I beg to move,
That this House has considered reunion for refugee children with family in the UK.
I am grateful to colleagues for joining me this Thursday afternoon to discuss issues affecting some of the most vulnerable people on our planet. I also thank you, Dame Cheryl, for permitting me to make a personal comment before I turn to the main thrust of my speech.
I would like to apologise to this House for the inappropriate words that I used in a speech in Edinburgh at a Labour event to mark Burns night. I unreservedly apologise for the offence caused. I used inappropriate and offensive words, and I was wrong to do so. I will be working to restore my relationship with the communities concerned over the coming months, making a positive change, and to ensure that society is as tolerant and inclusive as it should be. Thank you for letting me make that apology, Dame Cheryl.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I want to mention the Members who have sponsored and supported this debate: the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for North Down (Lady Hermon), my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), my hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) and for Easington (Grahame Morris), the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). They represent all parts of our United Kingdom, and that is evidence of the importance of this issue. I thank all the humanitarian and international development fields for their support in preparing this brief.
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and our computer and television screens, our world gets smaller every day. What happens in far-flung parts of the world affects us all; it is made clear and obvious to us and it provides us with a moral responsibility to act. Few people in my constituency, Scotland or indeed the rest of the United Kingdom can say that they have not seen or been affected by the humanitarian crisis that blights our world today.
Some of the context of this debate is very scary. It is criminal that more than half of the 22.5 million refugees across the world are children. In 2010-11, there were about 66,000 children moving across borders. Five years later there was a fivefold increase. At least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were registered moving across borders in more than 80 countries during 2015-16.
In a debate in the main Chamber on refugees and human rights on 24 January 2018, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), said:
“Our global leadership is needed now more than ever, not least because the five challenges that currently leave 65 million people in our world internally displaced or as refugees are getting only worse.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 285.]
There are challenges at home, in all communities across the United Kingdom, but there are challenges abroad too, which the shadow Foreign Secretary went on to highlight in that debate and we all know very well.
On 15 December 2017, the noble Baroness Trafford, Minister of State at the Home Office, announced that the Home Office is currently considering a new resettlement and asylum strategy. The Government say that the new strategy will make “improvements” and “changes” to the United Kingdom’s policies on refugee family reunification.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an urgent need to amend the UK’s immigration rules on refugee family reunion, to reduce the dangerous journeys that many refugees are forced to take and to provide safe and legal routes for vulnerable children to reach family members in the UK? That has unfortunately been left out of the upcoming private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on refugee family reunion, and that omission ought surely to be rectified urgently.
My hon. Friend is right.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate, which was long overdue. To follow on from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), the present system is purely bureaucratic and has to be broadened out, so any review should look at that and make the rules a lot simpler and easier. More important is the fact that legal aid has been stopped since 2013. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) agree that that is significant?
I agree and will ask the Minister about that at the end of my speech.
Many Members across this House will agree that improvements need to be made to the way in which we support refugees and honour our responsibilities to the most vulnerable. I pay tribute to the important speech given yesterday by the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), on how we can provide the support required by those in need. For me, as a human and an elected representative, the fact that children are still being forced to take life-threatening and dangerous journeys to their families in the United Kingdom is unforgivable and heartbreaking.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if a child with family in the UK is fleeing war, threats of trafficking or forced marriage, those family members should be able to sponsor them and take them away from those horrors?
Yes. That is the reason we see these images on TV. These kids do not want to do it; they are running scared and they are walking millions of miles.
The European Union’s Dublin III regulation determines which EU state decides a person’s asylum application. Under the Dublin III regulation, an unaccompanied child who has made an asylum application has the right to have their application transferred to another EU state where they have a relative. It is a way of reuniting children with their families in the United Kingdom, and that is the right thing to do. I note the agreements signed between the French and British Governments to speed up the Dublin III transfers. That seeks to help children reach the safety of their families in the UK, which is welcome and should be a given. They should not have been forced to take those journeys in the first place.
My hon. Friend will remember that the Conservative party used to be known as the party of the family. In autumn 2017, some 52 of its peers and MPs produced “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families” and called for leadership from Government. Does he agree that should apply to child refugees who risk the perilous journey across Europe?
Yes, I agree. That is the whole point of what we are trying to achieve.
Many Members will remember the horrific and devastating image of that lifeless little boy, Alan Kurdi. He was a child, three years old, who was found lying down on a beach in Turkey. Why? Because he was attempting to reach Greece. Why? Because he was trying to be part of the European Union. He was trying to reach a safe and secure home. This was in the 21st century; it should shame and disgrace us all.
The decision of the British people in 2016 to leave the European Union is one that I regret, but I respect it none the less. I mention it because our membership encouraged us to play a role, on a pan-European level, in doing the right thing. I do not want us to stop doing the right thing when we leave the EU. It is important to note that the Government’s announcement of a new strategy comes after an amendment in Committee to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that sought to ensure that refugee children could continue to be reunited with their families after we leave the European Union. For me, that is a given.
Even if we leave the European Union on the Government’s own terms, we could still be covered under Dublin III. Under Dublin III and through the work that Lord Dubs has done, we have committed to taking 480 children. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are not bringing those children over quickly enough, and that for a country of nearly 70 million people, 480 children is just not enough?
I respect those words, and that is exactly my fear—that if we leave the EU, we will forget that we still have a job to do as world leaders. I am an internationalist. The border does not stop at Carlisle for me, and it does not stop at Calais. I do not want us to become little Britain over the coming years, which is why that role is important.
I would like to share a brief story from back home in North Lanarkshire. In 2015, before I became an MP, my friend Angela Feeney and her daughter Maria were at home, drinking a glass of wine and watching the horrific news of the refugee crisis unfold on the TV. Sitting there, they decided to do something; they decided to be good citizens and act. Their original idea was to fill a car with clothes and drive from Wishaw to Calais to make a small contribution to the humanitarian effort. I was then the secretary of the North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council, and the Feeneys asked me for help and support for collections for their car and covering costs.
Soon after Alan Kurdi was found—the little boy on the beach—the original plan of taking a carload was no longer possible. By the time the news of little Alan had spread, interest was so great that we ended up sending trucks with two full warehouses’ worth of clothes and other necessary things, and thousands of pounds in donations, which were sent to people not just in Calais but around the world. I thank people in Scotland once again for the passion and the commitment that they showed to the Wishaw to Calais appeal.
I have some specific questions for the Minister to answer when she winds up this debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, for taking my intervention before he moves on to his questions, and for his understanding: I have a flight north tonight, so I cannot stay for the whole debate, which is why I cannot give a speech. Does he agree that despite everything he has said so far, we should, where possible, encourage refugee children to have a better environment in their home countries to prevent them even having to consider the dangerous trek into Europe?
