Refugee Family Reunion (Immigration Rules)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 29th November 2016.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:30 pm, 29th November 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered immigration rules for refugee family reunion.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. The world is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the end of world war two. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which I checked today, an unprecedented 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide for various reasons including famine, war, poverty, climate change and internal repression. That total roughly equals this country’s entire population. Of those 65.3 million people, 21.3 million are classed by the UNHCR as refugees.Rutherg

An International Rescue Committee report published in March described the rapid acceleration of the problem. In 2010, 10,000 people a day were displaced from their homes, and by 2014 that number had quadrupled. Again, that comes from UNHCR statistics. It is slightly less than that now, but still very high.

The UK has legal obligations to refugees under international law. There is a rigorous process of assessment before someone is granted refugee status, and only then are they allowed to apply for work and look for somewhere to live. The refugees I have met have all been determined to do everything they can to contribute to the UK. They have also been determined to be reunited with their families.

I am the chair of the all-party group on refugees, and I have initiated a public inquiry entitled “Refugees Welcome?”, which has just completed four oral evidence sessions. We have received hundreds of pieces of written evidence and will be visiting Bristol and Nottingham later this month to see for ourselves how refugees who have been granted status in this country are treated. The refugees we heard from in person gave powerful testimony about their difficult journeys, their painful experiences in their countries of origin, and their desire to contribute to and be part of this country, which has welcome them. They also spoke about periods of destitution and poverty after being granted status. That subject will be dealt with in our report. Pertinent to this debate, they spoke of their natural desire to be reunited with their family as soon as possible.

This is a highly gendered issue. Women and children are far more likely to have been left behind than men. Their only hope of escape is to wait for a male family member to reach a country of sanctuary and then apply for reunion. Recent research by the Red Cross shows that 95% of applicants waiting to join family members in the UK through refugee family reunion are women and children. It also found that the process was not safe.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office)

I understand that, under the current rules, if the child turns 18 before the refugee status of the family member in the UK is confirmed, they are no longer eligible for family reunion. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is a problem, and that the Government should look at changing the rules so the age of the child is considered when the Home Office procedure begins?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will come on to that issue. I completely agree that it is unjust and leaves many vulnerable young people in danger and alone.

Fifty-one per cent. of the families Red Cross helped in 2014 were at risk of violence, torture or harassment during the process of applying for family reunion, so the process is not safe. The British Red Cross also told me that, to date in 2016, it has supported the travel of 1,551 people accepted by the Home Office under refugee family reunion, 580 of whom were from Syria. As of the beginning of September, 767 children granted family reunion visas had arrived in the UK after assistance from the British Red Cross, 280 of whom were from Syria. Those are hardly huge numbers. In its 2015 research, “Not So Straightforward”, the British Red Cross found that the current UK policy for refugee family union is not simple, not affordable and not safe.

The system is failing many women and children. Women for Refugee Women, which is represented here today, told me that it knows of many women in the UK who have had to flee from danger without their children and then struggled to bring their children to join them, as Margaret Ferrier said. The problems include, first, delays from the Home Office. If a woman has waited many years in the asylum process, her children back home may be older than 18 by the time she has been granted status, so they are not allowed the automatic right to join her.

Secondly, there are the costs of accessing family reunion rights. I hope the Minister will address both those issues. For instance, a woman whom Women for Refugee Women knows well, and whom I am going to meet later today—she has given me permission to describe her story—entered the UK in 2007 after being imprisoned in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a human rights activist. She left behind her children, aged 12, 15 and 17. It was three and a half years before she was called for her first asylum interview, and she was not granted status until 2013. By then, her children, still vulnerable, were 23, 21 and 18, and were therefore refused the right to join her. She is still struggling to find a legal route to be reunited with them. She has already spent £600 per child on the first application and has been told that she needs to spend still more for the appeal. As can be imagined, those sums are an incredible burden for a refugee woman who can access only very low-paid jobs due to her interrupted employment history.

This afternoon, at a City of Sanctuary event that I hosted, I met two brothers. Both were Syrian. One was granted status quickly, but the other was still in the process after being in detention. Their parents are still in Syria. They cannot come on the resettlement scheme or on family reunion, even though the first brother now has a full-time job and has said he is willing and able to support them.

I want to talk about expanding the scope of refugee family reunion rules to protect children and bring families together. The UK, unlike most European Union states, does not allow children to bring family members to join them here. Under the Dublin regulation—EU regulation 604/2013—they can be transferred to another EU member state if they have a relative living there, but that just moves children around the EU and places more burdens on the states that receive the most refugees. It does not allow children already here and granted status to bring their parents here.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill The Minister for Immigration

May I point out that the Dublin process is a two-way process, and that we are taking children who have family here from elsewhere in the European Union? We have resettled a number of children this year, and the process is gathering pace.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I acknowledge that it is a two-way process. That is important, but there is a lot more we can do.

