More than 17,000 refugees, mainly women and children, could be prevented from reuniting with close family members in the UK due to new rules the Home Office plans to introduce, according to analysis by the Refugee Council.
It is often male refugees fleeing conflict zones who make hazardous journeys through several countries on foot, in lorries and in small boats across the Channel in the hope of reaching safety in the UK.
They hope to be granted protection and under current rules, they then have the right to bring close family members to join them, such as their partners and children. The family members can travel safely to the UK by plane and can avoid repeating the dangerous journey made by the first family member.
However, according to Enver Solomon, the CEO of the Refugee Council, new government plans in the nationality and borders bill, currently being debated in the Lords, will severely restrict family reunion and “all but destroy” the main safe route used by refugee families to reunite with loved ones.
The government’s New Plan for Immigration aims to restrict family reunion rights for refugees who travelled through a safe third country before reaching the UK. This applies to the thousands who travelled to the UK in small boats.
While the home secretary, Priti Patel, repeatedly talks about breaking the business model of the smugglers who bring refugees to the UK, advocating safe and legal routes to the UK instead, Solomon told the Guardian that the new government proposals will lead to thousands of women and children having no other option but to pay smugglers to board dangerous dinghies to cross the Channel.
The plans will reduce rather than enhance the safe and legal routes Patel has been advocating, according to Solomon.
Government data shows that over the last five years 29,000 people, over 90% of them women and children, have been able to come to the UK safely under family reunion rules to join a close family member already here and granted protection in the UK.
The Refugee Council has calculated, using this government data, that as many as 3,500 people a year could be prevented from joining loved ones if the proposals in the bill become law – 17,500 people in the next five years.
One Syrian asylum seeker, who fled war, imprisonment and torture in his homeland before travelling through several countries and reaching the UK, said he was “horrified” by the government plans.
“We did not leave our country in search of happiness,” he told the Guardian. “I am talking here as the head of a family deserted. Rather, we went out to save our family from a war that does not know the young or the old and does not differentiate between the strong or the weak, in which no one can survive.
“We walked in the most dangerous country, crossed the desert and crossed the English Channel in a rubber boat, knowing we may die in the sea. Has any official asked themselves what motivated us to risk ourselves … I was ready to die in order to save my family. What Priti Patel is thinking now is to eliminate our families by depriving us of family reunion.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We will continue to uphold our international obligations. More than 39,000 family reunion visas have been granted since 2015 under our refugee family reunion policy, with over half issued to children.
“Our New Plan for Immigration will fix the broken asylum system so that it is fair but firm, helping those in genuine need through safe and legal routes while stopping those who abuse the system. Family reunion will continue to play an important part [in] our immigration system.”