Most cultures recognise the importance of family, not just at significant dates in the calendar but for day to day support, both practical and emotional. Our culture certainly does, but not in every context. 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 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.
Shortly before the Christmas recess the House of Lords gave a second reading to the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, my private member’s bill which would help more refugee families be reunited. Currently, under the UK’s rules adult refugees are able to sponsor only 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 situation, not people’s individual circumstances.) The recognition of family does not reflect reality.
My bill 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, or son, 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.
There was support from right round the House in the debate, with the largest representation from the Liberal Democrats. There was a splendid speech from Lord Kerr (he of the article 50 authorship) about the implausibility of the Government’s argument that we would create a “pull” factor if we allowed parents to follow their child to the UK. (The debate was on 15 December, and you can read it here on Hansard )
Sadly, but as I’d expected, the Minister made it clear that the Government would not support the Bill, largely because there was no need for primary legislation; “we already have a comprehensive framework to provide safe and legal routes for family to reunite here”. The Bill may eventually make it through the Lords and into the Commons, where they are more brutal with private members’ bills. And there is a similar bill introduced by Angus MacNeil, SNP, which is due to start in mid-March (subject to Commons’ brutality). This is all part of a long process, both on changing our Rules, and on applying them in practice.
The points made in the debate 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.
Baroness Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs and Immigration