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The UK's refugee family reunion rules: a comprehensive framework?

Published Thursday, January 23, 2020

The UK's Immigration Rules allow for refugees to be joined in the UK by immediate family members in certain circumstances. Provisions in EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) can also be used to reunite families separated across the EU/UK. The Regulations will cease to apply in the UK after the Brexit 'transition period'. This has given extra impetus to pre-existing calls to widen the scope of the UK's rules.

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The UK’s Immigration Rules allow for refugees to be joined in the UK by immediate family members in certain circumstances. Provisions in EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) can also be used to reunite family members separated across the EU/EEA.

The Dublin Regulation gives some families a chance of reunion that they would not otherwise have, because it applies broader eligibility criteria than the Immigration Rules.

The Dublin Regulations will no longer apply in the UK after the Brexit ‘transition period’. This has given extra impetus to pre-existing calls to widen the scope of the UK’s rules.

UK Immigration Rules

The UK’s rules cater for a refugee’s ‘pre-flight’ partner and dependent children (under 18). They 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.

Relationships that aren’t covered by the refugee family reunion rules, such as dependent adult relatives, adopted children, and ‘post-flight’ family members, are subject to different visa rules. These have significant application fees and more restrictive eligibility criteria, such as adequate maintenance funds and knowledge of English requirements.

There is scope to grant refugee family members leave “outside the Immigration Rules” in 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 applications rarely succeed, and that applicants would have greater certainty and superior rights if their circumstances were covered by the Immigration Rules rather than policy guidance.

Legal aid is available for family reunion applications in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was removed for cases in England and Wales in 2013, but in late October 2019 it was reinstated for applications involving unaccompanied children.

In response to criticisms that the rules are too tightly-drawn, successive recent Governments have maintained that the immigration rules and policy guidance already provide a “comprehensive framework” for family reunion. They have expressed concern that more generous rules, including allowing child refugees to sponsor applications, might encourage asylum seekers to come to the UK and put children at greater risk of trafficking.

The Dublin III Regulation and Brexit implications

There are concerns that separated families, including unaccompanied children, may lose routes to family reunion if the UK doesn’t negotiate a similar post-Brexit agreement with the EU or broaden the scope of its own Immigration Rules.

The Government has confirmed that it intends to seek a family reunion agreement with the EU for separated children but has not made a similar commitment for adult cases.

Statistics

The number of family reunion applications made to the UK under the Immigration Rules or Dublin III Regulation has increased in recent years. In 2018, the UK accepted 1,028 transfers on family reunion grounds under the Dublin Regulations. 159 were children joining relatives in the UK.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7511

Authors: Melanie Gower; Terry McGuinness

Topic: Asylum

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