Someone fleeing war, torture or conflict may have lost relatives or been separated from parents or children. They may have been cared for by an aunt or an older sibling. They may have a wider idea of family than the nuclear family of western social policy. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, their children may have reached 18 by the time their status is confirmed, but they may still need protection or be dependent. If refugee family reunion rules in the UK are to ensure the security of refugees’ family members and family unity, they must address relationships of dependence beyond those currently permitted.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful case. The reason why people run needs to be at the heart of how we do our refugee policy. Nobody decides to leave their family lightly. We need to counter the idea that one member of a family is at risk but another is not to understand how to have a dignified and humane approach to refugees.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I agree. I find it difficult to understand why a child who has come from a place that is deemed unsafe for them to go back to cannot simply bring their parents here.

In July, the Home Office published updated guidance on refugee family reunion, which set out details of types of cases where exceptional circumstances may apply—for example, in the case of dependent children over the age of 18. It is important that there are exceptional circumstances, and it is a welcome sign that the Government recognise the importance of family reunion, but it is not enough. People are usually granted leave to remain in exceptional circumstances for only 33 months, and they may be subject to other restrictions to which those granted refugee status are not subject. Those restrictions are left to the discretion of Home Office officials, which does not give them the certainty that a change in the rules would provide.

The Home Affairs Committee, in HC 151, its sixth report of this parliamentary Session, reviewed the work of the immigration directorates:

“It seems to us perverse that children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way as an adult would be able to do. The right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees just as it does to adults. The Government should amend the immigration rules to allow refugee children to act as sponsors for their close family.”

I thank my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz for that work.

The same Committee, in HC 24, its seventh report of this Session, on the migration crisis, stated:

“Family reunion of migrants has been shown to have benefits in terms of integration and support networks, in addition to the human rights requirements of allowing families to be together, and there is clear scope for further measures to facilitate women and children joining husbands, fathers and other male relatives who have reached the UK…We also recommend that the UK broaden the scope of family reunion rules”.

I therefore support the Home Affairs Committee, the Refugee Council, Refugee Action, Amnesty International, the British Red Cross and many others, and call on the UK Government to end the discrimination against children, allowing those recognised as refugees the right to be joined in this country by other family members. Further, the definition of “family” should be expanded to include a wider range of family members. I recognise that that is challenging, but those people have come from war zones.

Our system needs to be properly implemented to fulfil our legal and moral obligations. The effect of cuts to legal aid is that refugees and UK citizens struggle to be reunited with their family members. Legal aid for specialist legal help for family reunion was cut by the coalition Government in 2013, on the grounds that it was considered a straightforward immigration matter that did not warrant the need for specialist legal support. The evidence, however, from the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Women for Refugee Women and my own caseload shows that many of the cases are far from straightforward—they are complex and require specialist legal advisers. Given what is at stake for families, there should be legal aid provision to assist refugees making family reunion applications.

Furthermore, those refugees who have been granted citizenship cannot sponsor family members in the same way as those only with refugee status. That seems particularly harsh. They are subject to the same minimum income and other requirements of the spousal visa process as other UK citizens. I understand why that has happened, but it is difficult for newly arrived people to meet such conditions—for those who have arrived here from war zones, it seems unnecessarily harsh. I therefore ask the Government, after their review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, to reinstate the provision of legal aid in family reunion cases. Will the Minister comment on that?

I also ask the Government to expand the scope of family reunion so that those who have been granted UK citizenship, or who were born UK citizens, can sponsor family members in the same way as those with refugee status. I further ask that they be granted legal aid in the same way.

Rather than simply turning down an application if there is not enough information, it would be helpful if the Home Office asked for more information. The Refugee Council reported to me that applicants are not being given the opportunity to submit further evidence for their application when their supporting documentation is deemed insufficient. They are simply told that their application has been turned down, which forces them into lengthy and costly appeals processes. During that time, refugees who want to come here continue to live in precarious conditions, often in a third country—for example, if they have fled Syria, they might be in a camp in a neighbouring country such as Lebanon.

That would save the Government money on the appeals process and, most importantly, it would end the practice of leaving families stuck in vulnerable and precarious situations for months on end, waiting for an appeal to be heard. I therefore call on the Government to revise their practice guidance to officials carrying out the process and to move to asking for more information, rather than simply rejecting a family if there is insufficient information.

Demonstrating a relationship involves further complications. In applications for a sponsor’s spouse, whether through marriage or civil partnership, as well as an unmarried partner, the applicant must demonstrate a “subsisting relationship” that preceded the sponsor’s application for asylum, as well as the intention to live together permanently. Again, I understand why that has come about, but I hope that the Minister accepts that relationships and marriages happen, and children are born, while refugees remain in third countries awaiting decisions on resettlement. The rules exclude such families from reuniting, because they are deemed to be post-flight families.

For unmarried and same-sex partners, applications must also demonstrate that the couple

“have been living together in a relationship akin to marriage or civil partnership which has subsisted for two years or more.”