I think that every child wants to stay in their homeland. I was proud to be born and bred in my community, and to become a councillor, because I am proud of my own land. Unfortunately, we have wars in this world, which involve bombs and bullets that those children have to dodge, which is why they run. Those children want to stay in their own homeland, as do their parents, but unfortunately the world that we live in, in 2018, has become so dangerous that those children and their parents must seek safety. I wish that we could sort the world’s peace tomorrow, so that everyone could live on this planet and share it as we should do.
Does the Minister agree that by amending our immigration rules to include an extended definition of family, as defined by Dublin III, we can ensure that our response to the crisis focuses on our responsibility to protect vulnerable children? Secondly, will she review the current policies on family reunion and commit to updating the House on what action will be taken? Thirdly, what plans do the Government have to reinstate legal aid for refugee family reunion cases? Lastly, does she agree that by taking action we can reunite vulnerable children with family members and stop their abuse by and reliance on smugglers and traffickers?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. On the difficulty of the procedures involved in refugee family cases, is he as appalled as I am that legal aid has not been available for such cases since 2012? Does he agree that without legal aid assistance, applicants rarely know what evidence is required, and that such evidence is key to determining refusal of applications and appeals?
Yes. Legal aid is one of the questions to which I would like to hear an answer. It is so important to refugees and families.
We have gathered to discuss how to play our role on the international stage, be good citizens as a country and ensure that we do our part to save lives. As scripture tells us, let us not walk by on the other side. If the Government make the right changes to the immigration rules, we can play a role in reducing the number of dangerous journeys taken by children and—this is key—prevent needless and tragic deaths. We have a moral duty to allow children to apply for family reunification from some of the most dangerous parts of the world. We can and should work to ensure that we create a safe and legal route for vulnerable children to reach the shores of United Kingdom.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call Members, may I say that rather a large number of people are requesting to speak? I ask you to try to keep your remarks to five minutes. Then we will get everybody in, and I will not have to impose a time limit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing it. I want to speak in the debate on cancer strategy in the main Chamber, so I am grateful to you for calling me early, Dame Cheryl, and I hope you will forgive me for not being able to stay until the end.
I will not repeat the arguments already made, as I want to keep my remarks brief, but we are considering important issues. Refugees who have already been granted asylum in the United Kingdom do not have the right to offer siblings under 18 the opportunity to come to the UK. Many of us in this House—Members from all parties, I believe—think that that makes no sense. I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the points that my hon. Friend has made.
A 16 or 17-year-old trapped in Aleppo should have the right to come live with an older sibling who has already been granted asylum in Britain. The 2016 report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found that such applications are usually rejected out of hand, and that families must appeal or re-submit their applications for such cases. That kind of bureaucracy can be catastrophic for children left in war zones, trapped in conflict areas where they are at risk of barrel bombs, Daesh terror attacks and so on. Many children are being denied the right to basic family life. I put it to hon. Members that that does not chime with the values that we in this Parliament and this country uphold. The rules clearly need to be amended to make it easier for children to find a safe place to be reunited with their loved ones. We already know that in the chaos of a war zone, it is all the more likely that families will be split up or separated.
Another serious concern is the legal aid situation, which was alluded to by my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. I hope the Minister will give that careful thought. Legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunions since 2012, despite the fact that such cases are usually incredibly complex. Without legal aid, many applicants are left in the dark, not knowing what evidence is needed or how to collate it, so they have little or no chance of effecting family reunion. Surely it is time to reinstate legal aid.
I have a case in my constituency of two refugee brothers who are trying to get their other brother to the UK from a refugee camp in Turkey. They are having to rely on charity, so they are literally shaking buckets to raise enough money to get solicitors. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation we face in Britain, in which those children have to rely on charity, is disgraceful, and that the Government should step in to rectify that immediately?
I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful example—there are many others. The current situation, in which these families are denied access to justice, shames us. To deny children and families who have already faced immense risks and challenges the opportunity of family reunion and legal aid is an appalling indictment of the UK Government, and of us all as parliamentarians.
Legal aid, or its absence, has the power to change lives, for the better or for the worse. It has the potential to keep families together under the most trying circumstances. These restrictive rules do not just affect vulnerable people’s lives, but can make the huge difference between safety and security on one hand, and danger, war and risk to life and limb on the other. It is essential that the Minister looks at the matter.
The current situation forces many people trapped in war zones to take repeated risks to cross borders to reach British embassies. We have seen ample pictorial evidence of that. Surely it is in children’s best interests to be reunited with family members and to be given safe and legal routes to effect that family reunion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill suggested. The rules are most damaging to the most vulnerable people who are left behind in war zones, and to people who have been granted asylum but have to go through the heartbreak and trauma of not being reunited with family members.
I am proud that this country has a terrific record of helping refugees and people who come to our constituencies. Our record of welcoming refugee families and encouraging them to thrive goes back to before the second world war. Lord Dubs is a notable example.
If we take that a step further, when children are allowed to stop here and become teenagers, there is a problem about them getting further education, as I have said many times. This is part of a bigger problem.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point: delaying family reunion creates all sorts of other problems. People who arrive on our shores—who are often fleeing persecution—become valued members of our communities and often work in public service, like Lord Dubs. They set up small businesses and take on important roles in the community. They are a real asset in terms of adding value.
We must act to ensure that families can be reunited. Parliament and Government should not remain passive and allow refugee families to remain divided. I welcome my party’s recent announcement that puts the humanity of migrants and the importance of family life at the heart of our immigration policy, and our pledge to follow a humanistic approach to immigration policy. That is an expression of our very best values as a nation, and a fulfilment of our duties to the international community.
I pleased to say that I am a proud internationalist, but whether someone is an internationalist or not, they have an obligation to fight for a fairer system. I am proud that my party is championing refugees who are threatened by war, and that it is working to give vulnerable people a chance. I hope we can reform the rules, so that child refugees have a proper chance of being reunited with their families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this significant and timely debate and on his excellent speech. I also thank the many constituents who emailed me in the run up to this debate.
The global refugee crisis has displaced a record 65 million people—the entire population of the UK—from their homes; they are fleeing conflict, persecution and the effects of climate change. I am proud that Scotland has a long history of welcoming refugees from all over the world. Over the past two years, communities across Scotland have demonstrated their compassion and understanding as we welcomed more than 2,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom have settled in my constituency.
