17 July 2015

The right to family life is firmly established in international law, and refugee family reunification is recognised in UK law. However, a new report by ECRE’s member the British Red Cross has found that the withdrawal of legal aid for family reunion applications has kept loved ones apart and left women and children in danger: stranded in warzones and refugee camps.

Refugee family reunion was removed from the scope of free legal advice in 2013 on the basis that it was a “straightforward immigration matter” that did not require specialist legal advice. Using 91 case studies, research from the British Red Cross demonstrates that the government’s assumption is groundless.

The report highlights the significant protection and humanitarian concerns relating to family reunion. The majority of refugees that are able to make the difficult journey to safety are men, who have left women and children (in 95% of the cases) behind in places of ongoing conflict or precarious situations in third countries. The requirement for family members to submit an application in person at a British embassy also presents security and logistical challenges. If, as in Syria and Iran, there is no British post in their country, they may be forced to travel across an international border, at high cost, with nowhere to live, and potentially through dangerous areas. 

The British Red Cross identified numerous other challenges faced by refugees in making an application for family reunion. 62% of refugees required English language support in order to understand the complicated application form, and many faced additional difficulties due to suffering from mental health conditions, which was frequently associated with feelings of despair relating to their families’ precarious situations. It considered legal assistance to be fundamental for cases where there is a lack of legal clarity, such as those involving adopted children, stepchildren and siblings.

Professional advice is also vital to identify alternative evidence, as photographs, evidence of communication and identity documents required as part of the family reunion application were rarely available. Alex Fraser, head of refugee support at the British Red Cross, explained that “for many families, getting hold of these documents is impossible. They may have to flee in the middle of the night, or their home could have been destroyed; while some are from countries that don’t produce these documents in the first place.”

The report calls on the UK government to fund lawyers to give free legal advice to refugees seeking family reunion. The British Red Cross urged the government to link family reunion to asylum policies and international commitments to protect women and children, rather than considering it under immigration policy. Its findings emphasised that family members lives were at risk as they were in analogous situations as refugees, being at risk of abduction, violence and exploitation. It also recommended a simplification of the application form and procedural requirements, with greater flexibility as to documentary requirements and towards cases of ‘atypical’ family members. 

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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 17 July 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.