I beg to move,
That this House notes that 20 June is World Refugee Day; further notes that, with record levels of global displacement across the world, many refugee families have been separated by war and persecution; welcomes that in 2018 the UK granted 5,806 family reunion visas to partners and children of refugees in the UK; and calls on the Government to introduce reforms to family reunion rules to ensure that the close relatives of all refugees in the UK have safe and legal pathways to reunite with their families in the UK.
Much has been happening in and around the House of Commons, and in many other places, to mark World Refugee Day and Loneliness Awareness Week. There has been a lack of progress on the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, which should have been passed by the House of Commons under this Government.
The idea of a “pull factor” was one of the hares set running on Second Reading on 16 March 2018, and the Bill has not progressed much further. Lord Kerr addressed that in the House of Lords:
“Is it really plausible that, say in Idlib—
or, indeed, any city in the world—
“if it is under siege in six weeks’ time, the family sits around the dining table, pick a child and tell it that it must set off across the battle lines and the Mediterranean, to try to get into England so that it can then pull the family into England? That is implausible. We are talking about refugee reunion and about children. We really must stop talking about this wildly implausible pull factor. They come here to escape being killed; they do not come here in order to become a magnet for the rest of the family.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2018; Vol. 791, c. 372.]
If we bear that in mind in this debate, and in each and every other debate on refugees, we will do ourselves and, indeed, refugees a great service by showing them the respect they deserve for what they have been through.
It would be worth while, as I did on Second Reading, to begin by talking about the idea of refugees. I began that debate by talking about Yohannes, a young welder from Eritrea living in Canterbury. Last month, I came across an article in The Independent headlined, “Germany’s refugee intake begins to boost economy as settlers soothe country’s worker shortage”. I re-emphasise that today’s refugee is tomorrow’s worker contributing to the economy.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has been a powerful champion and advocate, and I hope that, at the end, the Government will allow time for his Bill to proceed. Once families are reunited under his proposals, it is important that they contribute properly to the economy. Does he agree that the Government must move forward on extending the right to work to asylum seekers?
My hon. Friend makes the case well. We should treat asylum seekers as normally as possible. We often talk about spectrums nowadays, and there is perhaps an argument that we are all on a spectrum of refugees, asylum seekers and movers. A person who moves from one town to another for work is a person on the move. We have various words to grade that movement.
I have been cautioned about making the comparison because, in a way, it minimises or downplays the trauma some people have been through, but on the other hand it is a way of partially seeing ourselves in other people’s shoes. We are not quite escaping war and the threat of being killed, but moving for economic circumstances is a normal thing to do. The more we treat the situation as normal, as my hon. Friend clearly said, the better.
Germany is fairly normal. The article in The Independent says:
“In his native Syria, Mohammed Kassim worked as an electrician. But having learned the trade informally, he lacked the credentials to show for it. Now, in his adopted homeland, the 30-year-old is receiving the training he never had and he is getting paid to do it by a company dangling the promise of a job that could vault him from struggling refugee to member of the German middle class.”
That is the sort of story we want to hear, four years after many people came to Germany. Of course, it is not all sweetness and light. A number of those people are still unemployed, but that is changing. The article continues:
“But after spending billions of euros to accommodate the newcomers, Germany is beginning to reap some gains.”
The German economy is benefiting from the presence of more people, who happen to be refugees.
I will set out the global context. There are about 24 million refugees worldwide, and every day some 44,000 people are forced to flee their home as a result of conflict and persecution. To give some idea, 44,000 people would probably fill Ibrox and Parkhead in the Scottish premier league, and would certainly fill the average stadium in the English premiership. That is a lot of people who are forced to move every day, and this movement of people within and across borders is creating significant policy challenges for Governments across the world and is linked to enormous humanitarian needs.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the definition. A person seeking asylum has normally left their own country due to war, persecution or violence and has requested sanctuary in another country, and their application to receive legal protection has yet to be processed. Importantly, refugees are at the next stage—this is where my Bill comes in. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his country and has been recognised as having a well-founded fear of persecution. They are not only fleeing as an asylum seeker, but this has now been accepted by others. The reason for persecution could be race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, as we recently saw in Myanmar. A refugee has been granted special legal protection on that basis. War and ethnic, tribal or religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their country. It is worth bearing that in mind.