I will start positively. It is welcome progress that last month, the UK Government announced several new measures to help child refugees in Europe to come to the UK safely and much more quickly. Crucially, they extended the cut-off date for children who are eligible for transfer under the Dubs amendment, and we welcome that—it is something that the Scottish National party has long been calling for. It will ensure that many more lone children, stranded in appalling conditions, can reach the safety of the UK, but more can still be done.
As we sadly leave the EU, the UK will no longer be signed up to the Dublin III regulations, as we have heard, which are a key route for child refugees to reunite with family members elsewhere in Europe. There is a risk that children will have to rely solely on the UK’s far more restrictive immigration rules, which allow them to reunite only with their parents. That forces children to make the dangerous journey to Europe to try to reach their families. According to the International Organisation for Migration, in 2017 alone, more than 3,000 people died by drowning while trying to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, which should be a shame on all of us.
Post Brexit, the UK Government must commit to guaranteeing the same rights for children in Europe as currently exist under the Dublin III regulations. As the UK seeks to clarify its immigration rules, there is an opportunity to amend the UK’s restrictive and unfair refugee laws. The UK allows adult refugees to apply only for their spouses and dependent children under 18 to join them, which means that grandparents, parents, siblings and children above the age of 17 are prevented from coming to the UK to join them in starting a new life. Similarly, child refugees in the UK are not allowed to sponsor their parents to join them here. Families are simply being torn apart.
Additionally, legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunions since 2012, which makes it even more difficult for families to reunite, as other hon. Members have mentioned. A recent study by the Refugee Council and Oxfam found that reuniting refugee families gives them the best chance of living settled and fulfilling lives, but that denying them the chance to restore their family ties condemns them to a future of anguish and guilt.
That report coincides with the launch of the “Families Together” campaign, which calls for changes to the rules on refugee family reunions and has support from many non-governmental organisations. Those NGOs also back the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) to support the campaign. The Bill will return to Parliament on 16 March for Second Reading, which will undoubtedly give Parliament the chance to debate and address the flaws in the system, and to stop treating refugee family reunion as an immigration issue, rather than a protection issue. I hope that hon. Members across the political divide, and all hon. Members present, will attend the debate and join us on that. I also urge the Minister in the strongest terms to support the Bill.
I call on the Minister to give child refugees in the UK the right to sponsor their close family, and to expand the definition of who qualifies as family, so that young people who have turned 18 and elderly parents can live in safety with their families in the UK. The UK Government must stop thinking in terms of targets, quotas and rules, and start thinking of individuals and families, as we all do in our own lives. It is time to introduce some humanity into the system, so that these families can rebuild their lives together. Helping mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who have been torn apart, who have lost everything and who have experienced so much pain is simply the right thing to do.
Several hon. Members rose—
Before I call the next speaker, I exhort hon. Members to keep their speeches short—less than four minutes, if possible—so that I do not have to impose a time limit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I am delighted that this subject has come up for debate.
Imagine having to say goodbye to your child, or finding yourself suddenly separated from them without knowing what will happen to them, whether anyone will look after them or whether they will find the rest of your family, if you still have one. That is the situation facing parents among the 22 million refugees across the world. Families are fleeing war or persecution, looking for nothing more than safety and somewhere to live together in peace. Recently, I visited the Red Cross in Scotland and met families who came to this country looking for that very peace and sanctuary. They are now living together in Scotland and making a valuable contribution to their communities. However, we know that it is not the same for all families; for many, things have become impossible.
As a nation, we have been moved by photographs such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney)—pictures of children who have lost their lives or been orphaned because of the conflict in Syria. In the Holocaust Memorial Day debate, we heard moving stories from hon. Members about the flight of their families from Nazi persecution and the sanctuary they found here, yet our approach to reuniting refugee families and immigration procedures is one that I, for one, find depressing. What happened to our humanity, our open arms and our desire to give children the best start in life, regardless of geography?
As we have heard, the EU’s Dublin III regulation determines which EU state decides a person’s asylum application. In 2016, under the regulation’s criteria, 700 children were transferred from other European countries to join family members in the UK, but none of us knows what the situation will be after Brexit. We need the UK Government to improve the system to make it easier for children to find their families. They need to amend the immigration rules on refugee family reunions to make it easier for close family members—siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles—with refugee or humanitarian protection status to sponsor children in their family to join them in the UK. They also need to lessen the conditions that must be met by non-refugee sponsors, and help with legal aid for refugee family reunions.
All parents, especially single parents, know that horrible feeling that can creep up on us in the middle of the night. It hits us when someone in our family dies or when we sit watching the evening news and see pictures of families fleeing, children separated from their parents and empty, hopeless faces staring out of the screen. We think, “Who would look after my child if something happened?” I think about it even though my daughter is now an adult. When I do, I am grateful that I have a family, so there are people who will love and look after her. Surely that is what we all want for our children, and surely we should want our Government to do their best to provide that sanctuary for every child.
There are seven refugee families in Bedford as part of the five-year Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement programme, but Bedford has pledged to take 20. More needs to be done to reunite families, but complex family reunion rules and ineffective implementation are an obstacle to the most vulnerable children reaching the safety of their families. Unaccompanied migrant children are highly vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to their plight.
Some 95% of applicants waiting to join family members in the UK through refugee family reunion are women and children. Children have a right to family life and family unity under the European convention on human rights, but in the UK, there is no right for children to sponsor their parents to join them; child refugees can apply for family reunion only outside the immigration rules. The cost of accessing legal advice puts that outside the reach of too many people in desperate need. Refugee family reunion cases should be brought back within the scope of civil legal aid in England and Wales. Nobody decides to leave their family without good cause. These are matters of life and death.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs has criticised the logic that says that a child who has come from a place to which it is unsafe to return cannot bring their parents here, whereas an adult refugee is entitled to bring their children here. These children have fled war, persecution and torture, and have gone through terrible journeys to reach sanctuary in the UK. Surely it is not too much to ask that they be reunited quickly with their families. “Refugees Welcome?”, the brilliant report published by the all-party group on refugees, found that refugee children who are unable to be joined by even their closest relatives really struggle to integrate.
Nobody in this Chamber underestimates the scale of the problem. I am sure we all agree that there are no easy answers, but these children are in dire peril. The Government’s response to the crisis has been modest in comparison with that of other countries. It has been reactive, not proactive, and it simply is not good enough. Last month’s agreement with France to speed up Dublin III transfers is welcome, but children should not have to make dangerous journeys to reach their families in the first place. We must allow them safe legal passage, and the ability to apply for family reunification more easily from their country of origin, before we see more shocking pictures of dead children washed up on the beaches of Europe. I hope that we do not have to look back at those horrific pictures in 10 years’ time and wonder where our humanity was, and why we did not do more to help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) on his remarks. We are here because we want to uphold human rights, but we must also recognise that there are real hurdles and that the system needs to be unclogged. I trust that the Minister will apply practical common sense today.
