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The UK's refugee family reunion rules: striking the right balance?

Published Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Campaigners are pressing the Government to extend the visa provisions concerning refugee family reunion to a wider range of relationships. Two Private Members’ Bills on this topic are currently before the Commons and Lords respectively. The Government’s view is that the existing Immigration Rules and policy guidance already provide a “comprehensive framework” for refugee family reunion in various different scenarios, and that there is no need for primary legislation or Immigration Rules changes.

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UK Immigration Rules

The Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion only cater for a refugee’s ‘pre-flight’ partner and dependent children (under 18), and do not allow unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor applications from family members. Refugee family reunion visas are issued free of charge and are exempt from some of the eligibility criteria that usually apply to family visa applications. However the application process and evidential requirements that remain have been criticised, including by the Home Affairs Committee, for posing ‘unacceptable bureaucratic hurdles’.

Legal aid for family reunion applications in England and Wales was removed in 2013, on the basis that these applications are straightforward to prepare. Campaigners argue that in practice they can be time-consuming and complex, and that legal aid should be reinstated. It is available in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Other relations, such as dependent adult relatives, adopted children, and ‘post-flight’ family members, are subject to different visa rules. Significant application fees and more restrictive eligibility criteria usually apply, such as maintenance funds and knowledge of English.

Home Office policy guidance confirms that there is also scope to grant leave “outside the Immigration Rules” in other exceptional scenarios. This might apply, for example, in order to facilitate the entry of a dependent child over 18, or an unaccompanied child with a close relative in the UK. But campaigners argue that these applicants would have greater certainty and superior rights in the UK if their cases were covered by the Immigration Rules rather than policy guidance.

The Government is concerned that more generous rules, including allowing child refugees to sponsor applications, might act as a pull factor for asylum seekers to come to the UK and put children at greater risk of trafficking.

Refugee resettlement schemes

Refugees who have a close family tie in the UK may be eligible for resettlement in the UK under one of the various refugee resettlement schemes that the UK operates.

EU law: the Dublin III Regulation

The Dublin III Regulation, which determines which Member State should be responsible for deciding an asylum claim, prioritises respect for family unity over certain other considerations, such as which country the asylum seeker originally entered. The Government has been seeking to improve its handling of Dublin cases, such as by seconding officials to France, Italy and Greece to assist in the identification and swift processing of cases suitable for transfer to the UK, and establishing a new £10 million DFID fund which will be used in part to identify children in Europe in need of family reunion in the UK.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7511

Authors: Melanie Gower; Terry McGuinness

Topic: Asylum

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