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Reports say UK’s ‘broken’ family reunion system is failing refugees and pushing people to make dangerous journeys


RAMFEL, Refugee Council and Safe Passage International highlight how family reunion is failing to provide an effective route to safety

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A new report released this week by the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) explains how the UK's 'broken' refugee family reunion rules are not working effectively or fairly.

Report coverYou can download the 42-page report here.

The report provides a useful overview of the five family reunion routes that exist under UK immigration law and then details what RAMFEL says are the "often insurmountable hurdles" that applicants must overcome to successfully apply for family reunion.

RAMFEL's key message in the report is that the family reunion system does not provide an effective safe route to the UK, which leads peoples to seek alternative irregular and dangerous routes to safety and their families. The process of applying under the family reunion routes is too complicated and expensive, with stringent bureaucratic and evidentiary requirements that many refugees cannot meet despite satisfying the defined family reunion rules.

"Even making applications is impossible for many, with the UK government requiring people to attend Visa Application Centres (VAC) to enrol their biometrics. Many countries, especially conflict zones, do not though have a functional VAC. If people cannot attend a VAC, they cannot apply for family reunion," the report explains.

RAMFEL says the UK government systematically fails to display any flexibility with these requirements, with just one person excused from VAC attendance between May 2023 and February 2024 despite many people trying to apply for family reunion from conflict zones, including Sudan, Gaza and Afghanistan.

As the report highlights, applying for family reunion is a complex process requiring specialist legal assistance, but legal aid is often not available. Even when legal aid is theoretically available, it is exceptionally difficult to find a legal aid representative.

RAMFEL is able to offer legal support, but due to the amount of work needed to prepare a family reunion application, this support can only be provided for a small minority and the vast majority of people do not have specialist and free or affordable representation.

When applicants are able to overcome the hurdles to apply for family reunion, RAMFEL says the Government's default position is to refuse the application. "In one of the few family reunion routes open, Appendix CNP, the government refused 83% of applications between April and September 2023, whilst in another route, Appendix Adult Dependant Relative, the refusal rate was 96% between 2017 and 2020," RAMFEL commented in a press release accompanying the report.

When a refusal is appealed in court, the majority of cases result in the refusal being overturned.

"The most recently available figures from 2022 show that in 66% of appeals against family reunion refusals, the government loses. Since 2022, RAMFEL have won 100% of our court challenges to family reunion refusals. Such poor-quality government decision-making should not be allowed and shows either a deliberate attempt to refuse applications and/or gross institutional incompetence," the report notes.

RAMFEL emphasises: "There is a more fundamental point here that applies to the government's decision-making on visa applications and culture beyond the family reunion department. Poor decisions, inflexibility and the inability to see the human being behind the case file, are deep-rooted institutional problems that have been present in the Home Office for years and revealed most strikingly by the Windrush scandal."

Nick Beales, RAMFEL's head of campaigning, said the UK's family reunion system is not fit for purpose and needs overhauling, and the next government should prioritise creating a workable application process that allows families to be reunited.

The report sets out five measures that the next government could take to recalibrate and improve the family reunion system.

Last month, the Refugee Council and Safe Passage International had a similar message in a 28-page report available here.

The report, Families Belong Together: Fixing the UK's broken family reunion system, says the failure of family reunion routes is pushing desperate families into the hands of dangerous people smugglers.

"Between 2015 and 2019, refugee family reunion was the largest safe route to the UK with more than 29,000 people granted visas, 90% of whom were women and children. But now this system is failing the families who rely on it. There is a huge backlog in refugee family reunion cases. In July 2023, the Independent obtained figures showing that the backlog of refugee family reunion cases had reached more than 11,000, the majority of whom had been waiting more than six months for a decision," the report explains.

The Refugee Council and Safe Passage International say when family reunion ceases to function, people are put at particular risk of exploitation by ruthless people smugglers. Desperate people who simply cannot bear being separated from their families any longer are forced to make dangerous journeys to the UK and risk their lives in doing so.

The report emphasises: "Ultimately, every child who turns to a smuggler to reach their family in the UK is a child who has been failed by our broken family reunion system."

The report also offers what it says are easy-to-implement solutions that would dramatically improve the family reunion landscape.

Wanda Wyporska, CEO of Safe Passage International, said: "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."