Human Rights Week: The Refugees Family Reunion Bill

Iona Holmes details the Refugees Family Reunion Bill, discussed in Parliament on the 16th March. 

On Friday 16th March, MPs voted in favour of the Refugees Family Reunion Bill at its second reading, and it will now progress to the committee stage. This is a significant step forward, but the conversation on refugee rights must continue among lawmakers and the public alike.

The Bill will allow child refugees to sponsor close relatives to join them in the UK by expanding the narrow definition of family used by the Home Office for reunification purposes. It extends the age at which parents can sponsor children to join them from 18 to 25, broadens the classification of ‘family members’ to include siblings, and allows any other person to be considered for reunification at the discretion of the Home Secretary. Additionally, the Bill reintroduces legal aid for refugee family reunification. This will make the process more accessible and efficient so families can be brought together quickly and are not forced into financial difficulties by trying to fund their applications. These changes are long overdue – as  Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, described the current system, it is one that ‘leaves refugees isolated, traumatised and alone in the UK’.

129 politicians across the party spectrum backed the Bill, which was proposed by Angus MacNeil of the SNP. As he stated, this issue ‘isn’t about party politics, it’s about doing the right thing’. But the Bill was not without its opponents. Conservative MP Will Quince was not convinced it would be beneficial, noting that it would not address the reasons why families become displaced. Of greater concern is Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes’ statement that the government is against the Bill and is likely to block it at a later stage. She argues that the legislation will encourage people to embark on dangerous journeys to the UK and that the measures will apply to family members ‘regardless of whether they need protection’. She goes on to claim that there are other immigration pathways via which relatives can be brought to the UK.

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It appears somewhat hypocritical – or as MacNeil put it, ‘Orwellian doublespeak’ – to suggest that people will be encouraged to travel unsafely to the UK, but that they do not require humanitarian protection. Other immigration routes have significant financial hurdles in place, making them inadequate for the majority of refugee families to use. It is in the government’s interest to reunite refugee families, as a recent report from the Refugee Council and Oxfam shows that refugees often feel desperate concern about their relatives overseas, which has a derogatory effect on mental health and prevents integration. If families are reunited they can focus on playing an active role in their communities, bringing benefits for themselves and for wider society. 

Over 13,000 emails were sent to MPs through Amnesty International and STAR’s #FamiliesTogether campaign, encouraging them to attend the debate and back the Bill. Hannah Capey from Bristol’s Amnesty group tweeted her delight at the progression of the legislation following a month of campaigning on campus with STAR. She highlighted that it is a huge step forward for refugee rights and that contacting politicians does pay off.

The Family Reunification Bill is undoubtedly a move in the right direction, but the fight is far from over. Pressure needs to be placed on the government to ensure they do not block the legislation, and this opportunity should be taken to promote further change. Refugees have lost their mainstream media presence in the past couple of years, but this does not mean the suffering has stopped. Over 100 women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre have resorted to hunger striking in the past month, in a desperate attempt to raise public awareness of the UK’s unjust indefinite detention of asylum seekers. When refugee issues are mentioned, it is rarely in a constructive manner; they tend to be framed as a ‘crisis’ for the Western world, with threats to national security and overpopulation taking the limelight. This undermines the real hardships faced by displaced individuals.

The current system lacks a sense of common humanity: campaigning must go on to prompt legal change and provide refugees with the support they require and deserve. These individuals have already fled their homes due to war or threats of persecution – we should do what we can to prevent them from suffering further.

Interested in promoting refugee rights in Bristol? Consider volunteering with Bristol STAR or AidBox Community and joining Amnesty International.

Illustration by Emily Godbold.

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