Recently, children from Bootham School in York urged me to speak in this debate. One wrote:
“I can’t imagine a world without my little brother. He is 5 years old. He was called names and started crying, so I ran to him. I held him as he cried and told him I loved him. That incident was name calling, not having to flee your home and cross the sea on a tiny boat that may kill you and rip you from your family at the same time. Rachael please don’t let other people’s brothers cry alone. Please help loving families get back together.”
Children really get this agenda, and I trust that we will take it to heart, too. As another child said:
“All these people are just like us and they don’t deserve what has happened to them. They should have the right to live in safety and comfort like us and it is inhumane to deny them this.”
I have heard so many moving stories from children, because families are families the world over. It is so important that we understand the love, concern and need to be together that these families have, too. As another child said,
“some have seen things that no one should ever see, some have experienced things that none of us can imagine”—
first the trauma, then the separation. Things must change.
I have heard so many moving stories from constituents, too. They have described unnecessary delays, bureaucracy and requests going back and forth for completely irrelevant information. For instance, one constituent had to prove his religious faith when it had nothing to do with his case. Another had to produce samples of his DNA and his children’s DNA to prove that he was their father. Of course he was the father, but what about his dignity?
Immigration services have to up their game. We cannot have these delays, because every single delay increases the risk, particularly for young and vulnerable people. Today I heard from a constituent who is just 17 years old, whose brother is just 14 and is in Sicily, on his own and at risk. We need to be able to resolve these problems quickly and ensure that the wider family can be involved and that older children, who are incredibly vulnerable in this situation, are brought to a place of safety with other family members here in the UK.
Of course, as we have heard, legal aid need to be extended to address this complex area of law—nothing less will do. We need to fast-track this matter, to ensure that we address these people’s needs.
I also want to raise with the Minister the issue of families once they come to the UK, which I have heard about from constituents in York. One constituent’s children were in Germany, where they had been placed, and he just wanted to be in the same place as them. He did not mind whether they came to the UK or he went to Germany; he just wanted to be in the same place as them. It is really important that we facilitate that.
We also need to make sure that the needs of families are addressed here. I have heard a story of a constituent who had to live with his family of three children, two of whom were teenagers, in a single converted garage in York. The council did not get involved for two months and then said that the garage was unsuitable and moved them to a homeless hostel. That is unacceptable. There was also a family who had to share a room in a house, and all the facilities, with four other occupants. Such overcrowding is unacceptable. We are talking about people who are fragile and broken, and they should not be crushed by our local authorities. The Government must intervene and ensure that no further harm is done.
I am proud that York is the first human rights city in the UK and that we have great support from York City of Sanctuary and Refugee Action York. We must remember, as one child said to me:
“We are all humans and we all deserve to be with our living families, no matter who we are or where we have come from.”
This Government have a responsibility to act. I am sure the Minister has heard these stories today and that she will take action.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. There are still five Members who have indicated that they wish to speak before the Front Benchers, so I exhort you all again to try to keep your remarks to three minutes or so.
I will endeavour to be brief, particularly as I hope to speak in the next debate on child poverty in London.
I begin by referring to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On 4 September last year, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who is present for this debate, and the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), I went with Safe Passage UK to the Calais Jungle camp, or rather what remains of it. I had been there once before, at the very beginning of 2016, when it was in full swing, as it were. Although there are substantially fewer refugees there now, because of the demolition and the behaviour of the French authorities, the conditions are substantially worse, particularly for the hundreds of young people who are there. That is partly because of the violence being shown to them and partly because any recourse to the authorities has been moved hundreds of kilometres away, so that even those who have the right to apply under Dublin III are unable to do so. Of course, that means that there is far more risk of them risking very dangerous ways to reach the UK, such as under lorries or on the rail tracks.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the danger to young people who are in limbo in camps such as Calais is not just physical danger but the danger of their being recruited into crime, drug-taking and in some cases even prostitution?
I absolutely agree. I feel for all the refugees in that situation, but particularly for children and those who have a legal right—whether they are Dubs children or Dublin III children—to be in the UK. Frankly, it is shameful that the Government did not honour their promise to Lord Dubs. Lord Dubs is a constituent of mine and last month I went with him to the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration here in Westminster—of course, he came to the UK on the Kindertransport—and we met other survivors. I think that he is puzzled, as well as horrified, that we are unable to show to children who are being persecuted abroad now the charity that we showed in much more difficult times in the 1930s.
I will make two specific points. When we returned from that most recent trip to Calais, I asked the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union what would happen if we leave the EU and the Dublin III regulations fall away. I asked him what the Government intend to replace them with, whether they would replicate them in the immigration rules, and whether they would apply—somewhat anomalously—just to the EU27 countries or more generally. I received what I thought was quite a helpful response at the time, which was 5 September last year. We know that the immigration Bill is delayed, but the Secretary of State said that that issue is
“precisely the sort of thing that that Bill should address. A more general point I made to the European Commission negotiators…is that a legal requirement is not the only reason for doing things. We are a country with a strong tradition of tolerance and generosity, and if anything, I expect that to grow after we leave, not diminish.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 64.]
Some months on, I wonder whether the Minister for Immigration is able to update us today on the Government’s current thinking on that specific issue. In other words, will there be what I think all Members taking part in this debate would like to see, which is an end to anomalies where there are clearly people in this country who can care for children but who are not their parents? They might be their grandparents, uncles or aunts. A very good example is given in the case studies provided to us by the NGOs: despite being a refugee herself, a grandmother is able to be a sponsor but does not have the necessary finances, and there is an uncle who is a British citizen and does have the necessary finances, but so many hoops have to be jumped through in order to achieve a resolution.
I will conclude by repeating what a number of colleagues have said about legal aid. I had the dubious privilege of leading for the Opposition on the Committee considering the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which stripped out so much of our legal aid system. The LASPO review is going on as we speak and is due to report soon. I wish that the whole of that iniquitous Act could be swept away and that we could go back to there being an entitlement to legal aid, which was then qualified, rather than simply having a very frugal approach of giving legal aid in only a few cases. I am sure that this Government are not going to do that, but I have some hope that they will genuinely review LASPO and correct some anomalies—and this issue is clearly an anomaly.
