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“(1) The Secretary of State must make provision to ensure that an unaccompanied child, spouse or vulnerable or dependant adult who has a family member who is legally present in the United Kingdom has the same rights to be reunited in the United Kingdom with that family member as they would have had under Commission Regulation (EU) No. 604/2013.
(2) The Secretary of State must, within a period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed—
(a) make regulations amending the Immigration Rules in order to preserve the effect in the United Kingdom of Commission Regulation (EU) No. 604/2013 for the family reunion of unaccompanied minors, spouses and vulnerable or dependant adults; and
(b) lay before both Houses of Parliament a strategy for ensuring the continued opportunity for relocation to the UK of unaccompanied children present in the territory of the EEA, if it is in the child’s best interests.
(3) For the purposes of this section, “family member”—
(a) has the same meaning as in Article 2(g) of Commission Regulation (EU) No. 604/2013;
(b) also has the same meaning as “relative” as defined in Article 2(h) of Commission Regulation (EU) No. 604/2013;
(c) also includes the family members referred to in Article 16 (1) and 16 (2) of Commission Regulation (EU) No. 604/2013.
(4) Until such time as Regulations in subsection (2) come into force, the effect of Commission Regulation (EU) No 604/2013 for the family reunion of unaccompanied minors, spouses and vulnerable or dependent adults with their family members in the UK shall be preserved.”—
This new clause would have the effect of continuing existing arrangements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, spouses and vulnerable adults to have access to family reunion with close relatives in the UK.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to address new clause 46, this time with a cross-party hat on, rather than my usual SNP hat. I am grateful to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North and others for co-ordinating on this new clause.
As Members will know, the European Union has in place a fairly mature—it is certainly not perfect, but it is long standing—system of deciding which member state should appropriately consider a claim for asylum. For example, if an unaccompanied child is found on one of the Greek islands seeking asylum and it is known that they have family members in another EU country, few of us here would argue against the notion that the child should be reunited with their family and the claim considered in that member state.
In January this year, Parliament passed section 37 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which regrettably abolished the previous requirement on the Government to seek to negotiate an alternative to replace the family reunion provisions in the EU’s Dublin regulation. At the time, the Government were full of assurances that this did not represent a downgrading of their ambitions and said that they would protect family reunion for unaccompanied children in the Brexit negotiations, but in its current form, the UK’s proposal to the EU rows back on those assurances and would leave hundreds of children stranded.
There are numerous problems with what the Government propose. Most fundamentally, the proposed text removes all mandatory requirements on the Government to facilitate family reunions and would make a child’s right to join their relatives entirely discretionary. The text also intentionally avoids providing rights to children. It does not provide for appeals and attempts to put these issues beyond the reach of UK courts. Other categories of vulnerable refugees, including accompanied children and adults, would lose access to family reunion altogether. A series of other key safeguards are removed, including strict deadlines for responses and the responsibility for gathering information being on the state rather than the child.
This issue is hugely important. Between 2009 and 2014, before mandatory provisions were introduced by Dublin III, family reunions to the UK were carried out at an average rate of 11 people annually. Between 2016 and 2018, after the mandatory provisions were introduced by Dublin III, family reunions to the UK were carried out at an average rate of 547 people annually. The Government were not straight with Parliament when they proposed clause 37 of the withdrawal Bill earlier this year, and I think they have behaved in a rather upsetting manner, if I can put it like that.
We now have a situation where there are unaccompanied child refugees and refugees more generally living in appalling conditions in Greece and France. Of course those countries are under an obligation to do more to support and assist them, but many of those kids have family here, and I cannot see how any reasonable person can argue against the logic, the sense and the simple compassionate idea that that child should be reunited with their family in this country and have their asylum claim decided here.
The Government should stop messing about, stop trying to water down their previous commitments and revert to the obligation that Parliament previously placed upon it, which is to negotiate a full and proper replacement of the Dublin regulations, including an obligation to allow children to be reunited with their families in the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, the SNP spokesperson, who used his experience to make a very convincing contribution.
Labour will support new clause 46, which was tabled by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee with the support of a number of its members, as well as the Chairs of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.
