[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered refugee family reunion rules.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, for what I think is the first time. I am delighted to have secured this debate on what to my mind is one of the most important issues facing this country today.
I am going to break one of my own golden rules, Mr Bone. I know that from time to time you speak about Mrs Bone in the Chamber, and those little family insights are no doubt treasured by us all. I rarely speak about my family, and probably most right hon. and hon. Members will understand why. Today, however, I will depart from that rule for a minute or two because—this goes to the heart of things—we have to stop thinking about the family reunion rules as an abstract or theoretical issue. We need to stop thinking in terms of targets, quotas and rules and instead start thinking of individuals and families. We need to introduce some humanity into the system.
Last weekend, I was myself part of a family reunion. The whole Carmichael family—three generations of us—gathered on Islay to celebrate my parents’ diamond wedding anniversary. As some hon. Members may know, Islay is a small island, but it is home to no fewer than eight distilleries. It is fair to say that we learned some years ago how to have a good party, and last weekend was no exception. I mention this because I think it would help us all, as we approach this subject, to ask ourselves how we feel about our own family. What would we do to keep them together; what would it mean to be separated from them; and how would we feel if that separation was the result of some arbitrary set of rules?
My wife and I have two sons. We have a 15-year-old in secondary school and a 19-year-old in his first year of university study. If I were in this country as a refugee, the 15-year-old would be entitled to join me, but the 19-year-old would not. That reminds me of the Old Testament story of Isaac having to choose between Jacob and Esau. Forcing that sort of choice on people belongs in the Old Testament, not in a 21st-century, modern democracy. My 19-year-old son did not suddenly become a different person when he turned 18. The feelings I have for my 19-year-old son did not change when he became 18, and if I were separated from him, I would feel that separation every bit as keenly as I would if I were separated from my 15-year-old.
I contrast my family’s happy weekend with the stories of so many who come here seeking refuge and our help. I am sure that we could stand here all day exchanging anecdotes and personal stories, so I will offer only one example. Muhammed came from Syria. He arrived in the United Kingdom in March 2014. He was granted refugee status in December 2014 and immediately began the process of applying for family reunion. The restrictive family reunion rules mean that the former lawyer—I am a former lawyer myself—his wife and their younger children are separated from the two older children because they are over 18. His oldest daughter, Athar, is currently in Turkey, while his oldest son, Kusai, 19, is in a refugee camp in northern France. The rigidity of the rules means that essentially we are forcing young people to make dangerous journeys to reach their families and safety.
I am grateful to the several campaign groups and agencies that supplied briefing material ahead of today’s debate. To pick just one, I am supporting the British Red Cross’s Torn Apart campaign. This is my first ask of the Minister today. Will he meet the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council, which have both done so much work directly with the families affected and which know the issue so much better than any of us in the House?
I pay tribute also to UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which also provided detailed and substantial briefings for today’s debate. I cannot improve on quoting the former. It says:
“The lack of safe and legal routes to Europe, or within Europe, for those fleeing conflict and persecution is forcing children into the hands of traffickers and smugglers, and putting the lives of refugee and migrant children at risk. Restrictions in the current UK refugee family reunion rules for unaccompanied children alongside delays in expediting the Dublin III procedure for family reunion are combining to mean that children are often stranded alone in Europe, or facing even longer stays in makeshift camps, with many risking their lives in efforts to join family members in the absence of a belief that the system will support them.”
UNICEF says—this is its first ask in regard to the rules—the Government must provide safe and legal routes to family reunion by applying the UK’s rules and practices on refugee family reunion more flexibly and widening those rules to ensure that children can be reunited with extended family members; and by implementing the EU’s Dublin III regulation as intended, enabling unaccompanied and separated children to have their asylum applications transferred to countries where they have family members to join. I hope that the Minister will address that ask from UNICEF when he replies to the debate.
Let me turn, then, to the Dublin III agreement, under which children are able to be reunited with their extended family. The UK immigration rules apply to children anywhere in the world and can therefore provide a safe and legal route for children, avoiding the need for them to embark on perilous journeys to Europe. That is in keeping with the Government’s own stated policy objectives. However, the UK’s own rules on refugee family reunion apply only to spouses or partners and to children under 18 and born before the family fled. There is provision for exceptions to be made outside the immigration rules, but the extent to which children benefit from judgments based on the “serious and compelling family or other considerations” or “exceptional circumstances” test remains unclear, as the Government do not specify which cases involve children. Overall, 175 visas for family reunion under “exceptional circumstances” were granted in the last five years. That is 175 over five years; there were 77 cases in 2011 and the number fell to 12 in 2014. It is worth putting those figures in the context of the upheaval that we have seen during that period.
The rules fail to recognise that after years of conflict, many of these children have been orphaned or otherwise separated from their parents but they may have grandparents, aunts and uncles or adult siblings in this country who could care for them. Children in that situation would have no choice but to make the dangerous journey to Europe before they would be able to be reunited with their family under Dublin III.
Further, the refugee family reunion rules do not permit a child to sponsor their parent or main carer to join them in the UK. When a child is granted refugee status or humanitarian protection, that is in recognition of the fact that the child cannot live safely in their home country and therefore cannot join their parent there. By preventing children from applying for their parent or main carer to join them in the UK, the rules are enforcing family separation, rather than enabling family reunification, and they risk depriving children of their right to a family life.
