Refugee family reunion

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 5th March 2019.

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“The Secretary of State must make rules under section 3(2) of the Immigration Act 1971 to allow any person who has exercised a right brought to an end by Section 1 and Schedule 1 and who has been recognised as a refugee in the United Kingdom to sponsor their—

(a) children under the age of 25 who were either under the age of 18, or unmarried, at the time the person granted asylum left the country of their habitual residence in order to seek asylum;

(b) parents; or

(c) siblings under the age of 25 who were either under the age of 18, or unmarried, at the time the person granted asylum left the country of their habitual residence in order to seek asylum;

to join them in the United Kingdom.”—

This new clause would expand refugee family reunion rules for EEA and Swiss nationals.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 51 relates to refugee family reunions. Again, I have encountered a problem with the scope of the Bill, as my new clause would extend the scope of refugee family reunion rules to EEA and Swiss nationals. That would obviously be a fairly rare occurrence; nevertheless, I think some of these amendments and new clauses would establish a principle. As I said to the Immigration Minister not long ago, if it gives rise to inequalities and problems, the answer is for the Government to equalise the situation by raising the standards in relation to non-EEA nationals who are also refugees.

Due to the restrictive rules about who is eligible, many people are not allowed to reunite under family reunion rules. Currently, the UK immigration rules state that

“adult refugees in the UK can be joined via family reunion by their spouse/partner and their dependent children who are under the age of 18.”

Those restrictions mean, for example, that parents are not automatically able to bring their children who have turned 18 to the UK, even if the child is still dependent on them and has not yet married or formed their own family. While the family reunion guidance allows some cases outside the rules to be granted in exceptional circumstances, in reality that rarely happens.

Furthermore, unlike adult refugees, children who are in the UK alone and have refugee status have no right to be reunited with even their closest family members. Again, in this regard the UK is an outlier. These are children who have often endured hardship and trauma and have been recognised by the Government as having the right to stay in the UK. They now find themselves alone in an unfamiliar country and having to navigate the immigration system themselves.

The Government argue that granting refugee children the right to sponsor family members to come to the UK would be a pull factor and incentivise or force more children to make dangerous journeys to the UK. However, there is no evidence to support that claim, and in every other EU member state refugee children can sponsor close relatives to join them.

In the 12 months before September 2018, for instance, 811 separated children were granted asylum in the UK, more than a quarter of whom had fled Eritrea. These children have been recognised by the Government as being in need of international protection, where it is not safe for them to be returned to their home country. Where possible, and where it is in their best interest, children should be able to be with their parents. Granting separated children family reunion rights would allow that to happen. That, in short, is what the new clause seeks to put us on the road to achieving.

The other point I want to make is that Parliament of course debated all this and heard all the Government’s arguments during the Second Reading debate on the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil. Considerable effort was made to ensure that sufficient Members would be present at a Friday sitting to debate that private Member’s Bill. There was a vote and there was overwhelming support for its Second Reading. There is growing frustration about the delay in bringing forward the money resolution to enable that Bill to go to the next stage—Committee. I would therefore like the Minister to explain what is happening and when we will see the Bill get to Committee, because we are running out of time and it would be outrageous if all that good work was stymied by Government use of procedures.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

We support this new clause. I spoke in the Second Reading debate on the private Member’s Bill that would have implemented these changes. I commend the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for once again bringing this issue to our attention through this Bill.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, along with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, for raising, through new clause 51, the important issue of refugees’ rights to family reunion.

The new clause is designed to allow EEA and Swiss national refugees, including those who are nationals of EEA countries that are not part of the EU, to sponsor certain family members to join them in the UK. I spoke last week about the inadmissibility of asylum claims from the EU and about the Spanish protocol and do not intend to repeat today what I said then. It is the Government’s view, which I hope all members of the Committee share, that all Swiss and EEA nationals are from safe countries and are highly unlikely to suffer a well-founded fear of persecution or serious harm there, save in very exceptional circumstances. For those reasons and because we do not foresee a change in these circumstances, we intend to continue our policy on the inadmissibility of asylum claims from EU nationals, as well as treating claims from Swiss and EEA nationals as clearly unfounded, post EU exit.

I hope that hon. Members can see that treating asylum seekers from Switzerland and the EEA differently from those from the rest of the world on the grounds of their nationality would be illogical and discriminatory. It would be unlikely to comply with our equalities obligations and would offer a clear avenue of challenge on human rights grounds. I appreciate that that may not have been the intention behind the new clause, but it would be its effect. In any event, in a deal scenario, which remains the Government’s priority, we will already be providing family reunification rights. New clause 51 is therefore unnecessary to secure the rights of EEA and Swiss nationals to sponsor their family members.

I know that hon. Members are keen to address refugee family reunion more broadly, and I am conscious that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East asked a question about the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar. Of course, it is the usual channels that decide money resolutions. That is entirely outside my hands, but I can comment on the Government’s family reunion policy. That provides a safe and legal route to bring families together. It allows adult refugees who are granted protection in the UK to sponsor a partner and children under 18 to join them, if they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country. Under that policy, we have granted visas to more than 26,000 partners and children of those granted protection in the UK in the past five years; that is more than 5,000 people a year.

Furthermore, our family reunion policy offers clear discretion to grant leave outside the immigration rules. That caters for children over 18 where there are exceptional circumstances or compassionate factors—for example, where they would be left in a conflict zone or a dangerous situation.

The types of family member that the new clause is aimed at can apply under alternative routes. Under the immigration rules, adult refugees can sponsor adult dependent relatives. That includes parents, grandparents, children over 18 and siblings over 18 living overseas where, because of age, illness or disability, the person requires long-term personal care that can be provided only by their sponsor in the UK, and that will be without recourse to public funds.

Moreover, there are separate provisions in the rules to allow extended family who are adult refugees in the UK to sponsor children to come here where there are serious and compelling family or other considerations. That is an important measure, as it enables children to join family members in the UK through safe and legal means.

It is imperative that we think carefully about this issue. Adopting new clause 51 could significantly increase the number of people who could qualify to come here, not just from conflict regions, and irrespective of whether they needed international protection. That would risk reducing our capacity to assist the most vulnerable refugees.

We must also consider community and local authority capacity. I understand that this is a complex and emotive issue, which is why we are listening carefully to calls to extend family reunion and closely following the passage of the private Members’ Bills on this subject, and will continue our productive discussions with key partners. It is particularly important to me that hon. Members are reassured that we are taking this matter seriously, and I hope that I have gone some way in ensuring that. For those reasons, I invite the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to withdraw new clause 51.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

I thank the Minister for her answer and for stating that the Government are still listening on this important issue. The usual channels have also got the message that there is some disquiet over the lack of progress in relation to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.