In previous debates, we have drawn attention to refugee children and the fact that they cannot sponsor a relative to come over—this is unlike what happens in other countries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is deplorable and adds to the trauma these children are already facing?
The hon. Lady makes a point that is central to this speech and to the reason behind today’s debate.
I agree with the hon. Lady on what she said. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the current situation has been exacerbated by the UK’s decision to opt out of applying article 10 of the EU directive on family reunion, which would have allowed unaccompanied children to act as sponsors for their family members?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am glad I have taken both interventions together, because they overlap neatly. This perhaps dovetails into something else, which is that the UK opted out of some EU directives; if only Scotland could opt out of some UK directives. We will park that one there, but it does show that the idea of Brexit—[Interruption.] We had better park that one as well. The hon. Lady and hon. Gentleman got it right, as did the British Red Cross policy briefing for this debate.
The Red Cross recommendations are:
“Give adult refugees the right to sponsor their parents, siblings and children up to the age of 25 to join them in the UK under family reunification rules.”
That is normal in other places in Europe—places that have not opted out. It is the norm. The second recommendation is:
“Give child refugees the right to sponsor their parents as well as any siblings up to the age of 25 to join them in the UK under family reunification rules.”
The third recommendation is:
“Reintroduce legal aid for family reunion applications.”
Members will not be surprised to learn that those recommendations mirror closely, if not precisely, what my Bill set out to do. I refer to the Bill that has been choked by the Government in this House of Commons, despite the fact that it has had laudable and welcome support from Members from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Change UK, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, and from luminaries among the Conservative Back Benchers. All those voices from across the political spectrum were supporting the Bill.
I just want to say one thing to the Government and to colleagues across this House, as I know you want me to speak for only 12 to 15 minutes, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I should have mentioned that the Democratic Unionist party is supporting my Bill. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is here, so thank goodness I remembered before I was reminded; otherwise, we might have had an Adjournment debate on the issue. The Bill has been supported across the House, and the plea I make to colleagues is that if the Government do not move on this now—there will be reshuffles, so there will be different personnel at the Home Office and things might move on a bit better—whoever else comes out at the beginning of the ballot in the next Parliament should be willing and open to move forward on this Bill, because it is shameful that the Government have not moved with this. Time in politics is short and time in government is even shorter, and things could have been done that have not happened. The Government could have looked back proudly had they reacted and done this, but I hope, and warn them, that this will not be the only time; I expect this to come forward again.
The hon. Gentleman is commendably keeping to time, and I shall be brief. One thing that the Government could do, in advance of whatever attitude they take to his Bill, is recognise that Syrians whom many of our communities have accepted are desperate to bring their families in. Does he agree that it would be right and proper if the Government were to encourage that, rather than put hurdles in these people’s way?
Absolutely; people would be able to function far better. One thing that struck me from speaking to refugees—these things do not come through in briefing papers so clearly—is the difficulty they have sleeping at night because of worry. If someone is waking up at night worrying about family members, that must have an impact on the way they can conduct, advance and live the rest of their life. That must be a problem, so I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, and I am glad he has raised that issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one other barrier the Government must address is the high cost of citizenship applications, particularly for child refugees, who might have been here for many years? It costs the Government £300 to process a citizenship application, but they charge children, refugees, more than £1,200 to process one. This is profiteering; the Government make more than £2 million a week on these applications. That is one area where the Government could make the process of welcoming people to our country much better.
The hon. Gentleman presents the point perfectly, and well done for that. It shows the feeling across the House on this, and I totally agree with what he said. There is so much the Government could do. There is so much the Home Office could do. It could be a facilitator. It could help, but for some reason it chooses not to be the great help it could be, and that is very disappointing.
