Refugees (Family Reunion) (No.2) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:50 am on 16th March 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Chair, International Trade Committee 9:50 am, 16th March 2018

I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention; I was not aware of that point. It is absolutely fascinating to hear that other countries choose not to send these children to the UK. If they are doing so out of common decency and in the best interests of those children, because they know that they cannot be reunited with their families, that makes it even more imperative that the UK plays its international role so that people in Greece and Italy can look to the UK as being as good as any other country. Surely, as the legislators of the principal UK Parliament, we should be changing the law to make sure that that happens.

One of the children affected by the rules is Tesfa, who grew up in Eritrea. As he got older, he feared being forced into Eritrea’s brutal and endless military service. In 2010, his brother was taken by soldiers, and the family never heard from him again. Then, when Tesfa was 16, soldiers came to his school; Tesfa never returned home. Without telling his family, he fled Eritrea. He did not know where he planned to go—this is the point about legal aid or whatever—but he had to keep moving. He passed through Sudan and Libya, went over the Mediterranean, and found himself, eventually, in the United Kingdom. After applying for asylum, he was recognised as a refugee, and eventually—after well over a year—he was able to speak to his mother. Imagine that at the age of 16. However, he was unable to be reunited with his family in Britain. The UK has offered him a new home, but what home can a young man have without his family? Amnesty, which is compiling a report on this, told me that one refugee said, “A refugee without a family is like a body without a soul.” That quote will be in the Amnesty report—a plug for Amnesty there.

The Government have previously asserted that allowing children to sponsor their family members to join them would result in families sending their children to the UK so that they could then act as sponsors. During a debate on family reunion in the House of Lords before Christmas, numerous peers rose to take on this argument—I congratulate them on doing so. They cited what Mr Justice McCloskey stated in the upper tribunal:

“there is no evidence underlying it”,

with

“‘it’
being the pull factor”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 December 2017;
Vol. 787, c. 1777-78.]

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, who is better known for drafting article 50, was one of those peers who forcefully took on the Government’s argument. He described as a “strange, sick, Swiftian joke” the Government’s implication that families in countries such as Syria, Libya, Eritrea or the Sudan would sit down together and make the cold calculation that they would send a child on a journey across land and sea that might take several years, putting their lives at risk, to secure a right to bring the rest of the family to join them. It is very difficult to disagree with the noble Lord about that.

The Government have recognised these children as refugees. They must be congratulated on that, but they must take it further. There is no special definition of refugee that a child has to meet that is different from that for an adult. Children have to pass the same test. If they are recognised as refugees, it is because they have a need for international protection. It is therefore surely only right that these children are able to be with their family members, as adult refugees would be, which would correct a situation that the Home Affairs Committee has described as “perverse”.

On the other side of the coin, the Bill would allow refugee children to sponsor their parents and unmarried siblings under the age of 25 to join them. I can already guess what the reply to that point in the Minister’s brief will be, but I urge her not to read it. I urge her not to assert that parents would callously send their children on life-threatening journeys just so that they could later join them. If that were true, they would be going to other countries anyway, but that is not happening. I urge her instead to recognise that children are better off with their parents and those who will support them, and to bring the UK into line with the vast majority of the rest of Europe so that people resettling refugees in Greece and Italy can have trust and faith in the United Kingdom.

I do not want to pre-empt the Minister too much, but she might well argue that provisions elsewhere in the immigration rules allow a wider group of family members to be reunited. She might say that they are to be found in part 8 and appendix FM of the immigration rules, meaning that the Bill is not needed. However, as she is aware, those routes do not cover all the family relationships that I have described and nor are they accessible for refugees. The application alone costs several hundred pounds, and family members in the UK must show that they can financially support their relative. For refugees, who often have very few resources after escaping with what they have on their backs, those barriers will be impossible to overcome.

Clause 1 also gives the Home Secretary a discretionary power to grant family reunion applications in circumstances over and above those that I have just described. It may be that such an action is in the best interests of a child, because a family member is living is precarious circumstances, be that as a result of an emotional, psychological, physical or financial dependency, or as she may otherwise see fit.

I take this opportunity to thank the refugee team at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, which emailed me the other afternoon to say:

“Our NHS Trust supports the mental health of young refugees through our child and adolescent mental health service. The refugee team here, with the support of Chief Executive Paul Jenkins, wished to convey their support for your private Member’s Bill.”

I thank all those working at the sharp end with refugees who have taken the time in their busy lives to be aware of what is going on in Parliament and to write an email of support.

Family reunion is primarily about bringing families back together, but it should also be seen as a safe and legal route for refugees to escape dangerous circumstances. Last month, the Home Secretary celebrated the fact that the UK had reached the halfway point in resettling 20,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict. That is to be commended. Family reunion should act as a complement to that and the UK’s other resettlement programmes.

Although for the purposes of family reunion it is only the relative in the UK who needs to have been officially recognised as a refugee, the Home Office’s immigration statistics show that the beneficiaries of family reunion are often the most vulnerable. In 2017, most family reunion visas were issued to people from Eritrea, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Some 95% of those who came to the UK were under the age of 18 and/or female. Despite the global refugee crisis—the worst since world war two—very few refugees ever find themselves in the UK. Indeed, in recent years, the number of people applying for asylum in the UK has fallen. Some 86% of refugees live in the world’s poorest countries, not the richest ones. Expanding the refugee family rules would mean that more refugees are able to find safety in the UK to our benefit, as well as theirs.

While it is all well and good for families to have a right to family reunion, it is worthless if they are unable to access that right. This is what clause 2 of my Bill is about. It would amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to make civil legal aid available for family reunion applications. Prior to the passing of that Act, legal assistance had been available. With its removal, even those families who are eligible to be reunited face significant hurdles in being able to navigate the process.

The British Red Cross set out in its report “Not So Straightforward” the many bureaucratic and practical barriers that families face. At a recent event in Parliament hosted by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, MPs heard at first hand about the impact that not having legal aid can have. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will remember Sarah Foster, a caseworker at the British Red Cross, who said that a good solicitor for a family reunion application would cost at least £500. Meeting such costs can prove near impossible for refugees who have been unable to work while awaiting a decision on their asylum application. Sarah told us that families resort to borrowing from friends, taking out loans from unscrupulous lenders or living on virtually nothing to afford the support that they need to make their family reunion application viable.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will also remember, Sarah told us of one applicant who she met in a supermarket. He had been recognised as a refugee, but had seven children living destitute abroad. In his shopping basket were packets of 10-pence noodles, which he planned to live on for the next few weeks so that he could save up for the legal costs of applying to bring his children to safety. This is the situation that we are dealing with and that too many people are facing.

I will wind up my speech by thanking the British Red Cross, the UN Refugee Agency, the Refugee Council, Amnesty International and Oxfam for their support in helping the Bill to reach this point, and particularly the extremely brilliant help of Jon Featonby. I also thank the many other charities, organisations and supporters who have been in touch; those who work every day to help refugees; Baroness Hamwee, who is working on these issues in the House of Lords; the NHS refugee team; and Reverend Steve Tinning at Leigh Road Baptist Church, who is a landlord to a Syrian refugee family in Kent, and was one of the first people to get in touch with me to ask how he could help.

There has been tremendous help and support for this Bill from across the United Kingdom. People want to do the right thing. It is incumbent on the House of Commons to ensure that the right thing happens. I hope that hon. Members will today ensure that, at the very least, this Bill progresses to the next stage.