As we have heard, as a member of the EU, the UK has participated in the Dublin III regulation, which has allowed people seeking asylum in Europe to be transferred to the UK on the basis of family unity and to have their asylum claims considered in the UK. The Dublin III mechanism generally affects a small number of children, but it has a transformative effect on their lives. It has become an increasingly important family reunion route, with more than 1,600 people having been reunited through it since the start of 2018.
However, this route will end once the transition period comes to an end on
We are concerned that, unlike Dublin III, the current proposals would not be mandatory and would take us back to the days when child refugees were reunited with family only at the discretion of the national Government. That would require the transferred person to make an asylum claim and only secure family unity pending a decision on that claim. Labour, along with the Families Together coalition, supports new clause 46. We want to see a system that retains the family reunion route under the Dublin III regulation for all families.
This is Refugee Week, and family reunion has been a long-standing feature of the UK’s immigration system. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that
“there is a direct link between family reunification, mental health and successful integration.”
By diminishing children’s chances of reaching their relatives legally, restrictive rules sadly only drive people to take more and more perilous alternatives, putting lives at risk and empowering people smugglers.
Labour joins Safe Passage, Amnesty International, the British Red Cross, Oxfam, the Refugee Council, the UNHCR and so many others who make up the Families Together coalition to urge the Government to prioritise family reunion, so that children, spouses and vulnerable adults can reunite with their family and close relatives, by maintaining safe and legal routes for people to come to the UK.
At a time when we are all feeling the effects of separation from our families due to the pandemic, the Government must recognise the need to protect all child refugees adequately and provide a legal and safe means for the reunification of families.
In speaking to new clause 46, I want to be clear that this is not about placing additional burdens on the Home Office or Government; it is about asking the Government not to water down their obligations to child refugees, but instead to carry on doing what they already do.
As we have heard, new clause 46 is intended to ensure that the safe and legal routes to the UK for refugees with relatives here and for unaccompanied children without family are protected in domestic legislation. I gently say to the Minister that he may well talk about the Dubs scheme—I know that all the places on the Dubs scheme have been filled—but I do not think that that discharges us of our moral duty to help children on the continent.
Indeed, Lord Dubs says that some of the conditions that he has seen in camps in Europe are worse than those in the region, because of the utter lack of hope of those living in those camps. We can give them hope by adopting the new clause and showing that we are not turning our back on child refugees just a few hundred miles away. In all his campaigning on these issues, Lord Dubs has always maintained that he believes that public opinion is behind him when it comes to child refugees. It is heartening to know that recent Ipsos MORI polling suggests Lord Dubs is entirely right in his assessment of British feeling on this. Some 79% of people polled said that children should be able to reunite with parents, and over half said children should be able to reunite with siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The British public supports refugee family reunion and I hope the Minister will do the same.
The Government are committed to the principle of family reunion and supporting vulnerable children. We recognise that families can become separated because of the nature of conflicts and persecution, and the speed and manner in which people are often forced to flee their country.
We will continue to provide safe and legal routes for families to reunite in the UK. We have a proud record of providing protection to those who need it, including children, and of reuniting families under the existing immigration rules. The new clause fails to take into account our negotiations with the EU, which I will come to later.
The UK continues to be one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement states. We resettle more refugees than any other country in Europe and are in the top five countries worldwide. Since September 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 vulnerable refugees in need of protection through our refugee resettlement schemes, with around half being children. We can be proud as a country of our ambitious commitments and achievements. The Government are delighted that their overall approach was endorsed in the general election in December by the British public.
Furthermore, the UK already has a wide range of provisions in existing immigration rules that allow UK-based family members to sponsor children and other relatives to enter the UK for family reunion purposes. Those rules apply to a sponsor who is a refugee, a settled person or a British citizen. All those rules are unaffected by the UK leaving the EU and they will continue to be available after the transition period ends.
Our refugee family reunion policy is intended to allow those granted refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK to sponsor pre-flight, immediate family members to join them here. Where appropriate, our policy includes scope to allow other family members to reunite with refugees in the UK. This may be on an exceptional basis or simply under a different route.