The people we are talking about cannot use the legal system, because it is complex and, as has been said many times by senior members of the judiciary, simply having the right to go to court is not enough unless someone has the ability to do so as well, and in many cases that means having a lawyer.
Family bonds are one of the things that give our lives meaning. My family are the most important people in my life and I do not know what I would do without them, and I am delighted that I also have a new niece or nephew on the way. I know that every hon. Member present feels exactly the same way about their family. Yet there are some people out in the world who, although they share those feelings too, are not able to be with their families today. The sad reality is that far too many people in this world are stranded by war, oppressed by circumstances or persecuted either for what they believe or for who they are. It is no wonder that those people choose to flee such conditions and seek a better life, but the horrific side-effect is that families are torn apart.
I know what I would do in those circumstances: I would do anything to ensure that my children were safe—and yes, that would mean maybe even sending them to a different country. I would want the Government of that country to show some humanity and some compassion, and allow us to be reunited. If hon. Members agree that that is what they would do, too, why is it not what we would want for other people?
I am delighted that in Hull there are people who care enough about those in need to roll up their sleeves and volunteer to help refugees who have come to this country. In particular, I am thinking about organisations such as Hull Help for Refugees and Open Doors Hull, which I visited before Christmas. Both organisations do amazing work. However, for all the fantastic work those brilliant organisations do, it is the Government and the Government alone who can extend the rights of reunification so that child refugees can bring their parents to the UK and resume their family life.
I will end by quoting a poem, “Human Family”, by one of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou:
“The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white…
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.”
If that is true and if in their situation we too would like to be reunited with our children, then we as Members of Parliament must act to give those who are currently refugees the rights that we ourselves would like, because we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. This is the biggest humanitarian crisis on record, and the response to that challenge has to meet the severity of the situation in the times in which we live. When a family decides to flee a country because of danger to life, the process is neither simple nor straightforward. During that period of chaotic turmoil, lives are turned upside down and children are often separated from their parents, leaving them in a vulnerable position that no child should be in.
The UK Government’s approach thus far to family reunification is overly complex and bureaucratic, and it keeps families apart. I agree with Refugee Action that refugee family reunion rules should be expanded to cover all relationships where the applicants are dependent on the sponsor. In times of war, it is sadly to be expected that when the parents of a family die, the oldest sibling will be responsible for looking after their younger sisters and brothers, but the restrictive UK approach prevents the oldest sibling from being covered by the refugee family reunion rules. The Government may argue that they have immigration rules that may help, but they fail to mention that the system is costly, complex and overly bureaucratic—a hurdle that is far too great for many refugees to overcome. The financial requirements are prohibitive and were made worse by the Tories removing legal aid for family reunion applications back in 2013.
The private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) would reintroduce legal aid for those looking to bring their families together. That is not just morally right; it is an absolute moral imperative. The Scottish Government recognise that for refugees, leaving home is not a choice but a necessity to protect them from violence and death. Our recently published “New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy”, which has been endorsed by the UN, sets out how Scotland can continue to help refuges to rebuild their lives. However, our attempts are hampered when families are not allowed to be reunited.
This issue unites the Scottish National party and Labour in Scotland, and I am very proud that my local authority, under both parties, has welcomed 28 Syrian families to Renfrewshire. Kassem Ayash, his wife Hiba and their young daughter Hajar arrived in Paisley in late 2015 from a camp in Jordan, and I am pleased to say that they have since had a son, Abdulraham, born in Scotland. However, Kassem’s mother and father and seven siblings are all still in Jordan, and he is not sure he will ever see them again. He said:
“They are all still there so far away. We miss them very much.”
Speaking with tears in his eyes, Kassem said the welcome he and his family received in Paisley was beyond anything he could have hoped for. He said:
“Someone from the council said to me, ‘If I could change the weather for you, I would.’”
I grant that the weather is not grand. He went on:
“That sentence was enough, that said it all to me…The welcome from everyone has been amazing. Everyone has been so kind and understanding. We have seen no discrimination from anyone, just love and understanding.”
We can and must do better. In a few weeks’ time, we can put our warm words into action. My hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill is a fantastic opportunity to ensure we help meet the calls made on us as a result of the biggest humanitarian crisis. All we have to do is turn up and vote on 16 March.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this debate, and I thank my colleagues for their remarks. The migration crisis is a great test of our values as a nation. It shines a light on the actions, not the words, of our politicians. Britain has much to be proud of in the realm of international development, but when it comes to unaccompanied child refugees, we are being found wanting. It is not an immigration issue; it is an issue of our shared humanity. At the moment, we are not at our best, and we need to be.
The changes to the immigration rules, particularly those affecting unaccompanied child refugees, need to be accelerated. The approach is not working. I welcome the changes announced in the Sandhurst treaty, but since that treaty was signed, how many more children have been brought forward? How much more money and funding has been allocated to supporting these unaccompanied child refugees? Will the Minister reassure us—so many people out there do not know the answer to this—on whether unaccompanied child refugees are included in the immigration targets? We should ensure that young people fleeing conflict and poverty are not counted for political purposes, or for the purposes of an immigration target; that would send the strong message from this House that those young people matter as individuals, not as a statistic.
I was pleased to join my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) in Calais. I saw the shocking conditions those young people were in. I want to know that each and every time we stand up, we move a little closer to improving the lives of those kids. Some of the images I saw and stories I heard still haunt me. A stat from UNICEF shows that a majority of those young people were sexually abused on their way to Calais. That still really angers me. What additional help are we giving to those children whom we are accepting to deal with the sexual assaults and abuse they have suffered en route to the UK?
Plymouth has a fine reputation for welcoming refugees. Students and Refugees Together is a superb example of how open and welcoming we are as a city, but there is still so much more we need to do as a country. I would be grateful if the Minister continued to fight the case within Government, because we need to send a message to our entire nation that these young unaccompanied refugees are not drains on the state. They are part of our shared humanity, and we have a collective responsibility to look after them.
I thank Members for their forbearance, because I can now get the last speaker on my list in.
Images from a terrible war that has been going on for years haunt us daily. Families suffer on an unimaginable scale. We sit in front of our TV screens feeling helpless, but we actually can do something about these things, especially here in Westminster. We can help families escape this horror. To do that, we must change our wrongheaded immigration rules. I welcome this timely debate, which is not just about rebuilding lives, but ultimately saving them. I am sorry I cannot be in Westminster on 16 March.
