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Baroness Hamwee: Support my bill to help reunite more refugee families

4 min read

It is time to widen the definition of ‘family’ so child refugees in the UK can sponsor their closest relations to join them, argues Baroness Hamwee

It’s wise to choose for a private member’s bill a discrete topic to address a problem which has been identified and can be relatively easily solved – and which the government might be prepared to see implemented. But sometimes the concern to take forward a cause overtakes wisdom – thus my Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, which had its second reading in the Lords in December, and will have its committee stage on Friday.

Most cultures recognise the importance of family, for day to day support, practical and emotional, as well as at significant dates in the calendar. Our culture certainly does – but there is a shortfall. Recently a number of parliamentarians heard from two teenage refugees who know what it’s like to be separated from their family: pain, stress, worry about the safety of loved ones.

Maya and Khalil represented the many young refugees whose stories are hard to hear without emotion. Like almost every other refugee I’ve met – people who have often survived the most extreme experiences – they talked about how keen they are to get an education and how they are determined to contribute to society: model citizens, who have contended with everything that being a refugee means, and separated from family too.

My Bill would help more refugee families be reunited. Currently, under the UK’s rules, adult refugees are able to sponsor their very closest relatives – their partners and children under the age of 18 – to join them in the UK. (There is some discretion when the circumstances are exceptional, but what’s exceptional is the whole situation in which individual circumstances are the norm.)

It would expand the definition of family. For example, under the current rules, refugees are not automatically able to bring their adult children to join them, even if that means leaving a 19-year-old daughter alone in the middle of a warzone. This can present the invidious choice of leaving some family members behind or putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers and traffickers. A young man who has reached the UK may have lost the whole of his family in war, apart from a brother of 16, but the siblings are left separated.

The Bill would also allow refugee children in the UK to sponsor their closest family to join them. The UK is almost alone within Europe in not allowing children who our government has said are in need of refugee protection to be joined by family members. Despite accepting that it is not safe for these children to return home, the government prevents them from being with their parents, forcing them to grow up in a new country without the support of their family.

I believe the Bill goes with the grain of current public opinion (and the Windrush scandal is consolidating this). I am encouraged: for some long while it has been claimed that there is a “pull” factor: that a child is sent out of his country to the UK so that his family can follow. The more one learns about the conditions encountered on the way…well frankly I’ve never bought that argument. But the minister who sought to resist an amendment in the Lords last week to write a provision regarding refugee family unity (Dublin III) on to the face of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill (unsuccessfully – Alf Dubs is hard to resist) did not, for the first time I can recall, argue this.

The points made in the second reading debate, and in the debate in March on Angus Brendan MacNeil’s very similar “No. 2” Bill, added up to a loud, clear call on the government to amend the UK’s rules to allow more refugee families to be reunited; to better reflect the reality for families separated by war and persecution; and to accept that families belong together.


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