It is worth pausing to reflect on what the purpose of the rules should be. It seems to me that if the purpose of the rules is to reunite families, that is exactly what they should do, but the implementation of the rules has exactly the opposite effect. We do not have family reunification rules; we have family separation rules.
The agencies and non-governmental organisations ask that we widen part 11 of the UK immigration rules in various ways. They ask that we include an expanded group of extended family members who have refugee status or humanitarian protection, including adult siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents, to sponsor the children in their family to join them. They ask that we allow unaccompanied and separated children to sponsor their parent or main carer to join them in the UK, and they ask that we include children born after the family fled from their country of origin. To put it another way, they ask that we start looking at families as families, and not as a disparate collection of individuals connected by consanguinity.
They ask also that we interpret and apply the UK immigration rules on family reunion in a generous and flexible manner, which the Minister will hopefully agree is in the best traditions of the British Government and British civil service. They ask that we promote the protection of children and do not act as barriers to children in precarious situations being sponsored where other criteria such as family relationships and the children’s need for protection are met.
They ask that we clarify UK immigration guidance and practices, including in relation to evidential requirements and the definitions of conditions of “serious and compelling” circumstances—again, that is a test—and collect disaggregated data on exceptional cases relating to children outside the UK rules. Their final ask is that we should waive the accommodation and maintenance requirements and the application fee for children falling outside part 11 of the immigration rules.
As a set of rules, the Dublin III regulation has been agreed by 32 countries in Europe to determine the state responsible for considering an asylum application submitted in one of them. Under this regulation, unaccompanied children are entitled to be reunited with family in the UK through the transfer of existing asylum cases to the UK from another EU member state. However, the implementation of Dublin III is far from working in the best interests of the children.
Unaccompanied children across Europe have been understandably reluctant to seek access to the asylum procedure. Such children lack trust and confidence in the system, and in many cases lack knowledge or the language skills to understand family reunification procedures. Procedurally, the maximum time limit for Dublin III transfers is 11 months, and cases are typically taking that long to be processed. That is far too long for a vulnerable child to wait to be reunited with its family.
The cases of unaccompanied children in northern France are the nearest and most visible of children trapped in vulnerable situations and on dangerous routes who have a legal right to join their families in the UK. Putting an effective, sustainable process in place for the processing of Dublin claims by the UK in northern France and across Europe would ensure that no more of these children are unnecessarily kept in limbo, so close to family and yet so far from safety.
In terms of the implementation of Dublin III, my asks of the Minister are these: the Government should ensure adequate investment and resourcing of the system across Europe, enabling family reunion in the UK, including the deployment of further Home Office staff to Europe. The Government should publish guidance on the handling of Dublin III family reunion cases, including a clarification of responsibilities and procedures for assessing UK-based family members of unaccompanied children ahead of any transfer. At the local level, central Government should ensure that local authorities have sufficient funding and capacity to conduct such assessments to enable Dublin transfers to be expedited while safeguarding the best interests of the child. The best interests of the child is a test that we apply routinely to children in our own legal system. Again, why should we apply a different test to the children who come here in such desperate circumstances?
Working in partnership with other European Governments, the Government should invest in ensuring that unaccompanied children have access to high-quality legal assistance. We will all have seen from our constituency casework the impact that the removal of legal aid from those seeking access to the asylum and immigration legal processes has had over the years. That is now becoming acute and really does need to be addressed.
The Government should ensure that children in Europe have child and language-accessible information about the procedures for reuniting children with their families in the UK via the Dublin procedure. Again, I draw on my own personal experience as a solicitor in practice and previously as a prosecutor. The way in which we provide information to children in dealing with court systems, for example, is light years away from the standard and quality of information that is provided to children seeking refuge here. Why do we treat these children as though they are somehow worth less than our own?
I expect that the Minister will speak about the rules for family reunion visas being granted outside the set criteria in the exceptional circumstances to which I have referred. However, the figures speak for themselves. Given the massive upheaval in the middle east and elsewhere and the vast number of people on the move, the number of visas that have been granted in such exceptional circumstances is painfully low. Refugee family reunion is about protecting lives. It has its basis in refugee law, so it should be considered part of the refugee and asylum process, not just part of the immigration system.
My final ask of the Minister is that we should allow more refugees in through the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme. At the current rate I am not sure how the Government will meet their own target of 20,000 by the end of this Parliament, let alone do more as we all believe they should. We should take refugees from Europe through our own scheme or by signing up to the European relocation scheme. We should take unaccompanied refugee children who have made the journey alone and are now vulnerable to traffickers in Europe. We should offer safe and legal routes to cut off the air to smugglers and we should do this hand in hand with our European and other international partners. All that would help, but a change to the family reunion rules is the necessary first step. That is the place to start. I look forward to hearing what the Minister can offer us by way of some assurance.
It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. I also congratulate him on his excellent article, which I read this morning on PoliticsHome and which I would commend to other Members of the House. It has been invaluable in preparing for this afternoon’s debate.
Few would challenge the reasons why protecting the family unit is a fundamental principle of international law, and international refugee law in particular. As the United Nations declaration of human rights states:
“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
Fleeing persecution should never require a refugee to have to give up that unit and have to choose between safety and family. There is a second fundamental reason for protecting the family unit and reuniting families, which is that family reunion is also about saving and protecting lives, as the right hon. Gentleman argued, because many of those applying to join family members here will themselves be in grave danger. That has never been as true as at present.