At one of the events we held this week, we heard from Play for Progress, which helps with therapy, counselling and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders through music, trust and knowing people. It is run by two doctors, Anna Macdonald and Saliah Khan. I thank the Inter-Parliamentary Union for giving us the Room on Tuesday. We heard how the idea of using X-rays, which are not certain in their outcomes, to prove that people are of a certain age was unethical. We are talking about the use of X-rays to determine this from people’s bones, even when a paediatrician has said someone is a child and a number of medical experts have done the same. In some cases a social worker, but in most cases a bureaucrat will be saying that someone is not a child. The doctors pointed out that not only does one try to avoid using X-rays on children, but this is being done to try to prove an inconclusive point. It is being done for non-medical needs—for bureaucratic needs. That betrays a sad attitude within the Home Office and where it is leading this.
A constituent of mine from Lewis wants the Education Secretary to “increase funding for ESOL” so that people can learn English as a second language. She said that the money that would be spent on that would soon be recouped, through taxes during a person’s
“first eight months of employment at the national average wage.”
I will bring my remarks to an end, as otherwise you will start clearing your throat, Madam Deputy Speaker, as is the given signal. First, however, I wish to thank the number of organisations that have been helpful to me. I am sure that if I am not in the top seven in the ballot next time, they will help whoever is near the top. I wish to thank Lucy Wake at Amnesty International, Sam Nadel at Oxfam, James Bulman at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Seb Klier at the Refugee Council and Jon Featonby at the British Red Cross for all the help they gave on the Bill. The great thing is that that shows that many people care about refugees. We are living in fairly stable circumstances, whereas in the past many people from the highlands and islands moved for economic reasons and due to highland clearances. It is not inconceivable that things will change and in the future our great grandchildren or those who come after might be in a situation that results in their becoming refugees.
I wish to end on a case study. People’s stories and situations are better here than the facts that we can drily drag from any situation. The case is as follows:
“Muhammed and Amal are from Syria. They fled to Libya with their four children shortly after the conflict began. Life in Libya became increasingly dangerous while they were there and after two years Muhammed decided to make the journey to Europe. Muhammed was granted refugee status in the UK. Aware that his son, Kusai, was due to turn 18 very soon, making him ineligible for family reunion, Muhammed immediately began the process of applying to bring his family to the UK.
That application was rejected. Muhammed knew that his 20-year-old daughter, Athar, might not be accepted but also knew that, under family reunion law, he had the right to bring his wife and any children under the age of 18 to the UK. It turned out that the reason for the rejection was Kusai’s passport expiring while the family was in Libya. While awaiting that decision Kusai turned 18 and became ineligible for family reunion. Muhammed appealed, and a judged ruled that while Muhammed’s wife and two youngest children were eligible for family reunion and could come to the UK, Kusai and Athar were rejected on the basis of being over 18 years old.
While Athar has remained in the region, Kusai decided to take matters into his own hands and took the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to a makeshift camp in unthinkable conditions in Calais.”
That was in the famous jungle. That is the story that people have and it forms part of the points I can raise in my 15 minutes on refugees. Many other Members will raise different and better points, and we will all learn today from Members in all parts of the House as they say what they have to say. I look forward to hearing it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), not least because I can congratulate him on having secured this debate on an important topic, and also because, as he knows, my great-grandfather left the Western Isles after the clearances and was himself someone who, for economic reasons, was driven first to Glasgow and eventually to England. Had it worked out otherwise, I might have been a constituent of the hon. Gentleman’s, and in a rather small constituency who knows what could have happened. Let me leave that point to one side and move on to another personal matter.
Every day—today is as every day—I walk from home down to Chislehurst railway station. I go down a road called Old Hill, and on the junction with Lubbock Road there is a seat with a memorial plaque on it that is inscribed in these terms:
“Rev. & Mrs. I. E Davidson & Friends
Gratefully remembered by
All the BMJ Children
(68 of them rescued from Central Europe 1939)”.
The BMJ referred to is the Barbican Mission to the Jews. Reverend Davidson and his wife were based at Christ church in Lubbock Road in Chislehurst, where they set up a home for children who had been rescued, predominantly from Czechoslovakia and neighbouring countries, during the Kindertransport. They found refuge and a welcome in my home community of Chislehurst and are remembered there to this day with fondness and affection. This is an appropriate opportunity for me to pay tribute to their memory, and to all the people in our community in Bromley and Chislehurst who to this day keep alive that memory and that work for those who have suffered through displacement.