Again, I ask the Government to recognise that resettled refugees are likely to form family relationships during the often lengthy period between their flight from their country of origin and their resettlement in the UK. I ask the Government to revise their rules accordingly.

The process should be safe. The British Red Cross report, “Not So Straightforward”, which I mentioned earlier, described how, although the initial application for family reunion can be made online, the following process requires family members wishing to join relatives here in the UK to travel to their closest visa application centre. The report highlighted examples of families risking their lives to travel to an embassy, crossing conflict zones, or of people being turned away from the embassy when they arrived, even when they had appointments. I therefore ask the Government to change the rules so that the process is safer, by allowing refugees in the UK to submit the family reunion documents, rather than forcing their family members to make journeys that are often costly and dangerous.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to consider eight requests, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give an answer to some, or at least an indication of the direction of travel. If he cannot grant my requests, will he agree to meet me in any case to discuss them further?

First, will the Government allow children recognised as refugees the right to be joined here in the UK by family members? Secondly, will the Government expand the definition of family to include a wider range of family members? Thirdly, will the Government reinstate the provision of legal aid in family reunion cases? Fourthly, will the Government expand the scope of refugee family reunion so that those who have been granted UK citizenship can sponsor family members in the same way as those with refugee status? Fifthly, will the Government grant legal aid to refugees with UK citizenship? Sixthly, will the Government revise the guidance so that officials ask for more information, rather than simply rejecting a family’s application because of insufficient information? Seventhly, will the Government recognise that resettled refugees are likely to form family relationships during the often lengthy period between flight and resettlement, and revise the rules accordingly? Eighthly, will the Government change the rules, so that the process is safer, by allowing refugees in the UK to submit the family reunion documents?

Those people have fled from war, persecution and torture. Many of them have gone through terrible journeys to reach sanctuary in the UK. Many are children. Surely it is not too much to ask that they are allowed to be reunited quickly, safely and easily with their families. After all, is that not what we would want if it happened to us?

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Whip 4:47 pm, 29th November 2016

I thank Thangam Debbonaire for securing this important debate, and I commend her for it. The topic is important to my constituents, as it is to her and, of course, to the many refugee families and lone children throughout the world.

The UK Government have made some progress in expediting the move of refugee children to the UK from the fallout of the Calais “jungle” camp shutdown. That has to be welcome to an extent, but the lack of speed and organisation has been disappointing. While delays continue, children go missing, fall victim to traffickers, are bought and sold, are damaged, and are alone.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Government seem to be changing the rules retrospectively on the children whom we take from Calais, specifying certain countries rather than persecution as the question at the heart of the issue? Just as this debate is about how to help those being persecuted, it is important that we as a country do not renege on our commitments.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Whip

I very much agree with the hon. Lady. At times, it feels like a feast of moving goalposts, which does not help those in most need of the support that we should be giving them. The Government need to do more to speed up the process of helping.

Lone children wandering Europe, who are now estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, will not reduce in number if we ignore the situation in Syria. That is why we must take a joined-up approach and not separate the problems. I am confident that the Minister will tell us about how the Government are putting more money into support for refugees than any other country in Europe, but simply throwing money at a problem is not enough. We need to accommodate the points made by the hon. Member for Bristol West and to change our system, taking into account individual circumstances, which would make a real difference to families and, most importantly, those young people who are so often left alone.

I recently raised in the House the case of one of my constituents who had lost their son. He had not been known to the family for more than a couple of years and was sadly thought to be dead. Luckily, we found that he was still alive. However, having had the joy of discovering that, the family then had to battle to bring him to join them in Scotland. At one point, they did not know whether they would ever see him again. I commend the Home Office for the support that it has given the family. Although it took a bit of time to arrive, that support has been productive, and we are hopeful that there will be a positive outcome to that case in the near future. The Home Office must work with all the agencies on the ground that do such an amazing job to help children who are alone in a war zone. We need to do so much more to ensure that the process of bringing those young people back to join their families is much faster.

The humanitarian situation in the region affected by the Syrian conflict is vast and growing. Atrocities happen every minute of every day, and the children caught up in that situation who so often flash up on our TV screens and social media feeds sadly face many more years of conflict, pain and hurt before there is any end in sight to that conflict. It is so sad to consider that children and families are separated.

We must do what we can now. We must act swiftly and with compassion. We must not continue waiting for child refugees to come knocking at our door; doing so leaves them with little option but to make dangerous journeys, often with dangerous people who do nothing but profit and prioritise money over their safety. Where it is safe to do so, we must actively seek out displaced families and children in conflict zones. We must make more of an effort before an entire generation of children is put at risk of losing the care of their families, many of whom have been affected by emergencies and cannot support their children without help.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Civil Liberties) 4:51 pm, 29th November 2016

I congratulate Thangam Debbonaire on bringing this crucial issue back to this place. I must confess that I find it difficult to fathom why any Government would put as many barriers in the way of family reunion as the current Government and their predecessors have. I want to focus on children who have been granted refugee status in this country—children who are recognised by the state as part of a group that is in danger in its home country. What possible benefit is there to them or us in denying their parents the opportunity to be reunited with them?

