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Legal Aid reform is keeping families apart, new report warns

British Red Cross

7 min read Partner content

Parliamentarians last week came together to discuss a new report by the British Red Cross which highlights the difficulties being faced be refugees we have been separated from their families

At a parliamentary round table last week, the British Red Cross gathered MPs, Peers and experts to discuss the plight of refugees forced to live apart from their families.

The event marked the release of a reportby the charity, which focussed on the experiences of individuals it had supported in reuniting with their loved ones.

The Red Cross has detailed knowledge in this area, since the mid-1990s they have played a part in bringing 7000 family members together torn apart by conflict and natural disaster, and is leading the dialogue on how to remove the barriers that are keeping others separated.

Chairing the event, Alex Fraser, Head of Refugee Support at the British Red Cross, explained the various challenges being faced by refugees, highlighting the withdrawal of legal aid as an issue in urgent need of address.

He said: “I think we would all agree that families should be together. The level of joy experienced by a family that is reunited having not seen each other - the people they care for most in the world - for such considerable periods of time can be overwhelming. As of course can the feelings of pain, fear and loss when those families are apart.

“The longing to be reunited doesn’t begin on the day that people are granted protection, for many it has been years since they have held their children, since they have embraced their wives, since they have embraced their husbands.

“Of course, although one family member may have protection, over half of the applicants in our report continue to be exposed to considerable security risks. This would suggest that this isn’t a matter of immigration but one of protection. Once protection is granted the process of refugee family union should be straightforward. However, our report details why it is anything but straightforward.

“They face a difficult, long, complicated process, which is why access to legal support throughout is so important. Missing documents, language barriers, gathering evidence to support applications for step children and adopted children are just some of the challenging factors. We believe publically funded legal advice should be provided throughout the process, including through the appeal stage.” 

This is why the charity is appealing to the relevant Government departments to look at the report’s recommendations.

The findings already look set to make an impact within parliament, as they are being championed by Conservative MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Daniel Kawczynski.

The Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, who hosted the event, praised the charity for the work it was doing and pledged to put the report before his committee colleagues. 

Having first-hand experience of being an immigrant to the UK – he arrived as a six year old from Poland in 1978 – he was able to give a personal perspective on the issue.

He said: “The unique thing about the British people is the extraordinary sense of fair play throughout our culture. Fair play but also tolerance and decency to others and that is something we must always cherish. That’s why the work the British Red Cross does is so important in ensuring that tolerance and decency to those fleeing persecution and coming to our country our helped and respected.”

He also warned that this was in danger of being undermined by a growing attitude of intolerance towards immigrants and refugees.     

“I have to say I am very concerned about some of the language that is starting to permeate through the media which is being pedalled by certain political parties and others.

I understand that we are a very small island nation and I understand that there are pressures that exist on being able to cope and take in large numbers of people. And yet we have done it through the centuries, whether it was people fleeing Nazi persecution in Poland, or whether it’s people fleeing Syria today, we have done it and we will continue to do it, because that is what makes us a very special nation.”

This point was echoed by several members of the audience who called for Parliament and the media to offer a more understanding and thoughtful narrative on the difficulties being faced by displaced people. 

Offering another personal account of the experience of family separation was 17 year old Tania Nana, who gave a moving description of her life in the UK after being forced out of her country of birth. 

She talked of how she, along with her brother and mother had been kept apart from her sisters and the legal process that had ensued to secure their reunion. 

She said: “I felt really upset because I missed my sisters so much and I felt guilty. I was used to them and the fact that they weren’t there made it really difficult. When my lawyer asked me to write this I didn’t want to do it at first because it brought back the memories.

“When I wrote this we had legal aid to help us through the process and my lawyer was really good. We had to go to court twice before my sisters could come here and it was really hard. I was so blessed to have legal aid. I wouldn’t want any other families to go through what I have been through. I am pleading that legal aid can be brought back to help other families.”     

The discussion that followed touched on various aspects that had been raised within the Red Cross research, with many audience members calling for simplification of the forms, flexibility in document requirements and a greater acknowledgment of the need to protect families.

Lord Hylton said he had been advising the Home Office on the immigrants currently in Calais, suggesting that the UK government should be “be proactive, instead of just keeping the maximum number of people out of this country.” The crossbench peer added that there should be “an interviewing point and we should be on the lookout for people who have close family already in Britain to facilitate reunion.”

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Hamwee highlighted the social and financial cost of keeping families apart and urged the Government to recognise the value of uniting people.  

This point was reinforced by Ted Tuthill, British Red Cross Head of the Middle East region, who said: “It is well recognised that the international aid community is only a sticking plaster in one or two areas. We can help with a blanket or some food, but really a sustainable support for people to stay together is the family unit. They understand most about what is needed and can provide that support, not just for one day but for years to come.”

Several attendees also warned that refugees desperate to see their loved ones again would go to any lengths, arguing that if the way was not paved for them, they would find alternative methods and were at great risk of exploitation.

Building on the exchanges, Mr Kawczynski welcomed the discourse and promised cross party support for change.

He said: “I want you to know that there are many people in this House of Commons for every party who feel very strongly about the rights of refugees. This isn’t an issue which is just for one political party. There are people in all political parties who feel strongly about this and I would like to play my part in helping you to create a caucus in parliament, to make sure that the rights of refugees are protected within our country. I think collectively we will be able to push this agenda forward as much as we can to Government.”

Full report can be found here [PDF]

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