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We must end restrictive rules on family reunion for refugees

4 min read

Families being torn apart is one of the most painful consequences of any conflict. The current crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine are no exception.

When refugees arrive here in the United Kingdom having left loved ones behind, reuniting with their families is the first thing on their minds. In the words of unaccompanied refugee children supported by Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), “It feels as if a part of us is missing.”

We must do all we can to protect people forced to flee their homes to escape war and persecution, and that includes reuniting them with their families. I have long been calling for the government to expand its restrictive rules on family reunion for refugees. In the UK, adult refugees are only allowed to sponsor their partners or their children under 18 via refugee family reunion, while children are not allowed to sponsor any family members at all – not even their parents.

Restricting family reunion is driving vulnerable women and children into the hands of ruthless people smugglers

But rather than taking action to bring refugee families together, the Home Secretary is restricting family reunion rights further. On 28 June, many of the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Act came into effect, including a new provision that restricts access to family reunion for certain refugees according to how they have travelled to the UK.

The Home Secretary asks us to believe that this is necessary to deter unsafe Channel crossings in small boats. But by restricting family reunion, all she is doing is driving vulnerable women and children into the hands of ruthless people smugglers.

In the last year, 6,000 people arrived safely in the UK via refugee family reunion, more than 90 per cent of whom were women and children. By restricting this route, Priti Patel is forcing women and children to make a choice no one should have to make: face indefinite separation from their loved ones, or risk their lives to be reunited.  

If the Home Secretary were serious about combatting people smuggling and protecting vulnerable women and children, she would be expanding access to refugee family reunion.

Not only does restricting family reunion close a safe route to many women and children, but it also makes it harder for those refugees already in the UK to integrate into their new communities. Research from the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Save the Children and others consistently shows that refugees find it harder to integrate when they are plagued by worry for the safety of their loved ones. One refugee child explained, “I am unable to concentrate on my studies and when I go home, I always think about them and at night I do not sleep.”

On 23 May, I introduced a Private Member’s Bill to the House of the Lords that will enable child refugees to sponsor their parents and siblings, and expand the range of family members that adult refugees are allowed to sponsor to include siblings, parents and adult dependent children. My bill will ensure that everyone with refugee status in the UK can access family reunion, rather than linking rights to the way that they have arrived in the UK, and will reintroduce legal aid for family reunion cases. Today, my bill returns to the House of Lords for its second reading.

My bill is backed by the Families Together coalition - a group of organisations including the Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Amnesty International UK, and Oxfam GB.

The government knows that refugees need their families. This is why -- following public outcry – they acted so quickly to introduce the Ukraine Family Scheme which allows Ukrainians in the UK to sponsor a wide range of extended family members, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces.

The generosity of this scheme represents the UK at our best. We have a proud British tradition of providing sanctuary to those in need: from the 10,000 Jewish children rescued from the horrors of the Holocaust through “Kindertransport”, to the 20,000 Syrians resettled on the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. My bill extends this proud tradition, ensuring that all those recognised as refugees in the UK are able to safely reunite with their loved ones.


Baroness Ludford is a Conservative peer. 

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