Even if the overarching concern is financial, it is expensive to keep a child in care. In the long term, such children have a higher chance of developing mental health problems, getting involved in crime and becoming homeless. By virtue of having been in care, their life outcomes are lower than those of the average child, and dealing with those reduced outcomes is expensive for any country. Can I convince the Minister to consider that allowing the parents of such children to come here to look after them could be classed as preventive spend? Given that we know that preventive spending means huge future cost reductions, would that not be a sensible financial decision?

The Government may well argue—they have in the past—that we cannot let that happen lest it creates some perverse incentive for unaccompanied migration, but that argument is flawed on several levels. Not just that—it is offensive and betrays a deep cynicism about humankind. First, there is no evidence from other jurisdictions that permit family reunion for unaccompanied children that such incentives actually exist. It is worth stressing that in the EU, only the UK and Denmark do not permit reunion in such cases. In all earnestness, I must ask the Minister on what evidence the Government base their assumption—or is it simply an excuse?

Secondly, as I said, that argument is based on a base and deeply cynical view of human nature. Yes, some people would abuse the system, just like there are MPs who abuse their systems and companies that abuse the tax system, but should Governments really reach a position based on what a minority of those vulnerable people might do? Who would send their child off unaccompanied into a foreign country with strangers on the off-chance that they might get to safety and be able to send for their parents? Surely only those who were desperate and genuinely in fear for their lives and their families’ lives, such as the parents whose three-year-old was murdered and eaten in front of them by terrorists and the mother who was forced to watch as soldiers raped her little girl in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I should say “mothers and fathers”—there have been many more than one.

Given that unthinkable choice—rape, murder or an uncertain journey into the unknown that could end in their child reaching a place of safety—what would any parent here do to protect their child? Perhaps one day they will see them again, but if not, at least those children have a chance. Who would send their children on such a journey? Only someone who was desperate—only genuine refugees.

I echo Amnesty International’s call—it was also one of the eight requests of the hon. Member for Bristol West—for the Government to reinstate legal aid in family reunion cases. The Scottish Legal Aid Board continues to fund such cases, but given the complexity of some of the processes involved, particularly for refugees with a limited grasp of English, natural justice surely demands that legal aid must be available to all so that the proper evidence on which to make decisions is submitted. I know that that costs money, but the alternative, which is that those with valid claims—those who are at risk of suffering the terrible atrocities I have just mentioned—routinely fail due to a lack of proper legal support, should be repugnant to a civilised society.

The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association raised several detailed points about the definition of “family” when it comes to family reunion. Does that cover grandparents or siblings in the case of parental deaths? There must be far greater recognition of the difficulties that refugees face. I spoke earlier about the financial cost of putting children in care to the taxpayer and the cost to those individuals in terms of life outcomes. It has long been agreed that it is far better to place children with a wider family network if their parents cannot be with them. In this country, that is called kinship care, which is rightly praised by all Governments because of the sacrifices that are made and the benefits to us all. Yet when grandparents, siblings, aunts or uncles of refugee children are willing to make that sacrifice and take care of those children—as all kinship carers do—which would benefit us all, that is suddenly deemed not such a good thing and they are not recognised as family.

In short, the Government have got themselves into a complete and utter fankle in this area. They need to look again at family reunion so that refugees who have already had to give up their homes, families, friends and familiar surroundings do not also have to give up their families and never have to choose between safety and family because of decisions made by the UK Government. We in the Scottish National party group will continue to press the UK Government to be at the forefront of efforts to respond to the humanitarian crisis and ensure that our systems for dealing with these complex issues are fit for purpose and reflect a kind and compassionate set of values.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 4:57 pm, 29th November 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I, too, thank Thangam Debbonaire, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, for securing this debate. I agree with pretty much everything she said. In fact, this is one of those debates where I probably agree with everything that everyone has said so far.

I also thank the organisations that have once again been in touch with excellent briefings. It is only a few months since Mr Carmichael led a debate on the very same topic, and we had a debate prior to that on UN pathways. I salute all those campaigners for their perseverance, which reflects the significance of this cause.

In international human rights instruments, the family is the fundamental unit of society, and no one should ever have to consider making a choice between finding a place of safety and living with their family. Refugee family reunion is also a hugely significant part of what should be a strategic response to the refugee and humanitarian crisis, the circumstances of which the hon. Lady set out.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene when he has only just got started. I have listened carefully to all the contributions. Will he take a moment to pay tribute to the many churches and community groups that do so much to welcome and warmly embrace the vulnerable people who manage to make it into the UK, who may be isolated and frightened and do not have the language or an education?