It makes no sense that under immigration laws, children alone in the UK have no right to be reunited with even their closest family members, unlike adult refugees. If we allow children refugee status in the UK, we have accepted that it is too dangerous for them to return home. Should they never see their loved ones again? Are we condemning their families to face daily threats to their lives, while their children risk becoming orphans? These children have already been through enough, and it is not for us to punish them further. Being reunited with their family is surely the best way for them to rebuild their life. Not reuniting them is cruel, and means they will become increasingly vulnerable in the UK.
The Government’s response so far has been absurd. They say that changing the rules would create a perverse incentive to encourage children to leave their families and risk hazardous journeys to the UK. That is astonishing. We are not talking about a nice holiday trip across the Mediterranean; we are talking about escaping grave danger. The Government’s obsession with cutting immigration is stopping us from responding as human beings and being compassionate. Helping refugees is the right thing to do.
The rules of family reunion for those given refugee status are incredibly complex, and the obstacles to evidencing a family link when that family has been torn apart due to conflict can be impossible to overcome. The problems are often multiplied by language barriers. The fact that there is little legal aid means that these people struggle to rebuild their lives.
I grew up in Germany—my country of origin—under an immense feeling of guilt at what the country had inflicted on the rest of the world. Germany has taken in more than 1 million Syrian refugees. That is not as some form of redemption, but because it is a changed country. Britain, my country of choice, has a proud tradition of being a sanctuary for those who are persecuted. Let us not take the reverse direction. Let us remember our values. We should be compassionate and able to look refugee families in the eye, knowing that we have done the right thing.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl, for chairing today’s debate so astutely, so we could hear so many powerful and thoughtful speeches. I pay a warm tribute to the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for introducing the debate, for his powerful advocacy on the issue, and for securing such an amazing turnout. I emphasise that on Friday 16 March we have a significant opportunity to change the rules on family reunion and legal aid for family reunion applications. If as many hon. Members as possible could put that date in their diary, that would be greatly appreciated.
It is good to debate this important issue again; it must be the third or fourth time we have debated it in the last couple of years, which illustrates the strength of feeling among hon. Members and their discontent with the rules. That discontent essentially falls into two parts: first, discontent about the difficulties that families face in going through with a family reunion, even when people qualify under the rules; and secondly, discontent about the rules being drawn too tightly.
Before I touch on each of those aspects, it is important to recall how important family reunion is. It is important that people applying to come here can be reunited with family members, because very often that provides a safe, legal route to a place of safety—a route that would not otherwise exist. It is also vital for the family members who are here already. Their lives can be made unbearable, as hon. Members have attested, and their integration can be made much more difficult by separation from, and the suffering of, their loved ones who are unable to join them here.
Family reunion helps to achieve the aim, which I think we in this Chamber all share, of reducing the number of dangerous journeys that have to be made. It also undermines the people smugglers’ business model. After all, which people are most likely to do anything open to them—to move heaven and earth—to get to the UK? People in dangerous or difficult situations who have a reason to be here in the form of family. If there is no safe, legal route, people with family in the UK will be the most likely to turn to the people traffickers.
I turn to the first issue that I outlined: the procedures for those who are fortunate enough to qualify. As I will show, the requirements can be complex, and it is not straightforward for a person to prove that they meet them, as the Red Cross explained in an excellent report. Even proving what would seem a very simple part of the rules, such as two people’s relationship, is sometimes not easy. In the case of children, we instinctively think of a birth certificate, but what if someone is from, say, Eritrea? How do the UK Government form a view on whether to give such documents evidential weight? Will we need an expert report on the authenticity of that birth certificate? Should we get a DNA test? What if the child is adopted or is a stepchild? All that is without even thinking about language and cultural barriers, never mind levels of education.
I used to be an immigration solicitor, and had the fortune to assist a number of families with such applications. It was always clear as day to me that legal aid to provide that advice was appropriate. I am glad that it is still available in Scotland for family reunion applications; it should be available in the rest of the United Kingdom, given how important and difficult these issues are.
Turning to the various rules that apply to children seeking to be reunited here, part 11 of the immigration rules allows for pre-flight children who are under 18 to obtain refugee family reunion with parents here. It is a solid enough starting point, but even here there are some questions. For example, why should a 17-year-old who moved out of the family house to go and study, just months before his family fled, be excluded from the scope of the rules? Much more fundamentally, why draw the line at 18? Everyone here would be horrified to be told that their 18-year-old had to be left behind, while their 15 and 17-year-old siblings were able to come to the United Kingdom. A more generous option would, of course, be to make the provision available for those up to the age of 21 or 25, or we could apply a test of whether the adult child was still part of the household, and/or a dependent. There are different perspectives, but unfortunately, again, UK immigration rules seem to take one of the most restrictive options possible.
If someone does not qualify under the general family reunion rules, they look to part 8 of the immigration rules, where there are alternatives for children. Here is probably where we find some of the greatest injustices. For children seeking to join other relatives, such as siblings or uncles and aunts, the tests are infinitely more difficult. They must prove not just their relationship, but
“serious and compelling family or other considerations which make exclusion of the child undesirable”.
Crucially, the sponsor must also be able to prove an ability to maintain and accommodate the child without recourse to public funds.
Hon. Members will all have had—some spoke about this—new refugees at their surgeries. An example would be a Somali couple, who have been here just a few months with younger teenage children. They may be making good attempts to integrate and learn English, but may be hindered by the distress of separation from a niece or sister who they fear for and believe is vulnerable without other family support. The idea that they will be able to meet all those financial tests so that their sister or niece can arrive here is ridiculous.
If there are serious and compelling considerations that make exclusion of a child undesirable—itself a tough test—surely in no circumstances should there be an additional financial test. That test can force families into horrible choices. What if the family has enough financial resources or accommodation to meet the tests in relation to one child, but not a second? Just this morning, I heard of a family forced to make such a horrendous decision. They could pick one child, but not both; otherwise, the financial and accommodation tests would not be met.
Injustice is served not only to kids seeking to join relatives other than their parents, but to adult children seeking to join their parents. Those 18 and 19-year-old kids have to meet some even more fiendishly challenging legal tests: they have to show that they are in not “exceptional compassionate circumstances”, but “the most exceptional compassionate circumstances”. Think about a 19-year-old daughter living alone in a refugee camp in Kenya. Today, those are hardly exceptional circumstances, never mind the most exceptional, but I think most people in the Chamber would think that she should qualify for family reunion. How many of us could honestly say that if we were in the position of the Somali couple to whom I referred, we would not be tempted to resort to the people smugglers, if that was the only route by which we could get our daughter to the United Kingdom? Government policy is, in essence, in danger of driving parents to make those decisions.