Family reunion is about providing safe legal routes to a place of protection. A failure to provide such routes will push many to turn to people smugglers and dangerous routes in an attempt to be reunited with their loved ones here in the UK. I pay tribute to the many organisations that work so hard to highlight the issues. As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the British Red Cross has been running a campaign called Torn Apart, which has perfectly captured the reasons why family reunion is so important. The powerful campaign video featuring Muhammed and Amal puts human faces on the numbers and arguments. A UNICEF campaign for reuniting unaccompanied children in Europe with families in the UK has attracted more than 100,000 signatures to a petition. As ever, the Refugee Council has been a persistent advocate of the cause.
The right hon. Gentleman highlighted concerns about the scope of the UK’s family reunion rules and problems with how they function in practice, even for those who qualify. As to the scope, he set out examples in which there was a lack of compassion or fairness, including the very restricted provision for children over the age of 18. Similar arguments are relevant to parents, siblings and other relatives. It is only fair to acknowledge that there will always be different views as to precisely where lines should be drawn, but I think most MPs and most members of the public would agree that currently the lines are drawn too restrictively.
Nowhere is that more apparent that in the case of adult children. How can we justify a policy by which an 18-year-old woman who was living as a dependent child with her parents and younger siblings in Syria cannot join them in the UK and must instead be left behind, possibly alone, in a refugee camp in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey? Returning to the principles behind the rules, it is very hard to defend in terms of the impingement on her right to family life and the family life of her parents and children, it is absolutely indefensible in terms of her safety, and it creates a situation in which we can easily imagine that resorting to people smugglers and dangerous journeys would be a significant temptation.
Similar arguments could be made in respect of other relatives too. It is particularly true of child refugees. The UK and Denmark are alone in the EU in not allowing parents to apply to be reunited with them. The Government’s justification is child safeguarding, but we do not know what the evidence for that is. In fact, in the recent legal case of AT, the President of the Upper Tribunal concluded that the evidence suggested, contrary to the Government’s position, that allowing reunification would promote, rather than undermine, public interest in safeguarding of children. Another example is the exclusion of post-flight family. Again, that is a case where the rules appear to run contrary to the principles behind family reunion and protecting family life.
I expect the Minister will highlight the fact that provision is made for adult children and other dependent relatives to join their refugee families in
“the most exceptional compassionate circumstances”.
However, I do not think that is good enough—for a number of reasons. First, it just does not work. From my dim and distant past as an immigration solicitor, I can remember how incredibly difficult it was to have a client meet the threshold of “most exceptional compassionate circumstances”. From the briefings that we have received, that still seems to be the case. Secondly, that test is particularly inappropriate just now. To be living alone, far removed from the family unit that they have previously lived with and that they remain dependent on, is far from an exceptional circumstance for people in the current migration and refugee crisis. If the Minister cannot be persuaded to make a permanent change to the rules, surely he will consider a change to last for the duration of the current crisis. There are other problems with the rules, including the fact that they place financial tests on the refugee family to show they can support their relative without recourse to public funds.
Instead of hearing the Minister highlight the exception that would allow a few dependent 18-year-old children to join Syrian refugee families in the UK—families that they have always lived with—we want to hear him explain why on earth that is an exception in the first place. Why is it not the mainstream principle to allow family reunion in such circumstances? The wording of the exception simply highlights a far better place for lines to be drawn, if lines have to be drawn at all. Dependency and having been part of the household should be enough in itself. We should take out the financial requirements and the near-impossible task of showing
“the most compelling compassionate circumstances”.
As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked, what does that phrase even mean? Does it incorporate the example I have given of an 18-year-old girl alone in a refugee camp in Lebanon?
The right hon. Gentleman also pointed out that when we consider the exercise of discretion outside the rules, it is noticeable how rare an event that is. There have been about 65 cases outside the rules in the last three years, against a background of 20,000 family reunion applications. Such cases are rarer now than they were in 2011. I ask the Minister, as the right hon. Gentleman did, to explain that decline in the number of successful cases outside the rules, particularly given the current refugee crisis. We support hon. Members and campaigning organisations who favour a broadening of the categories of people who qualify under family reunion rules, and we ask the Minister whether he will work with experts, for example from the international Red Cross, and legal experts to broaden the scope of family reunion rules to reach a fairer and more just policy.
I want to echo some of the concerns raised about how the rules work in practice, even for those who are fortunate enough to fall within their ambit. First, it is true that family reunion is far from straightforward. Many require support, including legal support. In Scotland, solicitors can still provide help through advice and assistance funding from the Scottish Legal Aid Board. I can safely say that in my time as an immigration solicitor I never felt I was in any way wasting public funds by providing that service. The evidence gathered by the British Red Cross in its report “Not So Straightforward” backs that up. On the contrary, legal advice and support is often pivotal. I urge the Government to consider a similar scheme in England and Wales.
Secondly, there must be a change to the ridiculous procedure whereby very short entry clearance periods are issued to those seeking family reunion. That often leaves poorer families facing a near impossible task of gathering together funding for travel in the short time allowed. Will the Minister look again at the limited entry clearance period that is granted? Thirdly, we must find ways to make it easier to submit applications. Many applicants, 95% of whom are women and children, are required to travel to third countries to find their nearest British embassy. The Red Cross has highlighted the risks of violence, torture and harassment that a majority face when making that journey, and there is evidence that certain high commissions fail to follow correct practice in dealing with applicants—for example, turning away children in Rwanda because they arrived without passports. Will the Minister work with organisations such as the Red Cross to explore alternative ways of submitting applications?