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

The hon. Lady makes a good point. The churches who have taken such steps deserve our full praise. In fact, some have gone ever further and are now trying to get involved in offering homes to refugees through resettlement programmes and so on. Many other organisations deserve praise as well, many of whom will have been present at the meeting that the hon. Member for Bristol West organised today, which I very much regret having missed.

To return to the point about how family reunion is also important as a part of our strategic response to the crisis that the hon. Lady described, there are two reasons for that. First, it provides safe legal routes for many people who are also at risk of persecution. It stops them from having to rely on smugglers, as my hon. Friend Owen Thompson said. Secondly, it is a vital method of building support networks here, because family members arriving in the UK will have help and assistance in integrating and settling into communities. They can then provide support to the refugees with whom they are reuniting. These are people whose rehabilitation and ability to integrate can be greatly enhanced through the presence of partners and children.

In short, family reunion is an effective way for this country to step up to its obligations to do its fair share for those fleeing persecution—an obligation that we are a long way short of being able to say we have fulfilled properly. We have the family reunion basics in place, but vital improvements need to be made. They fall into two categories: the scope of eligibly rules and making the process much easier for those who qualify. In the time available, I will mention a handful of areas in which we need to see improvement.

We have heard about the cut-off age of 18, which I regard as brutally harsh. Why are we saying that an 18-year-old Syrian woman, separated from her family during escape and now living with her grandmother in Damascus, does not automatically qualify to join her refugee mother here in the UK? One hard and fast cut-off based on age is too arbitrary. Cohabitation and dependency are surely better guides to whether someone can really be considered part of the family unit of which we should be promoting a reunification.

More generally, the rules are also too restrictive regarding the range of other relatives who can apply. Particularly in this crisis, many, such as kids with only an uncle in the United Kingdom, will not fall into the limited partner or children categories under the rules, but they have no-one else to turn to. I also support calls made by hon. Members today and recently by the Home Affairs Committee for the UK to change its mind on parents being able to join refugee children here. Quite simply, there is no evidence that following the approach taken in every other EU country—with the exception of Denmark—will undermine child safeguarding. On the contrary, as my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin pointed out, it will promote child safeguarding.

While we are on the subject of different types of qualifying relationships, the hon. Member for Bristol West raised an important point about the latest statement of changes to the immigration rules and concerns expressed by organisations such as ILPA about the definition of unmarried partners. There are concerns that the new rules could be read as altering the definition of unmarried partners so as to create a new requirement of cohabitation, which could be difficult to prove if, for example, a couple is gay and same-sex relationships are prohibited or perhaps because persecution has meant separation. I understand that the intention was to consolidate the rules rather than to change the definition, and it would be useful for the Minister to clarify that point.

Hon. Members have also touched on refugees who have family members who are British citizens or, indeed, persons settled in the United Kingdom. There is a strong case for opening up family reunion rules to apply in such circumstances, and the eye-wateringly prohibitive immigration rules on spouses are particularly inappropriate when used in that context. The consequence is that we have seen British citizens or settled persons living in refugee camps across Europe with family members who they cannot get admitted here. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, along with other colleagues, met some of them in Calais and Dunkirk earlier this year.

Hon. Members have also rightly highlighted post-flight families. Surely it is wrong to expect refugees, particularly those fleeing persecution and perhaps waiting for resettlement in a third country, not to develop family lives while in third countries, especially if they are waiting to go through programmes such as the one the United Kingdom now operates.

In response to those concerns, I have no doubt that the Minister will highlight the possibility of exceptional grants of leave outside the rules based on the recently amended guidance I referred to, but that remains far from good enough, with the ridiculously high hurdle of exceptional, compelling compassionate circumstances utterly inappropriate for the times we live in, because previously tragic and exceptional circumstances are now all too common and therefore not exceptional at all.

The guidance retains a caution that leave outside the rules is appropriate only rarely—and, with just 175 such grants in five years, that part is clearly being scrupulously implemented. Just 175 grants outside the rules in five years is wholly insufficient. Hon. Members’ suggestions are all sensible proposals to expand the scope of the eligibility criteria, but we also need to ensure that practical problems do not prevent those who do qualify for family reunion from achieving that goal.

I will give a few examples. Organisations such as Red Cross have shown how tricky the process can be, as shown in “Not So Straightforward”, the report mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol West. In fairness, the Government have listened to recommendations, but they can do more. There is a need for qualified legal support. I fully back calls for the reintroduction of legal aid funding, which remains available in Scotland—from the Scottish Legal Aid Board, as part of its advice and assistance scheme—so it can be done.

Problems have been highlighted with applications being treated in essence like any other immigration application, as the hon. Lady pointed out, with the entry clearance office refusing to wait for extra information. Applications should not be treated like normal immigration applications; these are profound questions of family unity and protection.

The Home Affairs Committee has highlighted problems with the short entry clearance periods sometimes granted to families, who then face an impossible task to arrange transport in time or having to choose between leaving separately and risking one of the entry clearance periods running out. I recall a reassurance being given in the debate in June that that issue would be addressed, so it would be useful to know whether progress was being made.

