The Refugee Family Reunion Bill – bringing families together again

Photo: Annie Spratt

Photo: Annie Spratt

‘We can’t change the horrific experiences young refugees have faced escaping war and persecution. But what we can do is support them in rebuilding their lives. Offering safety and security is only the first step. Just like our own children, young refugees need their families around them to thrive.’ Juliet Stevenson, who has supported the Families Together campaign

On 16 March 2018, the Refugee Family Reunion Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, with 129 MPs from across the political spectrum voting infavour. The Bill proposes to amend the current law that forces many families that have survived unimaginable atrocities to live apart, trapped in different countries by red tape. As well as uniting MPs from across the political divide, the Families Together campaign has received public backing from high-profile women including Juliet Stevenson, Vivienne Westwood, Anita Rani and Gwendoline Christie. The proposed changes are also supported by a coalition of organisations, including the Refugee Council, the UNHCR, Amnesty International, British Red Cross and Oxfam.

Today, many refugees living in the UK cannot be reunited with their family members who remain overseas, often in unsafe and unstable environments. The present law states that only spouses or children who are under 18 years of age can join their families in the UK. This interpretation of ‘family’ is seen as restrictive because children aged 18 and over, as well as brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews and parents, are excluded. It means that people who are granted refugee status in the UK are unable to bring their older children or elderly parents to live with them, regardless of what the needs of those relatives may be.

The Refugee Family Reunion Bill is a Private Member’s Bill that was introduced by SNP deputy foreign affairs spokesman Angus MacNeil. It proposes to allow child refugees living in the UK to sponsor their family members to come to the UK to enable them to be together. It would also allow for young people aged over 18 and elderly parents to join their families, and proposes the reintroduction of legal aid for refugees seeking family reunification.

Ultimately, the aim of this Bill, and the movement behind it, is to transform the lives of refugees, displaced people and their families. It would benefit those who are currently excluded from entering the UK, as well as those who have arrived but are still facing the unimaginable pain of leaving their families behind. A refugee is defined as a person who cannot return to their home country due to persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. Persecution arises from war, internal conflict or instability, and it is in these unthinkable circumstances that people and families are forced to flee from their homes, in desperate search of safety, or refuge, sometimes with only what they can carry. Recent history has seen a marked rise in conflict situations, and the refugee crisis is now worse than ever, as one million people worldwide have fled their homes and are living as refugees. It is during such traumatic and dramatic escapes that all too many families become separated from one another, through no fault of their own. The proposed changes to the law are, first and foremost, about the people whose futures hang in the balance: those who are trapped overseas, many in refugee camps; as well as the mothers, grandmothers and sisters who have found asylum in the UK, but currently have no hope of enabling their family to join them.

Amal’s story

Amal, her husband Muhammed and their four children are from Syria. The family went to Libya during the conflict, but, due to growing instability, Muhammed decided to travel to Europe. He reached the UK, where he was granted refugee status. On appeal, Amal and her two youngest children were allowed to join him, however her daughter Athar and son Kusai were both over 18 and therefore ineligible for family reunification. Athar remains in Libya, and Kusai fled to Europe and eventually reached a refugee camp in Calais.

Aster’s story

Aster is from Eritrea. She fled to Egypt when she was persecuted and arrested for her religious beliefs. She had to leave her three children behind. She eventually attempted to travel to Europe with false documents, but was arrested and imprisoned. During her time in prison, she suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and could not speak with her children. She came to the UK in 2016, however she has yet to be reunited with her children. Legal costs are the main barrier, especially since interpreters would be required. Her two sons are now of age and are therefore ineligible for family reunification under the present system. They have fled to Ethiopia. Aster’s 16-year-old daughter remains alone in Eritrea, where her mother fears for her future.

There is still a long way to go before this potentially life-altering Bill becomes law. It will now progress to the Committee Stage, followed by the Report Stage, before its third reading in the House of Commons. It would then move to its first reading in the House of Lords.

‘I’m so happy that MPs are helping to bring refugee families together. I came to the UK as a child refugee and three years on, I’m still living here alone, while my sister is stuck in a camp in Ethiopia. The camp isn’t safe and she is a girl on her own – I am scared she might be hurt. I’m studying and working right now, but it’s hard to think about the future when I’m so worried about my little sister’. Yohannes, 19-year-old refugee from Eritrea, now living in the UK.

‘The Refugee Family Reunion Bill is not a party political issue, but a humanitarian one. It is a Bill that puts compassion first and seeks to bring to an end the callous approach of the UK government that has kept refugee children away from their parents, siblings and wider family’. Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP Angus MacNeil, March 2018.

Special thanks to the Refugee Council for their help and support in producing this article.