Refugees (Family Reunion) (No.2) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:47 am on 16th March 2018.

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Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration) 11:47 am, 16th March 2018

I agree with my hon. Friend and will address that issue later.

We have a perverse situation where unaccompanied children are not allowed to bring their close family members to join them in the same way as an adult can. These are already some of the most vulnerable children in our society. They face language and cultural barriers, on top of the trauma of being forced to flee war and violence. We are one of the only countries in Europe that further denies them the right to reunite with their families. Evidence shows that refugees who are not permitted to be joined by close relatives struggle to integrate. It is clear that so long as there are push factors of war, violence and persecution, people will be forced to flee their homes. Safe and legal routes to family reunion disrupt the work of smugglers and people traffickers.

The Opposition welcome some recent Government achievements. The Sandhurst treaty committed to speeding up the process for refugees in France to join family members in the UK. We welcome investment in the processing of Dublin cases and agree that we need to look at the whole issue of routes taken by refugees.

On a personal level, I believe that the Minister takes seriously her obligations to refugees and wants to fulfil Britain’s commitment to vulnerable children in particular. However, fulfilling our existing commitments is not enough. The Government have not yet promised that that agreement will continue after Brexit or that they will change the UK’s immigration rules to align them with the current Dublin III provisions. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, the Minister said:

“I regard it to be an absolute priority to take the 480 young people we have committed to.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2018;
Vol. 636, c. 187WH.]

She was referring to the Dubs scheme, but 480 young people is well below the original intention of the Dubs amendment, which was to resettle 3,000 young people, and significantly fewer than the 10,000 refugees a year that the UN has called on Britain to take. The refugee crisis is a large and complex challenge. Reforming the UK’s family reunion rules would be a simple and direct way to help refugees in the UK and to deter others from making the dangerous journey here.

Whatever immigration system we have, it should be managed fairly. At the moment, our immigration rules are complex and enforced inconsistently. The Red Cross has found that

“refugee family reunion is not a straightforward immigration matter, and that…only qualified legal advisers can deal with…the significant and diverse complexities” of the refugee family reunion process.

In his article for LabourList yesterday, the shadow Justice Secretary, my hon. Friend Richard Burgon, expressed a sentiment that I totally agree with:

“When people can’t afford to defend their rights—often won by social justice campaigners over decades—then they are not worth the paper written on.”

That is the case at present with family reunion.

Since 2012, immigration has been outside the scope of legal aid in England and Wales, but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland. It is only fair that applicants, who are navigating the system up against the bureaucracy and resources of the Home Office, should have access to legal aid. The Government are currently undertaking a review of legal aid provision. I am worried that refugee family reunion will be such a small part of that review that the urgent need in this area could easily be overlooked. Labour’s own Bach review of legal aid provision recommended that areas of family and immigration law—specifically family reunion—should also be brought back in scope. Labour supports the Bill because it would reintroduce legal aid for refugee family reunion cases.

We want to live in a society that is fair and integrated and respects human rights. We have seen some progress on child refugees, but there is clearly more to be done. Reforming the refugee family reunion rules would be a simple but important step towards addressing the anomalies in our refugee system. It would affect a small number of people, but it would transform their lives.

The Bill is based on liberal values of fairness, human rights and the protection of the most vulnerable. Labour Members will support its Second Reading, and I hope that all other Members will as well.