A final, practical issue is about making applications easier to submit, because 95% are made by women and children and, as the hon. Lady pointed out, many of them are required to make dangerous journeys to third countries to find the nearest British embassy. I urge the Minister to work with organisations to explore ways of making sure that people are not put at risk in trying to access what should in essence be a safe legal route.

The work the Government have done in the countries neighbouring Syria has been excellent, but that is not the issue today. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian put it perfectly. It is not enough for us simply to support other countries to host refugees. Particularly now that those countries are way beyond coping, it is more imperative than ever that we step up our efforts in hosting refugees. Refugee family reunion is an utterly compelling way to provide protection, ensure better support groups here and provide safe legal routes for those who would otherwise be likely to take horrendous risks. It is a win-win policy that the Government should expand and make easier to access.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary 5:07 pm, 29th November 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on securing this important debate and, if I may say so, on making a powerful speech. With a big immigration and migration case load, I have seen examples of the problems she cites. It is a particular and random cruelty to meet a constituent who applied for refugee family reunion and, because it has taken so long, the children are now over 18. It is important to do something about that, among the many other things she raised.

Some Members are marvelling at why our approach to refugees is not as fair or humane as we would want. There is nothing to marvel at: we have had a debate on immigration in this country down the years that, sadly, has rendered the issue of refugees toxic. Much of the unfairness in the way that refugees are treated is to do with the fact that, in popular opinion, “immigrant” applies as much to a refugee or asylum seeker as to anybody else. I will return to that in closing my remarks.

One of my hon. Friends made the point about how desperate people are. We really must focus on desperation. I have been able to visit refugee camps, not just in Calais but in Lesbos and Lebanon. I cannot stress how desperate these people are. It is also worth reminding the House that thousands of those people have crossed the Sahara and seen their friends and comrades lose their lives; they have been at the mercy of criminal gangs in Libya; and, finally, they have crossed the Mediterranean, sometimes sat on rafts or ships and seeing family members die. Desperation is the key, and making it harder and more difficult for people to claim family reunion—the notion being that that will help to somehow choke off applications—completely understates the desperate situation those people are in.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am glad that my hon. Friend is highlighting so many things and broadening the scope of the debate a little bit, but I reiterate that if we make routes for family reunion safe and legal, we are cutting off the business model of the traffickers. That is surely something we all want to do.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

I have to tell my hon. Friend that the weight of the public debate on immigration sometimes stops politicians doing the fair and rational thing on refugees. When we live in a political time in which a well-read tabloid newspaper can have on its front page a series of six pictures of lorry drivers and the headline, “Foreign lorry drivers reading their phones”, we are talking about a toxic debate, which, as she says, militates against what is fair, appropriate and reasonable in dealing with refugees.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does it not come to the fact that, for most people, actually getting refugee status and getting here is only part of the beginning of the story, not the end? The hon. Lady is talking about people who need to rebuild their lives from the ground up, and there is no better context in which to do that than the family environment.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If we regard these people as people, then gaining refugee status is only the beginning, as has been said. What they need around them, if at all possible, is their family. That is what the unfair and inappropriate state of family reunion rules militates against.

I remind the House of the final act of the United Nations conference of plenipotentiaries on the status of refugees and stateless persons, which provided that signatories—we are one—take

“the necessary measures for the protection of the refugee’s family”,

with particular reference to

“Ensuring that the unity of the refugee’s family is maintained” and

“The protection of refugees who are minors”.

I think the summation of this debate so far is that we are not taking the necessary measures for the protection of the refugee’s family.

Article 3 of the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child states that the interests of the child must always be the primary consideration in all actions relating to them. The Home Office guidance from 2009, “Every Child Matters”, says that there is a statutory duty to promote the welfare of children, which must also apply to children overseas. I have dealt with so many cases down the years in which it was quite clear that the welfare of the children overseas was the last thing on the Home Office’s mind. As we have heard, many campaigners, non-governmental organisations and immigration lawyers argue that the current UK legislation and practice may meet the letter of the UN convention but not the spirit. As I think most of us know, there is scope to allow an application outside of the immigration rules, but in my experience that is an extremely rare occurrence.

The then Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, argued in the House in 2015 both that the UK rules were more fairly drawn than other countries and—this is the essence of the problem in fairly treating refugees—that to widen them would act as a pull factor for more refugees. That is what is behind the Home Office’s thinking. The Dublin III regulations are designed to allow greater access for child refugees, but they are widely regarded as bureaucratic and unwieldy, and the same verdict is widely shared of the application form itself. The Dubs amendment, to which my hon. Friend Stella Creasy referred, was designed to provide access in the interests of the child. However, it now seems very unlikely to meet its designated target of 3,000 child refugees from the encampment in Calais. We have let those children down, and we have let those Members of the Lords and the Commons who supported the Dubs amendment down.

