Government plans will “all but destroy” main safe route out of conflict for women and children at risk, warns Refugee Council - Refugee Council
January 25, 2022

Government plans will “all but destroy” main safe route out of conflict for women and children at risk, warns Refugee Council

Up to 17,500[1] mainly vulnerable women and children who have become separated from loved ones during conflict would be prevented from reuniting with their refugee family member in the UK as a direct result of Government plans to “all but destroy” the main legal safe route, the Refugee Council reveals today.

The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed through the House of Commons in December and is currently being debated by Lords, will severely restrict refugee family reunion, the route by which thousands of mainly women and children at risk of war, conflict, violence and persecution have been able to safely settle in Britain in recent years.

The Refugee Council says restricting family reunion rights flies in the face of the Government’s commitment to strengthening safe and legal routes, highlighting the likely scale of the damage to women and children caused by such a move.

Over the last 5 years as many as 29,000 people have been able to come to the UK safely under family reunion, over 90% of whom were women and children. The Refugee Council estimates that the Government proposal to restrict family reunion for some refugees would see as many as 3,500 people per year being prevented from joining their families, with as many as 17,500 people being unable to access this vital safe and legal route over the next 5 years.

Refugee family reunion visas have been the main safe route to the UK as the number of people has been higher than those arriving in the UK under resettlement schemes[2], making it the most utilised existing safe and legal route and the only route for the purposes of family members to be reunited.

Through no fault of their own, refugees often find themselves separated from their families during the brutality of conflict and oppression and in the mayhem of fleeing a warzone such as Syria or Afghanistan. Being reunited with family members is a life changing moment, with evidence strongly suggesting that bringing loved ones together again significantly supports their recovery and integration into their new communities[3].

Mada is a member of the VOICES Network[4] and a refugee from Syria. Mada and her family were reunited through refugee family reunion. Mada fled Syria because of the war. Her husband made the dangerous journey to the UK, while Mada and her children remained in Egypt, where they were desperately poor and vulnerable to criminals. She was able to join him via family reunion in 2018.

“The most important thing for me and my children was safety…

My family reunion took three years. My husband was refused twice. The last year [in Egypt], I couldn’t afford to pay for school. The children didn’t feel safe, even at home. It’s horrible they feel so scared at home.

My son, he was lonely because he didn’t have his dad. He always asked – why all people have dad but not me…?

Even in the airport, we couldn’t 100% believe it. I looked at my daughter’s face – we didn’t believe or feel happy until we got here. Maybe something would happen? She couldn’t be excited until she really physically saw her dad.”

Mada is worried that if the law changes, then refugees will be driven to take more risks.

“Parents will take their children. This is more dangerous. They will put their children in dangerous situations. This is my concern. That will put a lot of children’s lives in danger.

That’s what makes me fighting for this! The law will force people to come [on the journey] together. Children will never forget. It’s really horrible. My children remember what happened to us. They were so scared.

I feel lucky – I think about if I didn’t have this chance – I don’t want any family to go through that… It’s a child’s right to be with their family. It’s a basic right to be with their family. It’s a basic, basic need!”

The charity also highlights the experiences seen elsewhere and notably in Australia where the closing of the family reunion safe route led to women and children becoming more likely to attempt dangerous journeys. The abolition of family reunion rights for those with ‘Temporary Protection Visas’ was followed by a threefold increase in the percentage of refugees trying to reach Australia who were women and children.[5]

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “The cruel and heart-breaking irony is that this Government’s proposal all but destroys the main legal safe route open to refugees and predominately used by vulnerable women and children – the very people this Government has vowed to protect.

“In taking away a refugee’s right to refugee family reunion, this Government is throwing thousands of highly vulnerable people into desperately precarious, risky situations and at risk of exploitation by people smugglers. This fundamentally undermines the stated intention of the Borders Bill to strengthen safe and legal routes. Tragically, it flies in the face of our proud history of providing protection to those in need and will mean that families torn apart by war and conflict will remain separated for even longer, devastating periods.”

The Refugee Council has long campaigned on the importance of refugee family reunion rights for refugees and for several years has done so as part of the Families Together coalition, a campaign group which brings together close to a hundred charities and organisations supporting this issue.


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Notes to Editor

[1] New Plan for Immigration Impact Analysis, Refugee Council, June 2021 p. 5
[2] New Plan for Immigration Policy Statement, UK Government, March 2021 p.6
[3] Refugee Family Reunification in the UK: Challenges and Prospects, Centre for Research in Law (CRiL) at the University of Bedfordshire, in partnership with the Families Together Coalition, August 2021; see also Safe but Not Settled, Refugee Council and Oxfam, January 2018
[4] The VOICES Network is a collective of refugees and people seeking asylum supported by the British Red Cross.
[5] UNHCR Observations on the Nationality and Borders Bill, Bill 141, 2021-22, October 2021, p 20