[Mr David Crausby in the Chair] — UNHCR: Admission Pathways for Syrian Refugees

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 16th March 2016.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 9:30 am, 16th March 2016

I agree with the hon. Lady that the problems of unaccompanied children are particularly urgent. If those children are offered status here, we must also make it possible for them to sponsor their parents, if they are later found, or other family members to come and join them. Right now, the UK is one of the few countries that do not let that happen.

Let me put the numbers in context. During the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Britain, to its credit, welcomed 20,000 Hungarian refugees over just one winter. We need a co-ordinated and increased resettlement programme that works in solidarity with EU member states and our global partners. Like the British Government, I agree that people should not be making dangerous journeys to get to the UK, but our agreement departs at that point. It is not enough to say that people should not be making such journeys; we must ensure that they do not need to make those journeys.

If the Government take on board and implement the UNHCR’s suggestions, we could provide legitimate and safe access to the UK across international borders. For example, the UNHCR is calling for the flexible use of refugee family reunion rules. The current rules mean that refugee families are kept apart. For example, the rules mean that a Syrian father granted asylum in the UK would be allowed to bring his wife and younger children, who may have previously been sleeping several families to a house in Lebanon, to join him, yet his eldest child, if she happens to be over 18, would not ordinarily be allowed to come. We are arbitrarily splitting up such families. Her parents would be faced with the choice of either leaving her behind or seeking to pay smugglers to bring her to the UK. She would be at huge risk in either scenario, and it simply makes no sense under any definition of compassion or humanitarianism to be deliberately splitting up families.

I saw that at our border with France just last week, when I visited the camps at Calais and Dunkirk with the wonderful Brighton-based Hummingbird Project. I would need another whole debate to discuss how deeply the British and French authorities have failed the refugees at those camps, but I note that one of the things that came over in all our discussions with the refugees is how many of them have relatives already here in the UK. I spoke to a 22-year-old man whose wife is a British citizen. He has been at the Calais camp for five months, and he cannot join her. Similarly, another young man had half his family, including his father and brother, living in Birmingham, but again he is stuck in the limbo of the camps. Under the Government’s current rules, neither can apply for family reunification. Instead, they face an indefinite period of trying to navigate the complexities of the British and French asylum systems, often without financial or legal support.

The criteria for refugee family reunion should be extended to allow refugees in the UK to be reunited with their parents, siblings, adult children, grandparents and other family members where there is a dependency relationship. The rules should also be expanded to allow British citizens, and those with indefinite leave to remain, to sponsor relatives abroad. We now have a crazy situation where someone who becomes naturalised, who becomes a British citizen, has fewer rights to access the rest of their family. That has been a concern in my constituency, where I have spoken to several Syrian refugees who no longer have the right to family reunification, as they have now become British citizens, yet who have family who remain in desperate situations.

While we are discussing family reunification, let me quickly address, as Margaret Ferrier did, the 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. The UK is one of the very few EU countries that do not allow unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor their parents in order to be safely and finally reunited. The UK has opted out of EU directive 2003/86/EC, which allows unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor applications. I cannot see in whose interest that opt-out is operating. The Government need to rectify that as a matter of urgency. It is surely in the best interest of child refugees to be reunited with family members. I hope the Minister will specifically address that point.

Finally, the UK should also heed the UNHCR’s call to introduce humanitarian visas, following in the footsteps of Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Switzerland. The UK Government have never before implemented a humanitarian visa programme, but such a programme would allow Syrians and others with valid asylum claims to travel to the UK to claim asylum without having to take dangerous journeys to get here. On a wider point, the meeting on 30 March is one of a number of initiatives aimed at addressing the Syrian crisis, but we must not forget that it will also allow us to develop efficient and safe processes for any other large-scale movements of refugees. Oxfam has noted that 400 people have already died or gone missing trying to reach Europe this year.

Many refugees, including children, continue to be vulnerable as they embark on what can only be described as a march of misery through Europe. Unless European Governments offer refugees safe and legal routes to travel, we will continue to see the death toll rising and people left with little choice but to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers, which puts women and children at particular risk of exploitation, trafficking and abuse. We need to ensure that we are providing refugees with real solutions, rather than barriers. There is no simple, easy solution to this humanitarian crisis—there are no silver bullets—but we cannot continue to watch over a crisis of this magnitude without sharing a greater sense of responsibility.

Can the Minister assure us that the Government will take a strong leadership role at the meeting on 30 March? Will the Government ensure that we play our full part in providing safe and legal routes of access for refugees? I have outlined three particular demands. It is about giving refugee children the same right as adult refugees to be with their family; it is about widening the rules to allow adult refugees to be reunited with their parents, siblings and adult children in the UK; and it is about affording British citizens and those with indefinite leave to remain the right to bring to the UK their family members with international protection needs. The Government pride themselves on standing up for the family, but that has to be all families, not just some. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Several hon. Members rose