As the Minister will no doubt tell us, there is a series of long-established refugee resettlement schemes, such as the mandate and gateway schemes, and the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme. The Government have also recently announced a vulnerable child resettlement scheme—I dare say we will hear about too. However, the effect of those various ad hoc schemes is to add to the complexity and bureaucracy, as any of us who have dealt with refugees will know, and to exacerbate inconsistencies—Syrian children, but not Yemeni or Afghan children.

I am quite clear that the reason why the existing regime for refugee family reunion seems unfair and incoherent and not in the spirit of the UN conventions that we have signed has to do with the toxic debate on immigration that we are having. In the post-Brexit era, and in the era of Trump, I cannot let the issue of the general debate on migration go past.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not a debate that makes sense in Britain? Actually, we have had a proud tradition of taking and supporting refugees in this country. I am mindful that Creasy, like Farage, is a Huguenot surname, and that all of us come from communities that have benefited from the input of refugees. That is the true British, patriotic tradition that we should be supporting.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

My hon. Friend is completely correct: this is a not a debate that makes sense in the UK any more than it makes sense in the US—a country that was built on immigration, more than any other society that can be named. However, because migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and so on are conflated in the popular narrative, we are where we are.

With Brexit, Trump and the debate about the conditions under which we leave or do not leave the European Union, there is no doubt that the issue of migration is going to come up over and over again. I urge Members who have shown such sympathy and compassion to refugees, and on family reunions specifically, to hold their nerve on the question of immigration. It is so important that as politicians we have a debate on immigration that is based on the facts, not on urban myth. It is so important that we do not propagate notions that immigrants in some general sense drive down wages, when it is in fact predatory employers who drive down wages. It is so important that we do not join UKIP in the gutter when talking about migrants and refugees.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West made eight very important points. I want to leave the Minister plenty of time to respond to each of them—not with waffle, not by trying to change the subject and not by referring to general things the Government may have done in the past. I say to the House that these are difficult times to argue for fair treatment for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, but precisely because it is a difficult time, it is so important that those of us who feel able to should stand up and be counted. After all, the point about refugees is that they are not just figures on a Home Office briefing; they are not just images on a television screen; they are not just the subject of Nigel Farage’s speeches—they are people, and they deserve to be treated as people in a fair and humane fashion.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

Before the Minister begins, I ask him to leave a small period of time at the end so that Thangam Debbonaire can wind up.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill The Minister for Immigration 5:11 pm, 29th November 2016

I am happy to do so, Sir Alan. First, I congratulate Thangam Debbonaire on securing this debate on an important subject and pay tribute to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees.

I want to make it clear that there is no need for a question mark when I say that refugees are welcome here. I was recently in Jordan and met a number of refugees, some of whom had just arrived from the berm. I had very helpful meetings with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was selecting the most vulnerable families and children to come as part of the schemes we have in place. I am proud that we are the second biggest donor of humanitarian aid. That shows that we are determined to help those most in need in the most vulnerable locations, which in many cases is in the refugee camps, not, for example, in European Union countries.

I am aware of calls in favour of widening the family reunion immigration rules. That issue has been debated at length, including in both Houses during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016. The recent campaigns by the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council demonstrate the interest in this subject. This has been a good debate, and I welcome the thoughtful and passionate contributions from right hon. and hon. Members.

We recognise that families may be fragmented due to conflict and persecution and the speed and manner in which asylum seekers often flee their country of origin. That is why the Government have dedicated family reunion immigration rules and have granted more than 22,000 family reunion visas in the past five years. Our policy meets our international obligations and allows immediate family members who formed part of the family unit before the refugee sponsor fled their country to reunite with them in the UK. British citizens are able to sponsor their spouse or partner and children under the age of 18 to join them under the family immigration rules, providing they make the appropriate entry clearance application and meet the relevant criteria.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

The Minister talks about how the system works. What does he have to say to the suggestion from my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire that we should have a broader definition of family that is not just immediate family?

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill The Minister for Immigration

I would not accept that. As I will say later in my remarks, we do not want to create the pull factor that results in people drowning in the Mediterranean or the Aegean. That is one of the major reasons why we are maintaining this policy.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I urge the Minister to think about the fact that the so-called pull factor does not go away. These people are living in danger. They are fleeing for their lives. When we make safe and legal family reunion routes harder, we actually make it more likely that these people will end up in the hands of people traffickers and make these dangerous journeys.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill The Minister for Immigration

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I will justify exactly where we are and why we believe we have got the right policies.

As I was saying, the rules reflect our obligations under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. Where an application does not meet the rules, our policy requires consideration of any exceptional or compassionate reasons for granting a visa outside the rules. That caters for extended family members of refugees and family members of British citizens who cannot meet the financial requirements of the rules.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill The Minister for Immigration

I will make a little progress, otherwise I will not be able to answer the points made during the debate, given the time constraints.