The same maintenance and accommodation requirements risk an even more horrendous situation. Imagine that a 19-year-old in a refugee camp has been seriously harmed. How can it be that we might end up with a decision that says, “I acknowledge that you are living alone in the most exceptional compassionate circumstances, but we’re still not going to let you in, because you aren’t earning enough money yet to meet the financial thresholds”? That would be an incredible injustice.
Families are left to make an application to the entry clearance officer outside the rules, desperately hoping that he or she will exercise discretion and allow that 19-year-old in anyway. The Government say that this is the answer to the problem, but there were only 21 cases in 2015 and 49 in 2016 where such applications were successful. In the circumstances we face, those are worryingly low numbers. If the rules are complex, the guidance on how to exercise discretion, which again requires exceptional circumstances and recognises that grants will be rare, is even more so. We also have to acknowledge that those successful in applications outside the rules will be granted much more restrictive rights than if they had been successful under the rules.
If there were time, I would also criticise the unfairness towards refugees who have been granted UK citizenship and are deprived of family reunion rights. I could also criticise rules on post-flight children, which are restrictive as well. I join other Members in criticising the intransigence of the Government in refusing to allow refugee children who are here to sponsor their parents to come here, a situation that the Home Affairs Committee has described as “perverse”. The Government’s argument that it would create a pull factor is not based on any evidence, and is horrendously unethical. At the end of the day, we need to do what is just and fair. The idea that we should treat people—children in this case—unfairly simply to disincentivise other people, including children, from seeking asylum in our country is pretty outrageous.
I hope that the Minister is listening to the arguments that have been powerfully made by hon. Members from across the House. If not, I hope that hon. Members will join us on Friday 16 March in ensuring that progressive change is made to the UK’s family reunion rules.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for securing today’s debate and for his excellent speech. There have been many great contributions this afternoon, so I will not name any hon. Members, but simply thank them all for enriching the debate.
At the moment, unaccompanied children who have been granted refugee status do not have the right to sponsor their family members to join them. We are one of the few countries in Europe with that policy. Adult refugees can be joined only by their spouse or partner and dependent children under 18. That means that they cannot bring siblings, parents, aunts or uncles.
In her speech yesterday, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary announced our policy on family reunion. Under a Labour Government, if a child has been granted the right to be here, so will their parents or carers. If they have been brought up by carers or parents with a right to be here, they will also have that right, even after they turn 18. That will allow child refugees to be reunited with their families, and will end the awful practice of children who have spent their childhood and adolescence in the UK being deported at the age of 18 to countries that they often know nothing about, and with which they have no affinity. I will make the positive argument that family reunion promotes integration, and then refute the Government’s false claim that this policy will act as a pull factor.
Separation from family members is a real barrier to integration. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says:
“there is a direct link between family reunification, mental health and successful integration.”
The first thing that many migrants say when they are granted status is, “How do I bring my family?” That can lead to spending enormous amounts of money and effort in attempting to bring family members here, even when that is impossible under the immigration rules.
Samba is a refugee who has been in contact with the Refugee Council. She is a mother from central Africa who has been resettled in the UK with two of her children, but separated from her daughter and grandchildren. She sent every bit of money she had to her family and lived in poverty. Many refugees are unable to focus on taking steps to integrate because of worry about family members and feelings of guilt.
One refugee, Mwanza, described to the Refugee Council going to English language classes and taking nothing in, because of the worry about his wife and daughter, who are still in a refugee camp in central Africa. Mwanza’s difficulty in English classes affected his ability not only to integrate, but to support his family, as English is essential for finding employment.
Integration is already a real challenge for refugee children coming to the UK, and separation from their families makes it much harder. On the other hand, when refugees, especially children, are reunited with family members, that accelerates integration, both for the new arrivals and for family members already in the UK.
The Government’s reason for not doing more to reunite refugee families in the UK has been that they do not want to create a pull factor that encourages unaccompanied children to make dangerous journeys to the UK. We reject that argument completely, for two reasons. First, it fundamentally misunderstands the causes of migration flows. People do not leave their families and take dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and Europe, with all the associated risks, because of the welfare benefits of the UK. Apart from anything, many refugees arrive with a misunderstanding of our refugee system. Push factors on migrants far outweigh any other issue. So long as there is war, violence, persecution and conflict, people will be forced to flee their homes.
Secondly, a lack of legal routes to resettlement actually encourages people to make dangerous journeys. Legal schemes disrupt the activities of people traffickers, rather than encourage them. Where legal routes are limited, where children lose faith in systems and trust in officials, they turn to people traffickers or smugglers, who exploit them.
Omar has been granted refugee status in the UK after fleeing Syria. His brother is 17 years old and is in danger of being forcibly recruited into the army. The rules on refugee family reunion do not allow Omar to sponsor his brother, so he is forced to explore the possibility of helping his brother to make the dangerous journey to Europe. Once Khaled arrived in Europe, he would be able to ask for his case to be transferred to the UK under the Dublin III regulations. They would both rather avoid a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, but without a legal route, they have no other option.
It is clear that extending family reunion rules is in the interests of refugees and society as a whole. Labour promotes a fair, managed migration system that honours our humanitarian obligations. We support the family reunification Bill that will come before the House on 16 March. We want to allow refugees to settle, integrate and live fulfilling lives in the UK, and to avoid the perverse situation where children who have close family in danger abroad cannot be reunited with them, and are brought up instead in our care system.
Before I call the Minister, it might be helpful for her to know that the mover of the debate has indicated that he would like a couple of minutes at the end to wind up.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this debate and I reassure him I will certainly leave him a couple of minutes at the end.
I start by thanking everyone here today who has contributed with thought-provoking and compassionate contributions. I have listened carefully to the many accounts of how important it has been for refugees in Members’ own constituencies to have their family members join them, to support their wellbeing and their integration into society. Like other Front-Bench spokespeople, I will not pick out individual contributions at length as I am conscious that I am very short on time, but I would reassure hon. Members that during the past five weeks or so that I have been in this role, I have taken the time to meet representatives from charities in my own constituency and nationally. I was particularly moved to meet Lana and Yameena, two Southampton University students. Lana had very specific experience of refugees when she was living in France and her family had welcomed a number of young refugees into her home. She was very clear to describe them to me as her brothers.
I assure the House that we are listening to the concerns about refugee family reunion. I know from my early discussions with non-governmental organisations and international organisations the importance placed on the issue, and that has been reinforced during our debate today. They are also issues my predecessor discussed on many occasions with NGOs, in the context of our wider asylum and resettlement strategy. I look forward to continuing that important work.