Fourthly, as all hon. Members will have experienced in general immigration work, there is sometimes—not all the time—an infuriating tendency for entry clearance staff to refuse applications because there is one missing document, or one part of the form that has not been completed properly. Instead of clarifying the situation with a simple phone call, they simply refuse applications and protracted, expensive appeals follow. Can the Minister ensure that all possibilities of seeking clarification or further information are exhausted before family reunion applications are refused?
Finally, we could have a whole separate debate on the operation of the Dublin regulation and processing of “take charge” requests. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made many valid points about that. It is pivotal for children—and others— living in the awful conditions at Calais and Dunkirk or in camps in Greece to be reunited with families as quickly as possible. It has been difficult to monitor progress, and some of the answers to parliamentary questions have been frustrating, but we should all be pushing the Government to do everything possible to speed that process up, and we will continue to do that.
The Government have provided protection and shelter for refugees in regions neighbouring conflict zones, and they have done some admirable work in that regard. That is beyond doubt, and other countries should follow that example. However, the Government have also recognised that work in the region is not enough and that offering a place of safety to many is also important. In doing that, surely it makes perfect sense to include the broader set of family members of refugees who are already here. It is the right thing to do to protect people and families, stop perilous journeys and make a just contribution to alleviating the awful crisis that continues to rage.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate and on the tone of his contribution. The reference to his family was a powerful way of driving home the point about the cut-off point at age 18. We often say in the House that there is a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since the second world war—and that is right: we have seen the numbers from last year and this year. However, we have a tendency—into which I myself fall—to talk in terms of numbers. Bringing some humanity to the topic is important, and that is what happened when the right hon. Gentleman spoke.
We must remember that refugees are mums, dads, children, brothers, sisters and grandparents, and are all fleeing from persecution over borders in the best way they can in the circumstances. We do not often refer to them, first and foremost, as families, but they are families who are often disintegrated and split because of the circumstances in which they have to leave a particular country or situation. We must always remember that, as it reminds us why we must always distinguish between refugees and others who move—immigrants in the broader sense of the word. We must recognise that it is a different context and set of circumstances, and that different rules ought to apply. One problem is rules that are intended to apply to immigration broadly being applied to the sub-group of refugees.
We must always remember that refugees come from many countries across the world, not just Syria. We often refer to the situation in Syria because it is so terrible, but there are other countries in which there are terrible situations and from which refugees are on the move. One of my concerns, which I have raised with the Minister and in the House a number of times, is about the potential in this country for a debate to emerge that takes a two-tier approach to refugees, with Syrians being seen in one context and other refugees in another. We must keep reminding ourselves to bear in mind not just Syria, but the very many other places from which people are fleeing.
Reunification is a particularly good example of rules intended to apply across the board not working well in relation to refugees. That is why I welcome this debate, the campaign being run by the British Red Cross, and the work of UNICEF and the Refugee Council on unaccompanied children and reunification in particular. I echo the comments of other hon. Members: we need to remember that reunification is important because families want to reunify. We live as families and when we are split and have to cross borders, we want to reunify as families. The family unit is a powerful human need. In this context, by having more flexible, wider rules on family reunification, we limit, at least to some extent, the extent to which people make dangerous journeys that they would not otherwise have to make, because they would have a safe and legal route for getting from where they are to where they need to be to reunify with their families. We must bear both those points in mind.
The reunification rules, like many aspects of the refugee framework, are under strain given the events of the last year or two. However, it is time to look again at the reunification rules in the round. I saw for myself the situation in Calais and Dunkirk earlier this year, where it was evident that there were unaccompanied children. When I went to Calais in January, there were about 130 or so unaccompanied children, but at least they had been counted and identified to the best ability of those who were there.
When I was in Dunkirk—things have changed since I was there—nobody was in a position even to identify and count the number of unidentified children there. That demonstrated the mismatch between the approach we have to children in this country and the approach that was applied in Calais and Dunkirk. When I visited, I went on the Eurostar from London and the journey took one hour. It was extraordinary that there should be a place such as Calais or Dunkirk where there were unaccompanied children who were not being assisted in the way that I would hope they would be if they were in the UK.
In the UK, we have recognised for many years that if children are to exercise their rights to reunification—or, indeed, any rights—somebody has to assist them to do so. It is simply not good enough to say to a child, “There is a mechanism. Why don’t you access it?” There has to be somebody to assist in that process.
I am sorry to have missed the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). My hon. and learned Friend will know from his visit to Calais of the concern about the 157 unaccompanied children, all of whom appear to have links with families in this country.
In the Bishop of Durham’s evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Tuesday, he said in answer to a question I put that he believed that the children should already be here. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that where links can be demonstrated and have been established—not as a matter of rule, otherwise it will encourage more people just to send their children—the children ought to be allowed to join their families here?
Yes, they should be allowed to join their families here. The rules provide for that and they need to be effectively applied. That means somebody assisting in the process on the ground. I was particularly struck at Dunkirk that there were simply no officials at all in the camp when I was there. The only officials were gendarmes on the gate, whose sole function was to stop people bringing pallets on to the site, which they wanted because the ground was so wet that they simply needed to get the tents off the ground. That was the only official presence in Dunkirk.
