The Government has been urged to take a more compassionate and thoughtful approach to reuniting refugee families.
Following an inspection into the refugee family reunion application process, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) found that the Home Office was refusing applicants too readily.
The Independent Chief Inspector, David Bolt, has urged the Home Office to better manage applications and show more understanding of the circumstances and difficulties faced by applicants coming from areas of conflict who may not have been able to acquire the documents needed to prove their relationship with their UK sponsor.
Under existing rules, family members of individuals who have been granted asylum in the UK, or five years’ humanitarian protection, can apply to be reunited with their family in the UK. However, the rules are very narrow, and only apply to spouses and children aged under 18.
Although there is a chance for other refugees’ cases to be considered outside of these rules in exceptional circumstances, of the cases examined by inspectors, this had never happened.
The Refugee Council has long called for the rules to be changed to allow more refugees to reunite with their loved ones safely.
In one case uncovered by inspectors, a young Syrian mum was refused a visa to join her husband in the UK because she was under the age of 18, and the rules require both the applicant and sponsor to be 18 or over. Inspectors noted that she would be left with no family support.
This decision would have left this young woman and her two babies at unacceptable risk; either left living in danger, or left with little option than to take matters into their own hands, taking perilous journeys in a desperate attempt to reach their relatives and risking death, rape and exploitation along the way.
Under pressure from charities including the Refugee Council, the Home Office has issued new guidance for its staff who are making decisions on family reunion cases since the inspection took place, giving clearer advice on how to deal with cases which could be classed as ‘exceptional’.
However, the Refugee Council believes the new guidance doesn’t go far enough as it relies on individual members of staff to use their own judgement. We think the rules should be much more explicit, and clearly instruct Home Office staff to issue visas to a wider range of family members.
The inspection also criticised a decision by the Home Office in early 2014 to stop offering applicants free DNA tests to prove their relationships with their relative based in the UK. The inspectors say the effect of that decision has been to further delay visas being issued to those who qualify for family reunion.
Since the withdrawal of free DNA testing, the family reunion visa refusal rate has sky rocketed for certain nationalities; specifically Somalis and Eritreans, who notoriously have problems accessing documents to prove their identity and relationship with their sponsor.
Commenting on the report, Refugee Council Policy Manager Judith Dennis said: “Many of us in Britain take it for granted that we’re able to live in safety with our loved ones. Sadly, for refugee families torn apart by war and persecution, the heartache of separation is a daily pain which is worsened by Britain’s unnecessarily harsh immigration policies.
“No families should be left to make impossible choices in order to be together. No families should be unnecessarily, permanently divided and in danger. Changing the rules won’t just bring more refugee families back together; it could help save lives.”