In July, the Home Office published revised guidance on the types of cases that may benefit from a grant of leave outside the rules in exceptional circumstances, including adult dependent sons or daughters over the age of 18 who are not leading an independent life and are living in a conflict zone. The new guidance also provides more clarity for applicants and their sponsors, so that they can better understand the process and what is expected of them. I do not believe that widening the definition of family is practical or indeed necessary, especially as the numbers of people granted a family reunion visa are likely to increase in line with the numbers of recognised refugees in the UK.

A balance has to be struck between reuniting families quickly and not creating a situation where the UK becomes the destination of choice, with family members and children in particular being encouraged or even forced to leave their country and risk hazardous journeys to the UK. They should instead claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

More of us might have sympathy for the Minister’s argument about a pull factor were it not for the fact that only the UK and Denmark put this restriction in. Surely if there were a pull factor, it would be coming from other countries. Does he have any evidence that other countries offering this form of family reunification has been a pull factor? If not, I think it is time to put this straw argument to bed.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill The Minister for Immigration

The point was made by Anne McLaughlin that if children could sponsor parents, it would not be a pull factor. I point out that Eurostat figures show that in 2015, there were 35,250 claims from unaccompanied minors in Sweden and 14,400 claims from unaccompanied minors in Germany. Those are the countries with the highest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and the most welcoming asylum policies.

We must not inadvertently create a situation where parents are incentivised to place their children’s lives in the hands of traffickers or criminal gangs and risk dangerous journeys to Europe. Indeed, I was in Nigeria over the summer and had that precise point made to me by those whom I met there. The Government’s priority is to provide humanitarian aid to those most in need in the regions affected by conflict. We have pledged £2.3 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria and neighbouring countries. We are also providing nearly £65 million in response to the Mediterranean migration crisis.

The Government remain strongly committed to resettlement. We are on track to resettle 20,000 Syrians by 2020, and there will be an update on those figures later in the week. That is in addition to the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, which will resettle up to 3,000 children and individuals at risk by 2020, and our long-standing Gateway and Mandate schemes, which the shadow Immigration Minister mentioned. There is no limit to the number of refugees who can be resettled under the Mandate scheme, and individuals with close family ties in the UK may be eligible. That route also allows wider family members to be resettled in exceptional circumstances.

The hon. Member for Bristol West mentioned the time taken to grant asylum claims. I point out to the House that we have turned asylum performance around. Since the end of 2014, we have consistently met our ambition of deciding 98% of straightforward cases within six months. We are committed to improving the process for those applying for family reunion, and my officials have been working with the British Red Cross to ensure that the application process is as smooth as possible and decisions are made in a timely fashion, to ensure that families are separated for the shortest possible time. In 2015, the Home Office was deciding family reunion applications within an average of 40 days.

I have met the chief executive of the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, to discuss many of the issues we have debated today, and my officials are looking at what more we can do to improve our service to those applying for family reunion, including redesigning the application form. A simpler application form, as well as the improved guidance, will help applicants better to understand the family reunion process.

There have been calls, including today, for legal aid to be made available for family reunion applications, but I do not believe, with the changes we have made and continue to make, that it is necessary. Applications for family reunion are free of charge, and in deciding how to allocate legal aid support, the Government must be mindful that this is all taxpayers’ money.

UK Visas and Immigration is formulating plans to consolidate decision making for family reunion applications into one team based in the United Kingdom. That work was initiated following the inspection of family reunion applications by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. I am grateful to David Bolt for conducting such a thorough inspection. I assure the House that the Home Office treats all applications for family reunion with compassion and sensitivity and will continue to do so. The Government have accepted all the recommendations in the chief inspector’s report and work is under way to implement them.

I want to reassure Members that I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward today in favour of widening the family reunion criteria. The Government recognise the important principle of family unity, but our policies must be balanced, and we must not inadvertently and perversely create a situation in which families see an advantage in sending people ahead, in particular children, putting their lives at risk by attempting perilous journeys into and across Europe: tragically, such journeys have cost many lives. I therefore remain of the view that widening the criteria to include many other categories of people is neither practical nor sustainable.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:28 pm, 29th November 2016

Thank you, Sir Alan, for allowing me to sum up. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and the Minister for answering. It will not surprise anyone, and surely not him, to know that I am incredibly disappointed by his response. I was not expecting promises on any of the eight points, but it is disappointing that the Minister emphasises exceptional circumstances rather than the reality of people’s lives. All of us, at our darkest times and our best of times, want our family with us.

There is no evidence of this pull factor. People come because they are desperate, not because they have read in a brochure that the UK is an easy touch. For the sake of the young men I met today who want to bring their old parents here from Syria, for the sake of the woman whose children were too old to come here by the time she was granted status, and for our conscience as public servants, I ask the Minister to reconsider and to make refugee family reunion work for refugees, to whom we owe a legal and moral obligation. I ask him if he will meet me to discuss that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered immigration rules for refugee family reunion.

Sitting adjourned.