It is not just about the right to reunification; it is about that being within a reasonable timeframe. Months go by and that is a long time for a child. Those children are on their own and they are particularly vulnerable. We have had debates about the number of children missing in Europe; some months ago, Europol put out a figure of 10,000. Time is measured differently by children, as we all know, and those children are not only young, but vulnerable. They should not be in parts of Europe or the rest of the world without assistance. This is about the speed of the exercise.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate; I was speaking in a debate on carers in the main Chamber. To follow up the point made by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the shadow Minister noted that we need someone in place to help. Almost 1 million Christian refugees have left Syria and have been dispersed not just across Turkey, but across the whole of Europe. Some of those are young families and young individual children. May I suggest that one group that could, should and would be keen to help is the church? Will the Minister, in his reply to the shadow Minister, look at that as a possible solution to trying to find a family background for the many children who have been left on their own and who are isolated and vulnerable at Calais and elsewhere across Europe?
Of course the churches should, and do, play a part in providing support, as do many others. There are people in the camps across Europe who are trying to provide the best support they can, and that is welcome. It is, of course, a tall order to provide the help wherever it is needed, but that goes to the question of how many staff are deployed and where. In a sense, we need to step back, take a look at the rules and the reunification framework in the round, and review it across the board.
The hon. and learned Gentleman quite rightly emphasises the importance of time, particularly for children. He will be aware that a few months ago four or five children from the camps were admitted, thanks to a tribunal ruling, on human rights grounds because the Dublin procedure was so slow. Does he agree that one option for the British Government, rather than challenging that decision, would be to implement it more widely? That way, rather than having to wait for the children to go through the French process first and then make a take-charge request, the children could be brought to the UK straight away.
That challenge was brought by, among others, lawyers working in Doughty Street Chambers—the chambers that I am still associated with. I think the children arrived in St Pancras, which is in my constituency. That demonstrated how quickly things could happen if a court approved the process. In fairness, it is not for me to tell the Minister what approach the Government should take to the appeal, but clearly speed is of the essence. There have to be practical and effective ways for children and their families to exercise the rights to which they are entitled. It is marked that there are still children relatively near, in parts of northern Europe, who have a right to reunification here but that the process is working far too slowly.
It is often said that when we respond to refugee children on their own, in Europe or elsewhere, there is a risk that if too much is done, it will encourage others to follow their path. I have been very cautious about that argument for two reasons. First, although when we talk about immigration more widely we might have to engage with the pull factor argument, when we talk about refugees we should recognise and focus on the push factors. Refugees are fleeing. Over the years, families have split as they have fled across borders. Secondly, there are children right here, right now who are already on their own in different parts of the world. For my part, and I expect for everyone else, I am not going to say, “We mustn’t extend the support that they need right here, right now lest others follow in their wake.”
I am most grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for giving way to me a second time. I agree with him, but does he not agree that we need to be careful about messages? The first people who pick up such messages are the people traffickers and the organised criminal gangs, and we simply have not done enough to address those gangs. They are the people who are able to transport individuals, and they are the people who prey on the vulnerable. They never put their lives at risk in the Mediterranean. We and our EU partners, including Frontex, need to do much more to deal with them.
I heartily agree and endorse every word. Ultimately, the refugee crisis will be addressed effectively only if we start at the very top, which means de-escalating the violence, and then work upstream to stop the work of those who are engaged in trafficking and putting people through the illegal and dangerous routes. I completely agree with that. In a sense, what we are discussing this afternoon is what we do much further down the line, when people and children have arrived in Europe. I am simply cautioning against the argument that has been made in the House when we have debated similar issues—although not in today’s debate—that it would somehow be wrong in principle to provide the support and assistance that is needed in Europe lest other people follow.
The problems highlighted by the British Red Cross’s campaign are real. Where over-18s were living with their family before the family split and fled across the world because of persecution, they are, of course, over the age of 18, but still vulnerable and still wanting to reunify with their family for the reasons powerfully put earlier in the debate. Refugee children not being able to sponsor family members is an issue where there simply is not sufficient flexibility to address the injustices that arise. There is the unresolved question of wider family members beyond mothers, fathers and children, and there is the problem of there having been no legal aid since 2013. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, I take it particularly seriously that since 2013 it has been difficult to mount effective challenges unless lawyers are prepared to act on a pro bono basis, which is not how we should be proceeding on such issues in this country.
Labour has pressed these issues. Our amendment 122A to the Immigration Bill was defeated in the House of Lords, so there have been efforts, but it is good that we are debating the issue again today—not to resurrect those discussions in the other place, but to step back and ask: is it now time for that wider review? I call on the Government to look at and review the entire framework for family reunification, and I ask the Minister to make a commitment to that effect and to update us on the ongoing review of the Dublin III arrangements.
I add to the small but impressive list of right hon. and hon. Members today who have said what a pleasure it is, as ever, to serve under your jurisdiction, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate.
My history in the legal profession often feels inadequate in Parliament, but particularly so today. I do not compare in any way to former practising solicitors nor to someone as eminent as the shadow Minister of Doughty Street Chambers and the great office he achieved afterwards. As a mere holder of a law degree, and not a very good one, I have not looked at a law textbook since 1979, but I will do my best.
