Tim Farron’s Speech on Family Reunion Bill

Well worth a read!

I will try to be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, because the most important thing today is that this Bill proceeds. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and to all hon. Members who, unusually, are here on a Friday. This is my fourth debate on a Friday in 13 years, because this Bill matters. It is a chance and a test. It is a test of our support for the people who need it most; it is a test of our ability to act with compassion and common sense. It is not a hard test, because this is a modest and tightly defined common sense Bill.

Let us be clear what the changes in the Bill would mean for the refugee children who are already here in the United Kingdom. These are children who have experienced unimaginable things. Nevertheless, I want Members to try to imagine. What horrific set of circumstances might have to happen to a family that would mean that the danger and misery of fleeing across land and sea, as well as the risk of separation, is preferable to staying put? Imagine how you would want your children and your family to be treated at the end of your journey. Imagine that sanctuary, and the kindness that goes with it, and be very clear that that must be the model for how we treat families today.

Separated refugee children in the United Kingdom have already overcome threats and danger in their own communities. They have been split from their families in their rush to find somewhere—anywhere—safe and have then been forced through a terrifying journey by sea and land to Europe, journeys that we know have claimed hundreds of children’s lives. These refugee children are here right now living in our communities alongside us, asking us today to step up and reunite them with their families. The Bill will allow them a future with their families instead of being separated from them. It will mean children growing up with their parents where they should be, at their side, rather than living with the constant worry about the fate of their families, stranded and out of reach. The Bill simply makes that possible.

Let us not lose sight of who these refugee children are. The biggest groups seeking help in the UK last year were from Eritrea and Sudan, two countries torn apart by generations of civil war and violence. In Eritrea, boys can be conscripted into the army from the age ​of 16, sent off to kill and be killed at the whim of their Government. They are sent away from their families as child conscripts to serve wherever they are posted, cut off from home when they are barely high school age. In Sudan, hundreds of thousands of families are starved of food and basic medical supplies, and are at the mercy of warring factions on all sides. For many parents and their children, this is how ordinary life has been for years. These are children who have started life with the worst possible deal. Let us today give them a better deal.

The Bill will not just assert the rights of children to sponsor their families to join them, which is itself long overdue, it will bring immigration rules into line with real life. The rules need to be as flexible as families themselves. That parents can be reunited with some but not all of their children, and younger siblings can be brought to safety but their older sisters and brothers may be left behind, are shocking anomalies. At the moment, the rules obsess over age. If a child falls the wrong side of their 18th birthday when their parents become refugees, the parents have no right to bring them here. They will be left in danger. Can we agree that common sense and compassion should take the place of pedantry?

This is not a question of age, but of family. It is difficult to imagine anything more agonising for a parent than to know that they can keep some of their children safe but not all of them. It is ludicrous that that should be in the immigration rules and I welcome the commitment in the Bill to change them. Common sense is missing when it comes to the Home Office stopping any specialist support, as if reuniting refugee families is simple and straightforward. I disagree, of course. Those families need specialist support. I hope that the Bill, and the debate on it, will help us to take another look at the legal aid available when refugees are trying to reunite across continents and war zones.

It is not a simple process when it involves DNA testing and legal wrangling over birth certificates. Many Members will have seen in their constituency surgeries just how complex it can become. Leaving some of the most vulnerable people in our society to navigate the system on their own is deeply unfair.

There is one last reason to commend this Bill: doing the right thing by refugee families just happens also to mean that we do the right thing by our country’s future. After the horrors that these children have endured and escaped from, I want us to think not just of the pain of the past but of the potential of what could come next. These kids are not just the products of their horrific experiences; they will also become part of our shared future. It is in everybody’s interest that refugee children head off into their adult lives confident and integrated into British society, committed to making the most of ​the opportunities ahead. We all know that the kindest and most effective way of making the best of their futures is to reunite them with their families. So let us pass this test, dismiss the excuses and do what is right—support this Bill.