The new clause fails to distinguish between the very different circumstances of sponsors who are refugees and those who are asylum seekers—those seeking refugee status. It is important that the sponsor already has refugee or humanitarian leave in the UK before they are able to sponsor family members to join them. Allowing individuals to sponsor family members to join them in the UK before a decision on their asylum claim is made creates greater uncertainty for families, who may be unable to remain in the UK.
Very careful consideration is required before we extend family reunion provisions, to guard against significantly increasing the number of people who could qualify for family reunion, but who do not necessarily need protection themselves and who may be making unfounded claims of our protection systems for economic migration purposes. That could reduce our capacity to assist the most vulnerable refugees.
In the year ending March 2020, over 7,400 refugee family reunion visas were issued to partners and children of those previously granted asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK, which—hon. Members may be interested to know—is 37% more than in the previous year. There are further provisions in the immigration rules that allow those with refugee leave or humanitarian protection to sponsor adult dependant relatives living overseas to join them. This is where, as a result of age, illness or disability, a person requires long-term personal care, which can only be provided by their relative in the UK, without recourse to public funds. The same approach is applied to British citizens who wish to sponsor such relatives.
Furthermore, under part 8 of the immigration rules, children with relatives in the UK with refugee status or humanitarian protection are able to apply to join them in the UK, where there are serious and compelling family or other considerations that make exclusion of the child undesirable and where suitable arrangements have been made for the child’s care. In addition, appendix FM of the immigration rules already provides routes for British and settled sponsors, and those with protection-based leave, to sponsor family members to join them in the UK. We are aware that financial and other requirements are in place in those rules, which have been upheld as lawful by the Supreme Court. It is appropriate that all those who seek to sponsor a family member under these routes can meet a consistent set of requirements.
The new clause proposed by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East is based on the Dublin regulation, which is an EU provision. The UK is no longer an EU member state. As a sovereign country, we already have our own routes for adults and families to be reunited in the UK, which are substantial, as I have just set out. As a sovereign state, it is important that we do not seek to recreate EU laws unilaterally, without considering what we want the UK’s migration and humanitarian protection system to look like. Importantly, we have been very clear that, while we are no longer in the EU, the UK and the EU have a long history of working together and we have recognised that it is in our best interests to continue to do so. That is why we are pursuing, through formal negotiations, new reciprocal arrangements with the EU for the family reunion of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in either the UK or the EU with specified family members in the EU or the UK, where it is in the child’s best interests.
We published our draft legal text as a constructive contribution to the negotiations. A negotiated agreement for a state-to-state referral and transfer system would provide clear and consistent processes between the UK and EU member states, ensuring appropriate support for the child and guaranteeing reciprocity, yet these guarantees cannot be provided for in domestic UK provisions alone because they are inherently reciprocal. In addition, subsection (2)(a) of the new clause would require immigration rules to be made by regulations. That is not how immigration rules are made; they are made under the procedures set out in the Immigration Act 1971.
Finally, the new clause would require the Government to lay before Parliament a strategy on the relocation of unaccompanied children. The scope of this strategy is ambiguous. It is unclear whether it relates only to family reunion or whether it covers asylum-seeking children. The explanatory note accompanying the new clause suggests that it is solely about family reunion, but that is not reflected in the drafting. Therefore, for the reasons that I have outlined, the Government are not able to accept the new clause.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I welcome the fact that the Government are committed to the principle of family unity. Indeed, the Minister was right to point out some of the good work that has been done in recent years, particularly in terms of resettlement. Currently, some of that tends to be forced upon the Home Office, rather than being designed and promoted within it, but nevertheless it is welcome and that has been a success.
In other senses, I fundamentally disagree with the Minister. He cited some rules that had been deemed lawful by the Supreme Court. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement, but, nevertheless, it is clear that some of the rules he was referring to and the financial requirements are absolutely impossible—so impossible that the rules are almost worthless.
The SNP wants the UK to go further on family unity. My hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil had the endorsement of Parliament to expand the family reunion rules and, of course, the Government managed to use the system to ignore that vote. Given what we have heard today and in previous weeks, including the publication of that text, I fear that we are in danger of going backwards, and not just in terms of Dublin. We urgently need to hear what the future of resettlement will be, so we will be watching carefully.
In the meantime, Mr Stringer, we will revisit this matter on Report. Meanwhile, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.