Family reunification is a serious subject that is easy to paint in terms of good and bad, black and white or evil and nice, and I thank the speakers today for not doing so—it is an easy and very cheap way to attack any Government. With that in mind, I will try to answer the points that I can answer with the same level of constructiveness. Anyone would agree that family unity is an important principle. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned it in terms of his own family, and I have two boys of a very similar age to his, as does the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). To the many of us who come from a background of people fleeing from abroad, although it was not in our generation—it was several generations ago—it is something that is passed down. When I took up my office in the Government, I did not do so lightly.
That goes to the heart of the debate. It is about how we regard refuge. What does it mean to be a refugee? As a country, what are we offering when we offer people refuge? Surely it has to be more than residence. Surely it has to be some sort of security and stability. How do people get that when their family is split across countries?
I would find it hard to disagree with that point. I feel, and I hope that most right hon. and hon. Members agree, that this country has a very good reputation for accepting refugees not just historically but in the present day. Although I am sure that no one would suggest that our asylum system is perfect, it has certainly become speedier, allowing people not to live in such lengthy periods of limbo by making determinations comparatively quickly. I agree that those periods can still be shortened, and I hope they will be shortened. I hope that the financial package offered by the Government for the Syrian resettlement programme and other resettlement programmes shows that the Government are committed to enabling people to live proper and decent lives once they arrive here. When refugees arrive here, I agree that hopefully it is job done on human safety, but on their leading fulfilled and proper lives it is the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning—it is not for me to quote Churchill, or to mess it up, but I hope right hon. and hon. Members will know what I mean. It is the beginning of a process, as the Government have realised in, for example, the funding of the five-year resettlement programme. I hope that many of those refugees and their families will not need the funding, because I hope they will be able to work and get the benefits of life generally, but the Government realise that it is important that that funding is available.
I apologise to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland; the point that I wanted to make about family reunion was that the Syrian resettlement programme is predominantly for families. More than 50% are children, but within family groups. The Government are not completely oblivious to the issue. However, I return to his specific points about family reunion. His first ask was simple compared with the others: would I meet the Red Cross and the Refugee Council? I am happy to meet them, but I do anyway. I am happy to meet them on any occasion; in fact, I would have met most of them this morning, except that I could not have got to east London and back in time for this debate.
If the right hon. Gentleman would like to facilitate further meetings, I am happy to go to them, but I assure him that the Red Cross and the Refugee Council are partners of ours in many things. I know that the Minister for Immigration met the Red Cross to discuss many of these issues today, but I am happy to do so as well.
As part of the latest review of the family reunion policy, we have listened carefully to many arguments in favour of widening the criteria and effectively creating another resettlement programme for family reunion alone. The debates in both Houses during the passage of the recent Bill, and in the wider community—including representations received for this debate—demonstrate the level of compassion felt about the issue. Unquestionably, right hon. and hon. Members have made eloquent and forcible arguments in this debate for doing so.
We recognise that families may be separated by conflict and persecution. It happens quickly, and the speed and manner of it is often not controlled. The motivation of most people is unquestionably just to get to their family in the UK. However, it is easy in discussions like these not to stress that we already do a lot of family reunification. In the last five years, there have been about 22,000 successful cases of family reunification. It is often not mentioned that in our programme for Syrian resettlement, family reunification is a criterion in its own right, quite apart from the other vulnerability criteria for acceptance.
The reunification system takes into account some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. It does not involve visiting a British embassy abroad; the point has been made about how difficult and dangerous that can be. It involves registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and going through an interview process with the UNHCR, which I have witnessed. It is lengthy, but it is not dissimilar to the type of interview that might happen at Lunar House in Croydon or other centres in the UK. Family reunification is one of the five criteria, even without the other matters. People are then brought here on one of our charter flights and resettled with their family, with an immediate right to work on a humanitarian protection visa. That is often not mentioned in the context of family reunion, but such people are coming through the Syrian system now.
At this juncture, I would like to say in the presence of the erudite and eloquent Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who came to join us today, that the comment that the Government would probably not make its target of 20,000 during this Parliament is not correct. We are well on track, and we have recently added to the target the up to 3,000 children at risk whom we are taking under the—
The right hon. Gentleman is hoping to intervene, and of course he will, but I will just finish my sentence—or page, or paragraph, in the hope that we run out of time. Excuse my humour, Mr Bone. That is an additional 3,000 children, not just from Syria and the countries around Syria; it is from the middle east and north Africa as well, and it can include non-Syrians.
The Minister does not need to carry on talking, because I am rising to praise him. Universally, all those who have dealt with him have pointed out that he has done a great job as Minister for Syrian refugees. Our concern is that speculation about the target is not helped by the Government’s refusal to publish figures monthly. The Minister will know that from his last appearance before the Committee. He keeps telling us that the figures will be published in the quarterly results. However, because he is doing a brilliant job, it would help his case if he published those figures more readily so people knew of the good work that is being done.
I beg your pardon; yes. I meant “results”. The right hon. Gentleman makes me nervous, Mr Bone. I do not know why, because he is a very nice chap and I respect him a lot. The results are published quarterly, and are now broken down by local authority region. That is significantly more information than he felt was previously available.
I myself have said regularly how good the Syrian refugee proposal is and how well it is working. I agree that the Minister is doing a good job there, and I have said that before. The concern is the other refugees. A Syrian child who came here alone would suffer, not being able to bring their parents here. I am increasingly concerned about that sense of a two-tier approach.