I was a sponsor of the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill and hope the Government will reflect on the failure to allow that modest Bill to progress. In my judgment it is a shame, because the attitude embodied by the Davidsons and their friends and neighbours in Chislehurst before the second world war is the most genuine reflection of this country’s record and approach to refugees. The facts show that Britain has a very good track record on resettling the most vulnerable. It is worth observing that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that the UK maintains its standing as one of the most generous countries for refugee resettlement. The UNHCR judges the community sponsorship programme, which enables community groups to welcome and support refugees directly, to be a success, although it is still in its early phases, and hopes that it will continue. In a sense, community sponsorship of that sort builds on the work of the Davidsons and their friends in the Barbican Mission all those years ago. I very much hope that the Government will continue that work and build on it.
In a recent written statement, the Home Secretary observed:
“The UK has a long history of supporting refugees in need of protection.”
He noted that we have welcomed tens of thousands of people in recent years and, since 2016, have resettled
“more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state”,
and I am glad that my right hon. Friend also confirmed
“the UK’s ongoing commitment to resettlement and set out our plans for after 2020.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2019; Vol. 662, c. 1-2WS.]
Compared with that good track record and generous spirit, it seems to me a little jarring that we have a restriction that prevents children who have come here lawfully as refugees—whose refugee status has been accepted—from being able to bring their closest relatives to come and support them. We are not talking about a large number of people, and nor are we talking about abuse of the asylum system. The key point to remember is that these people have been found and accepted to be genuinely in need and have proper refugee status.
As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said, it is shame that the policy seems currently to be driven on the basis of the frankly ill-informed and unsubstantiated fear of a pull factor. The hon. Gentleman referred to the speech of Lord Kerr in the other place, in which the noble lord dismissed that fear, but I wish to take the matter one step further. This country’s upper tribunal recently considered a case in relation to this matter, and the judgement was critical of the Government’s position. Mr Justice McCloskey overturned a decision to refuse the application made by a 19-year-old boy, who was recognised as a refugee when he was 16, to be allowed to sponsor his mother and brother to join him in the UK. One of the arguments on which the Government had relied in the initial decision was that it was in the public interest not to allow the family reunion application. The Government argued that other would-be child refugees
“would be at risk of trafficking and exploitation in their quest to reach the United Kingdom”—
that is the suggestion of the pull factor. In his judgment, Mr Justice McCloskey was pretty damning of that suggestion, saying that
“there is no evidence underlying”
that argument. He went on to say—I agree with him on this—that allowing reunification
“will promote, rather than undermine, the public interest in this respect.”
Mr Justice McCloskey is right, the Government are wrong, and they should think again in that regard.
Because we are talking about a small number of people and because the current system is based on what appears to be a policy premise that is unsubstantiated by evidence—that position is clearly borne out by the court, and I have seen no intrinsic or palpable evidence anywhere to suggest that a pull factor can be shown to exist—it seems to me that, although in many respects I am proud of what my Government have done, in this respect they let themselves down by taking a needlessly restrictive and, forgive me for saying so, a somewhat mean-spirited approach in relation to this comparatively small number of people. We have an opportunity to look at this again. By allowing refugee children to sponsor their immediate families, we would reduce the number of people who make irregular journeys to reach the UK. There is evidence of people sometimes making irregular journeys because they are unable to come through the proper channels.
The hon. Gentleman is making a great speech. One point to consider is that over the past 18 months the Home Office has said on several occasions that it is following the progress of the family reunion Bill and talking to stakeholders—a sort of indication of change—but what has really happened, change-wise? The Home Office cannot stall on this much longer, given the body and breadth of opinion stating that the rules should change and come into line with those elsewhere, and that we should be decent to this small number of people.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Whenever I talk to people in my constituency, whatever their political association, their gut reaction to this issue is that it just seems only fair, decent and reasonable to allow reunification. That is right and I hope the Government will think again.
The hon. Gentleman observes correctly that this has been a matter of debate and consideration in a number of places. In 2016, the Home Affairs Committee said:
“It seems to us perverse that children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way as an adult would be able to do. The right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees just as it does to adults.”
