incision upon the availability of such support in England and Wales. Advice and representation for refugee family reunion cases were taken out of the scope of legal aid, because the government considered it a ‘straightforward immigration matter’ that did not warrant the need for specialist advice. Funded legal support, including advice on filling out the application form and preparing the requisite application materials, was removed. As a result, refugees who seek to reunite with their loved ones must make the application without assistance, rely on volunteer caseworkers, or pay for legal advisors.


The complexity of refugee family reunion cases

Despite the Government’s description of refugee family reunion as a straightforward matter, there is clear evidence to suggest reunion claims are often the opposite. The British Red Cross’ 2015 report, Not So Straightforward, demonstrated that many refugee family reunion cases are affected by a range of complexities, from the initial gathering of documentation to the submission of the application. Such issues disrupt the application process, and often require legal support in order to be overcome. In a study of 91 refugee family reunion cases, the report found that 33% relied on witness statements and statutory declarations that had to be provided by legal advisers. It also found that 62% of sponsors required English language support in order to complete their family reunion applications.


The challenges faced by applicants from the UK are dwarfed by the practical obstacles faced by their family members abroad. In December, an event was held in the House of Lords, in which two Syrian teenagers shared their experience of coming to the UK. Maya, who arrived in England four years ago, is now studying aeronautical engineering. Her father took the initial journey alone, and Maya and her mother were later able to join him. She spoke of how hard he worked to raise the funds for legal advice, and how her application was first frustrated by the perilous journey she had to take from Syria to the British embassy in Beirut – which she was then forced to repeat, as a spelling mistake made by her father’s lawyer in the UK delayed their application. The procedural convolutions in the UK compound the practical ones faced by refugees outside the country: as Baroness Sally Hamwee noted, “dangerous journeys to embassies and consulates to make applications are a common story. Travelling through war zones is not like catching a bus at the end of the road.”


The Home Office’s refugee family reunion policy provides further reason why legal aid is necessary for family reunion applications. The policy offers guidance on the “exceptional circumstances” where family members deemed ineligible under the rules (such as children over the age of 18, or elderly relatives) may nevertheless be reunited with settled refugees in the UK. The guidance is complex, and requires expertise to collect, organise and present evidence. Without legal aid, the possibility of making a family reunion application under exceptional circumstances will remain out of reach to many refugees in the UK. As such, without the existence of legal aid, the guidance will serve little practical benefit to refugee families.



The Human Cost of Removing of Legal Aid

Since 2013, refugees have been left to fund their own applications. There is a clear human cost to this process. Legal advice is often funded by the taking out of high-risk loans, borrowing from community members, or from in personal expenses. The costs prolong families’ separation, particularly as asylum seekers in the UK are not given the right to work.


Moreover, the emotional distress has had a profound effect on refugees in the UK. Many have reported experiencing isolation, anxiety, depression and guilt flowing from their financial barriers between them and their family. This psychological trauma has a large impact on people’s ability to integrate, as many are focus on finding work, learning English, and integrating into society.


The lack of public funding for refugee family reunion applications also impacts on the vulnerability of close relatives abroad, who wish to be reunited with their family in the UK. With claims failing due to a lack of funded legal support, family members abroad are exposing themselves to severe risks, either from being compelled to remain in areas in which they face grave danger and persecution, or from hazardous and unregulated journeys pursued in an attempt to join their loved ones.


Why reintroducing legal aid would improve the situation.

The findings presented above pour cold water on the claim that refugee family reunion is a straightforward immigration matter. Complexities can arise at each stage of the application process, requiring qualified legal advisers to resolve these issues so that applications don’t fail on procedural grounds alone. Legal aid must be reintroduced for refugee family reunion claims, so that refugees can receive funded advice navigating the complexities of the application system – and be reunited with their loved ones.


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 legal aid to help them with their family reunion claims, please contact your MP and ask them to attend the debate. You can do this in just a few moments, using the Oxfam 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. Alternatively, you can tweet them here


It will take less than 5 minutes to send, but could help some of those forced to flee due to the global refugee crisis. We want these families to have a chance to rebuild their lives so they can have safe, happy futures together. Thank you.


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