I have every sympathy with what the hon. and learned Gentleman says. It is a feeling that a lot of emphasis has gone into one programme but not into others. I hope to convince him—if not now, then at other times as the process proceeds—that that is not the case, but it is a perfectly reasonable point to make.
The key question to which we would like an answer is whether the Minister will at least take away the suggestion that the current approach, in which a child at 17 can apply for reunification but there is an arbitrary cut-off at 18—is sensible. We should consider their circumstances. Did they live with that family beforehand? Are they wholly dependent on the family? Will he at least take that away and work with others to implement a more sensible rule?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I point out—I was going to mention this a little further on—that there will be revised guidance on immigration rules, and many of the points mentioned in this debate will be taken into consideration. If he bears with me, I hope to satisfy him, if not in content then by showing that I am trying to answer some of the questions raised. However, I must make the point that there are already several ways for families to be reunited and the resettlement schemes are part of that.
Our family reunion policy allows immediate family members of those granted protection here or who were part of the family before the sponsor fled their country to reunite in the UK. It reflects our obligations under the refugee convention. As I have said, we work closely with the UNHCR to include the most vulnerable people in the Syrian resettlement scheme.
The Immigration Act 2016, which passed very recently, announced our intention to resettle from Europe a number of unaccompanied refugee children, mentioned extensively by all right hon. and hon. Members here, particularly the shadow Minister. Under that initiative, we will prioritise family links in the UK. A point has been made about the speed at which family reunification takes place. It has been described as far too slow, and we should do what we can to ensure that the Dublin process works far more quickly for the sake of such children, some of whom the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has seen on his visits to Calais, Dunkirk and elsewhere. Again, that is not a point that we completely ignore.
At the moment, we are meeting many of the organisations that have been mentioned today and other member states to find ways to make this process much quicker. The Immigration Minister has been in Greece and senior officials have been to Italy and France to discuss how it is done. There is no question about it—we agree that the system has to be speeded up. That is why earlier in the year we sent a UK expert to France and why we now have a permanent secondee in the Italian Dublin unit. Shortly, we will be seconding further people to Greece. We have already offered 75 asylum and immigration experts to assist Greece in operating the hotspots; 18 have already been deployed and are working there and the rest are in the process of being deployed.
We are really looking at entry clearance timetables, including with the Red Cross, which the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned. It is open to applicants to tell us when they want the visa to take effect—we are not going slowly. Sometimes there is the implication that we are trying to make the process go slowly to stop people from wanting family reunification.
This is a difficult field. The shadow Minister and the right hon. Member for Leicester East, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, mentioned people traffickers. There is not a single member of this House who could disagree with anything that has been said about people traffickers. However, family reunification is vulnerable to people traffickers.
For example, we have heard—I accept that this is just the sort of thing that people hear, but it has been heard by people on the ground—that there were 50 people on the Bosnian-Macedonian border who claimed to have the same uncle in a village in Sweden. The people traffickers actually tell people to say that they have family in different countries, even down to individuals. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members would not think that that means that I think “Oh, we shouldn’t have family reunification, because some people try to exploit it”, but it does mean that officialdom has to try to verify carefully that these are genuine family reunification cases.
I thank the Minister for giving way to me a second time. However, that is the problem with the Turkey deal. The deal—the €6 billion that has been given to Turkey—is a reward for Turkey receiving illegal migrants back into Turkey. Actually, the resources should be directed at ensuring that we deal with the people traffickers. We are still not able to get into Libyan waters in order to deal with the boats in the middle of the Mediterranean. Surely the essence should be to stop people being given false hope and to stop people leaving in the first place by helping the countries that are the sources of these difficulties.
I agree totally with the right hon. Gentleman. In one of his interventions, he mentioned children in Calais and I will concentrate my remarks on that for the moment. The simple question that he put and that was also put by the shadow Minister is, “Should children be allowed in from Calais where a link can be established?” The answer is, “Obviously, yes.”
The impression given in the media—although not by the speakers today; there is no intention to mislead Parliament—is that we are seeing children in Calais and thinking, “How can we stop them from coming to the UK?” That is not the case. That is why the Government have invested a lot of time and effort working with France. Our officials regularly meet French officials and there are discussions at all levels about how to make this quick. There is now a permanent official contact committee. Since one of our officials was seconded to the French interior ministry, the speed has grown significantly—there is no question about it. The numbers may appear small—
I will just finish my sentence and then I will happily accept the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
More than 30 children were accepted between January and April. Many people say that that is totally inadequate and that things are moving at a snail’s pace, but they are speeding up; there is absolutely no question about that. There are many cases now in train and transfers can happen within weeks; there is often an implication that it is months, or even longer.
However, under Dublin, the children need to apply for asylum in France. There is a French NGO that the Government work closely with, called Terre d’Asile; my French is appalling, Mr Bone, for which I apologise. It is funded by the French Government, with our help, to help us to do this. No one child or adult need remain in those camps, but it is impossible to know how many children there are who fall within this. Whether there are 50, 100 or 150, the numbers do not matter to us, because we want to get them processed quickly.
