Family Reunion in the United Kingdom (UK) - UNHCR Briefing Paper

(Selected exracts)

UNHCR’s Executive Committee (ExCom), of which the UK is an active member, has adopted a series of conclusions (22 in all), that reiterate the fundamental importance of family unity and reunification, and call for facilitated entry on the basis of liberal criteria for family members of persons recognised as being in need of international protection

Prior to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders 2012 Act, refugees (and those with Humanitarian Protection) seeking family reunion were eligible for legal aid. However, since its implementation, refugees wishing to reunite with their families must apply without legal help, or must pay to hire legal advisers if they cannot obtain pro bono advice.

As the British Red Cross have reported, there is clear evidence to demonstrate that refugee family reunion is not a straightforward immigration matter. Their report looks at the cases of refugees who accessed time-limited British Red Cross services to support their applications for family reunion. It examines their experiences, from the documentation gathering stage through to the submission of their application. By necessity, their report did not explore issues arising after initial submission, although they assert that appeals and reapplication procedures can often also be difficult.

UNHCR’s own experience with family reunion queries in the UK context endorses the British Red Cross’s conclusion in this respect that, far from being straightforward, many refugee family reunion cases are affected by a range of complexities. UNHCR also echoes the fact that such complexities disrupt or undermine an application and that they arise in different ways and at different stages of the application process, and require the flexibility, expertise and experience of legal advisers to deal with them.

The UK’s family reunion application process and guidance is not tailored to the refugee context, including in terms of the generic application form used.

The set criteria for UK family reunion can be narrowly construed. Refugees considered in post-flight relationships are disadvantaged and extended family cases must also satisfy more stringent requirements. The UK authorities are generally inflexible when considering atypical cases, including those, for example, involving adult dependents, stepchildren and (de facto) adoption.

The UK Government does not presently finance travel assistance to those issued family reunion visas. This means that for those beneficiaries of international protection in the UK who have obtained reunion visas for their family but who do not have the financial means to pay for their travel to the UK, they cannot make the reunion a reality unless they can find alternate sources of funding to cover these travel costs.

A child who has been granted refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK does not have a right to be a sponsor for family reunification purposes within the UK Immigration Rules.

22 Recommendations:

1) In light of the ongoing historically high levels of global forced displacement, increasing the availability of legal avenues, and making more effective use of existing legal avenues so that vulnerable people do not feel compelled to embark on risky irregular travel, is paramount. In this regard, UNHCR continues to advocate for a range of measures, including enhanced family reunification. Increased family reunion channels could also remove a powerful incentive for many third country nationals to move onward in the European Union.

2) UNHCR is continuing to explicitly promote facilitated family reunion in the context of the Syria emergency, where countless families have been separated. Enhanced family reunification systems can also represent a responsibility-sharing gesture for countries in the region of origin of refugees, through resettlement or humanitarian admission based on family links criteria.

3) The Ministry of Justice should reconsider the limitations set on legal aid eligibility for beneficiaries of international protection seeking family reunion, in particular as qualified and well-regulated legal advisers are best placed to deal with and resolve the significant and diverse complexities that may be experienced throughout the UK family reunion process.

4) The UK authorities are encouraged to ensure that beneficiaries of international protection receive appropriate information on family reunification in a timely manner and in a way that they understand, including on the favourable conditions enumerated.

5) A better and more protection-oriented implementation of the family reunification policy and practice would facilitate family reunification for beneficiaries of international protection. The Home Office should make available dedicated family reunification application forms (including on-line versions) adapted to the specific needs of beneficiaries of international protection.

6) UNHCR urges the Home Office to exercise flexibility in the definition of family members and assist family reunification with extended family and relatives when dependency is shown between such family members. This is also paramount in protecting persons with specific needs, including women and children.

7) UNHCR advocates for family reunification mechanisms that are swift and efficient in order to bring families together as early as possible.

8) UNHCR calls on the Home Office to facilitate family reunification by consolidating as well as simplifying and expediting the family reunification process where a right exists.

9) The UK authorities are invited to facilitate refugees' access to family reunification by providing for the possibility for the sponsor to apply in the UK when their relation is still abroad.

10) The UK authorities should ensure that, in law and in practice, family reunification requests for beneficiaries of international protection, including those who are stateless, are not rejected based solely on the lack of documentary evidence.

11) Applicants should also be given the opportunity to submit further evidence, if needed, at different stages of the process, instead of having to resort to expensive (for all entities concerned) and lengthy re-application or appeal procedures.

12) The Home Office is urged to ensure that family reunion visas, once granted, can be made a reality through the provision of travel assistance and more generous travel timewindows.

13) The UK authorities could support financial aid schemes for the family reunification of beneficiaries of international protection who do not have sufficient resources to cover such costs.

14) Tracing is of particular importance in the case of unaccompanied minors for whom every effort should be made to trace parents and other relatives as soon as possible where it is in their best interests.

15) The UK authorities should re-introduce a routine rather than exceptional procedure, with all due safeguards incorporated, permitting unaccompanied and separated children to be eligible to apply for their parents, care-givers or other family members to join them in the UK if tracing occurs after their recognition in the UK.

16) The UK authorities should consider and implement UNHCR’s guidance on the use of DNA testing for the purpose of documenting family links11.

17) European Member States should do their utmost to ensure a flexible implementation of the above-mentioned Dublin III Regulation provisions and conduct a timely and detailed

18) For Syrians who do not have the option of family reunification, either because they do not fulfil the requirements or they are not included in the scope of existing family reunification legislation, UNHCR urges the UK authorities to admit those with existing family links to the UK under other mechanisms, not just resettlement, but also via the creation of humanitarian admission, humanitarian visas, labour mobility, scholarship or private sponsorship programmes.

19) UNHCR urges the Home Office to more frequently use its discretion when considering resettlement submissions for family members falling within the non-immediate category of the UK’s Mandate Refugee Scheme.

20) The UK Government, together, where applicable, with the devolved administrations, should introduce a coherent integration strategy pertaining specifically to family reunification as well as systematically prepare for and then monitor and evaluate the integration outcomes of family joining persons of concern in the UK.

21) In order to avoid dependency between family members, in particular for victims of domestic violence, the residence of the family member should be independent of those of the sponsor.

22) UNHCR urges the UK authorities to improve the capture and sharing of data vis-à-vis family reunification.

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Last updated 28 January, 2017