Several colleagues have focused on the question of extending the family reunion criteria, which is the subject of Baroness Hamwee’s private Member’s Bill and of the private Member’s Bill from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)—if the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) can be nervous about the pronunciation of that, he can probably imagine how I feel—which was introduced earlier this week and is due to come before this House for Second Reading on 16 March.
The Government’s policy objective for refugee family reunion remains to ensure that we are able to bring together pre-flight families and dependents who are in precarious or compelling circumstances. We must ensure that our policies support those who need our protection who cannot remain in their country or region of origin. I would therefore ask hon. Members to reflect on the policy objective of the private Member’s Bill, because the proposals, as currently drafted, would go far beyond that. It could lead to the policy being used by significantly more people who have no protection needs or who are not necessarily in precarious positions.
The Government strongly supports the principle of family unity and we have a comprehensive approach to refugee family reunion set out in the immigration rules and our family reunion policy. Our starting point is that family reunion is a matter for immigration rules and policy, rather than primary legislation. Many hon. Members have highlighted that the family reunion rules provide only for immediate family members of refugees, but the immigration rules and resettlement schemes provide for extended family members to join their family here, if they are in the most precarious and dangerous circumstances.
The Minister is right to highlight that there are other routes available to different family members, but will she comment on the maintenance and accommodation test? Even if an applicant can show that they are living in the most compelling compassionate circumstances, that application could still be rejected because the sponsor in the United Kingdom does not meet a certain financial or accommodation threshold. Surely that is an unjust way to go about things.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that with me. That is one of the points that I will take away with me from today’s debate.
We provide for British citizens to sponsor family members, there is provision to grant visas outside the rules in exceptional cases, and the mandate refugee scheme enables those recognised by the UNHCR as refugees to join close family members here in the UK.
I have noted the concerns raised today that so-called family reunification under the Dublin regulations may no longer be available post-Brexit. However, Dublin does not confer immigration status simply because an individual has a family member in the UK. It is a mechanism for deciding the member state responsible for considering an asylum claim. It is for those seeking asylum and not those granted refugee status.
Having said that I was not going to pick up particular points, I would like to pick up on those made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who raised the Sandhurst treaty. Many Members have referenced Dublin III and the Dubs scheme. I was fortunate in 2015-16 to be a member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe with Alf Dubs—he insisted that I call him Alf at all times, so I apologise if I refer to him incorrectly today. Travelling abroad with Lord Dubs was an incredibly instructive experience. The Sandhurst treaty was signed very soon after I came into this role—I think within the first two weeks.
I reassure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport that we have committed £3.6 million to enable us to strengthen our co-operation with France on the operation of the Dublin regulation and the development fund, and to work with it to identify projects that support genuine claims through the Dublin process. A significant part of the Sandhurst treaty was about looking at the whole route for refugees. It is crucially important that we do not look at it in isolation either in the middle east and north Africa region or in Calais. We have to look at the entire journey that individuals make.
On the 480 children that will be accepted under Dubs—the number was at 220 when I came into this role—we are determined to ensure that, by changing the date and working closely with Greece and Italy, we fulfil that requirement. I regard it to be an absolute priority to take the 480 young people we have committed to.
Anyone transferred under the Dublin regulation will be expected to leave the UK if they are found not to need protection. Our family reunion rules will continue to enable immediate family members to reunite with their loved ones in the UK safely, regardless of the country in which they are based.
Pretty much every hon. Member raised legal aid and the cost of legal representation for family reunion cases. On 30 October, the Lord Chancellor announced the start of a review of legal aid reforms, which will include an assessment of the changes to the scope of legal aid for immigration cases, and will report later this year. Although family reunion cases generally do not fall within the scope of the legal aid scheme, exceptional case funding may be made available where it is legally required. We are committed to providing clear guidance and application forms to support applicants through the family reunion process, and are working with key partners such as the British Red Cross and UNICEF to improve the process for considering family reunion applications.
It is vital that our focus remains on those most in need of our protection—particularly those fleeing conflict. The Government have invested significantly in supporting the most vulnerable refugees through our resettlement programmes, which offer safe and legal routes to protection and are designed to keep families together. By 2020, we will have resettled 20,000 refugees from Syria. We announced this week that we are at the halfway point, so 10,000 vulnerable families have been resettled in this country and a further 3,000 children and families have been resettled from the wider MENA region. Last year, we provided 6,212 people with protection under all our resettlement schemes. Over the past five years we have issued 24,700 family reunion visas, and since 2010 we have provided 49,830 people with protection status in the UK—they are entitled to apply for their qualifying members to join them.
I believe that our comprehensive approach to refugee family reunion already caters for the types of case that hon. Members are concerned about and provides safe and legal routes for families to reunite here. However, we need to concentrate our efforts on ensuring that our existing resettlement schemes are used to full effect, and that the current rules work properly and effectively. In that way, we will continue to help those who need it most.
I have already met representatives from UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I thank the Refugee Council for sending me the report “Safe but Not Settled”, which looks at how the separation of refugees in the UK from their family members affects their successful integration into their new life in the UK. I look forward to further meetings with representatives of the Refugee Council, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organisations to discuss the important issue of family reunion in the coming weeks.
I therefore ask hon. Members from both sides of the House and representatives of NGOs to continue working with the Government to build on the existing family reunion policy and process to make our resettlement schemes and immigration rules work in the most effective way. In that way, we can ensure that more families are reunited as quickly, legally and safely as possible.
I thank all colleagues who attended and spoke this afternoon. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) came in late, but he has made a contribution to this debate.
Our obligation to the poorest and most vulnerable in the world was highlighted today in some powerful speeches. We heard some very powerful words, such as “humanity” and “human rights”, and my colleagues made some important contributions. I thank them all for that. I asked the Minister a set of clear questions, and I shall be following them up. I was not fully satisfied with her answers—particularly on legal aid. The questions were all perfectly acceptable and should be answered positively not just with words but with actions.
I look forward to working with all colleagues over the coming months. I will attend the debate on 16 March, and I will continue to help and support people. I will not walk on the other side of the road; I will walk on the side of humanity. There should not be a political divide. I am disappointed that there are some empty chairs here, but I respect the fact that it is Thursday afternoon and people have other places to get to.
I came to this House to change society. Since I was a child, I have been looking for world peace. That is the answer: world peace. It is not going to happen tomorrow. All I ask is that, if any child needs a hand to reach out to, we should offer that helping hand. Do not do it for me: let us remember Alan Kurdi.
This has been an excellent debate, and I thank you all for your forbearance. We have managed to get all speakers in in very good time, so you are all to be congratulated. This was a deeply emotional, very significant debate on the future of children.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reunion for refugee children with family in the UK.