There is lots of speculation about numbers; it is very easy for very good organisations and very well-meaning organisations to come up with numbers. There have been surveys and there has been sampling. However, it is our job to ensure that those children who do qualify understand the process and that the process is explained by people who can speak to them in their own language and in a simple manner. I understand that there is a lot of fear among the children about the French authorities and other authorities. In the countries that these children come from, people do not think of authorities in the way that people think of authorities in this country. So there is work to be done. However, the British Government are doing a lot to work with the French authorities. We must remember that they are in France; we are operating overseas and our officials are still UK officials. They are not French officials and we cannot ignore the fact that they are in France.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East; I will give way to him now.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has given welcome reassurances that the process of taking children from Calais and Dunkirk has been speeding up. Other Ministers—including, indeed, the Home Secretary—have given such assurances as well. However, when Members submit written questions that ask for hard numbers and processing times, we keep getting answers that say those cannot be provided. An excellent report from the Home Affairs Committee has asked for that sort of information to be made available. Will the Minister encourage his colleagues to ensure that it is made available, so that we can check that these assurances are worth listening to?
The hon. Gentleman is asking, “Will I encourage my colleagues to disclose as much information as they possibly can?” I think the answer is, “Absolutely. Yes, I will.” I hope that the right hon. Member for Leicester East would agree that more numbers are forthcoming than was traditional under previous Governments, when there was significantly less information on the subject.
Over the last five years, the rate of family reunification has been 4,000 to 5,000 per year, but I see that increasing with the different schemes that are happening. It is for our Government to help the other Governments in mainland Europe to provide the machinery, so that we can resettle those people more quickly.
One could argue that the Governments of mainland Europe have been so overwhelmed by the numbers that they have not been able to process the unaccompanied children for family reunification. Again, I do not think that that is down to lack of will. I just think that the numbers have completely overwhelmed them. From our end, it is important that we do everything that we can to help them to catch up.
I will go on to the points that have been made about the immigration rules, which enable British citizens and people settled in the UK to sponsor their spouse or partner and children under 18 to join them here. Obviously, they have to make the appropriate entry clearance application and meet the relevant criteria. That is our international obligation. The rules allow those with refugee leave or humanitarian protection status to sponsor a spouse or partner with whom they have formed a relationship after they fled their country of origin. The rules are wider than many would think, but I accept that they are not as wide as many would want. They were strengthened in the previous Parliament. The Government do not accept that the rules are unfair. We believe that they have the right impact and help to restore public confidence in this country in the immigration system.
An important point that was raised several times this afternoon—
I will just finish this sentence; it may answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question. An important point was raised not about the immigration rules but about those cases outside the rules. The argument has been put forward that, although it is legally within the discretion of officials to go outside the rules, they have not been exercising that discretion. That point has been made several times; my English probably made it sound more cumbersome than I expected it to. Just to reiterate, the point is that there is a power to go outside the immigration rules, but it has not been used a lot. That point was made several times this afternoon. In the next few weeks, the Government will publish a clarification of the immigration rules. I hope that the points where discretion can be and is applied are made clearer. That will help applicants, as well as officials dealing with this.
I understand why the Minister made reference to restoring public confidence in the immigration system, but to pick up the point that the shadow Minister made, conflating refugee and asylum issues with the wider immigration system is not a helpful way of proceeding and does not help public understanding. I understand exactly why the Minister said what he said, but it was a good illustration of the shadow Minister’s point.
I understand the argument that when immigration figures are published, they should exclude refugees and asylum seekers. It is an arguable case, but those people should surely be included within the net number of people coming into the country. For whatever reason those people come, they are still people coming into the country. In my opinion, that does not in any way take away from the validity of us taking people from the situations they find themselves in abroad.
It is not just about the inclusion of these people in the number; it is also about having a policy driven by one thing—driving that net migration number down. That is wrong when it comes to refugees, and that is why they should be taken out and looked at separately. The number is self-defining; it is the number of people crossing the border. That is the deeper concern here.
I understood the point that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was making. I see the argument to separate the two figures. Those who read the detail of the migration figures—it is a small number of people, and unfortunately most of them are not publishers or editors of national newspapers—see the breakdown beneath. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman and other Members interested in the subject read that breakdown. The point is valid, but however the figures are printed or published, I am afraid the media and so, one has to accept, the general population who get their information from the media will take the number in the round. It is others who accept the breakdown.
So many things in Government are a balance. Most of us who go into Parliament, Government and public service do things with exactly the right intention. That is certainly what I have found in my comparatively short period of involvement. I do not think anyone would become a Member of Parliament or, I specifically hope, a Minister in this field if they did not have a lot of compassion for people desperately wanting to come into this country and others. Everything in Government is a balance, however, whether that is financial or in terms of having some form of policy—not everything can be an exception to that policy, but the policy has to try to allow some exceptions. I believe that the number of people coming in under family reunification from the various sources will increase significantly, but in a proper, measured way. There is flexibility within Dublin and the immigration rules to facilitate that.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, for bringing these issues before us. I am happy to meet with them or anyone else to discuss this matter.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, which has been detailed, interesting and measured.
This is not always an easy subject. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), made the point that what we are doing is discussing the size of the bandage or the sticking plaster, whereas what we really need to do is stop inflicting the wounds that we see in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
Sometimes it is necessary to have moments of high drama and emotion in our debates; sometimes that acts as a catalyst, as it did last autumn, for some real focus and progress on the issue. When not in the middle of such moments of high drama, however, it is enormously helpful to be able to have debates such as this to engage in the way that all parties have done this afternoon. I am grateful to all parties, and in particular to the Minister—I think we managed to keep him on his feet for almost half an hour. I am sure, whether informally in meetings or on the record on the Floor of the House, this is an issue to which we shall return.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered refugee family reunion rules.