Refugee family reunion policy is “broken” and leading to dangerous Channel crossings, warn leading charities - Refugee Council
May 13, 2024

Refugee family reunion policy is “broken” and leading to dangerous Channel crossings, warn leading charities

  • Refugees, including children, losing faith in legal process and travelling to UK irregularly instead
  • New report identifies key policy failures preventing families from reuniting—including Afghans and Ukrainians
  • Proposed changes would help 1000 people a year to reunite with family members

In a report published today, the Refugee Council and Safe Passage International identify serious failures and gaps in family reunion policy in the UK. Family reunion is one of the only safe routes to the UK for refugees, but it is failing those who need it, pushing desperate families into the hands of dangerous people smugglers. The Refugee Council and Safe Passage International estimate their proposed changes to immigration rules could help around 1000 additional people to reunite with loved ones every year, including over 300 separated children.

From January 2021 to August 2023, more than a quarter of the children Safe Passage International was supporting to reunite with family in the UK lost faith in the legal process and have—to the best of Safe Passage International’s knowledge—travelled to the UK irregularly instead. The Refugee Council and Safe Passage International recommend five non-legislative changes that the Government could implement unilaterally to avoid further instances of adults or children with family in the UK risking their lives to reunite.

  1. Amend the Immigration Rules to remove the barriers to children joining refugee non-parent adult relatives in the UK.
  2. Amend the Immigration Rules to allow refugee children in the UK to sponsor parents and siblings.
  3. Open a pathway to resettle the family members of people evacuated under Pathway 1 of the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) by June 2024, as promised
  4. Open a free pathway to allow Ukrainians with temporary status in the UK to sponsor their close family members, including their own children
  5. Improve decision making so that by the end of September 2024, no refugee family reunion application is waiting longer than 12 weeks for a decision, in line with the Department’s service standard.

Case study: After fleeing the war in Syria, Khaled* was resettled to the UK with his wife and four of his children. His eldest son was not resettled with the rest of the family. Khaled applied via refugee family reunion to bring him to the UK, but the wait was so long that his son ended up crossing the Channel and making an asylum application.

Khaled said: “My son only applied for asylum the way that he applied because there was no other option because his mum wasn’t well. I just want to have my son next to me for the rest of my life.” 

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said:

The UK’s failure to provide adequate family reunion routes has devastating consequences. We can all understand how utterly heartbreaking it would be to be trapped in a different country from our children or parents, with no way to reunite. At the Refugee Council, we work with separated refugee children who are unable to concentrate in school and who have become withdrawn, losing interest in playing and eating, because they miss their parents and siblings so much.

This shouldn’t be allowed to happen when the solutions are well within our reach. The Government’s callous denial of child refugees’ right to family reunion makes us an outlier in Europe and puts us at odds with international law.

Dr Wanda Wyporska, CEO of Safe Passage International, said:

The unaccompanied children we work with are alone, experiencing depression, PTSD, anxiety and even self-harming. They should be cared for by what little of their family remains. Without accessible family reunion, families are left in an impossible position: endure indefinite separation or risk their lives on dangerous journeys in the hope of being together as a family.

This Government continues to punish people who cross the Channel, yet it refuses to open new safe routes or fix the family reunion system. It’s a mess of the Government’s own making. We know the Government can quickly open safe routes, just as they did for Ukrainians. There are simple changes the Government can make to the family reunion rules that could help so many more people fleeing war and persecution to find safety with their families in the UK.

Read the report: Families belong together: Fixing the UK’s broken family reunion system