That must be right. If we want people who are genuine refugees to settle in this country, to integrate well with our society and to make a success of themselves, as so many of those children who were housed in Lubbock Road in Chislehurst were able to do—their stories are available in the archives of Christ church, Chislehurst—it seems to me to be only generous and decent to enable them to bring their close family, which is therefore a limited and concise number.
The Government have the opportunity to carry out a review, and I hope the Minister, who I know is a humane and caring person, will reflect on this matter. We need not put a needless stain on our reputation, which is otherwise good, by adopting such a restrictive approach in relation to this small number of children. In that spirit, I hope that the Government will think again about this matter. If this debate on World Refugee Day serves to do that, as it serves to honour the memory of the Davidsons and many others who helped people at that time, that will be a good thing and we will not have wasted our time today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Angus Brendan MacNeil)—I apologise for not trying to pronounce his constituency, but my linguistic skills are more akin to those of Del Boy. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on his speech. It takes great courage to speak truth to power and he always does it with such good grace.
I want to speak in favour of the motion. Today is World Refugee Day, and it is important to set out the issues in our history of supporting refugees following the second world war, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In my experience, there is not a great deal of understanding about who refugees are, what their background is, why they have come, and so on, and a lot of confusion about refugees and migrants as a whole. Unfortunately, in some cases that has been exploited by some people, who have sought to portray refugees and migrants as a whole as different or “others” or tried to make people afraid of them. Who can forget Nigel Farage’s infamous poster in the 2016 EU referendum, which tried to demonise Syrian refugees who were fleeing for their lives and portray them all as terrorists?
Or who can forget the shameful front pages of too many of our tabloids in the run-up to the referendum, which tried to alienate refugees from the public, or at least their readers? King’s College London has published a report, which I recommend people read, analysing tabloid front pages. Immigration was the second most mentioned issue, with 99 front pages on immigration in the 10 weeks preceding the 2016 EU referendum, 76% of them negative. Hon. Members should please read some excerpts from the report. It is shameful and begs the question of what is happening not just to evidence-based journalism, but to ethical journalism. That is compounded by what we see on social media and the lack of regulation there.
It would be fair to say that some people have raised concerns about immigration. We will all have had issues raised with us on the doorsteps, particularly where there are housing pressures and when other public services such as the NHS and, increasingly, education are in crisis. However, immigration is also raised in areas where there is little diversity or fewer problems with services. That says a lot about how the media have portrayed the issue and how we have failed across the political spectrum to have a debate about immigration, migrants and refugees. We need to acknowledge that and step up to the plate, because we have created a vacuum and been replaced—I am not going to give a certain person the dignity of having his name mentioned in this place, but he was the leader of one party and became the leader of another.
Like my hon. Friend and many other Members, we have a high number of refugees in Coventry. We have experienced problems with people waiting a long time to find out their status. Very often they find out that a family member back home, in the country they are running away from, has been taken ill and do not know where they are. The other major problem is that some refugees spend months or maybe years without a status and unable to work, which creates a terrible situation.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will come to that issue in a moment.
As leader of his party, that person excelled at pointing the finger at migrants, intentionally misleading the British public about EU citizens, who include the 1.3 million British people exercising their freedom to live and work across the EU, and conflating them with refugees seeking sanctuary in fear for their lives. We must not forget why we had a UN convention, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned, following the second world war, when Jewish people had nowhere to go. We remember what happened there. That person and his kind—I include the current incumbent of the White House in that—repeatedly use inflammatory and demonising language about refugees and migrants that is meant to instil fear. I would argue that large swathes of the print media have enabled that, which is compounded by social media.
I am proud that, in the wake of the second world war, the UK helped to draft, and was one of the first signatories to, the UN convention on refugees, so that anyone, anywhere, could claim refuge from persecution. We believe—I am talking about the people speaking in today’s debate—that most people feel that way too. But for some people, superimposed on top of those feelings are fears about jobs and public services and about difference: “What about my job? Will employers want to pay me less or even replace me? What about my children’s education? Will there be enough school places? Where will they live? What about housing supply?”
We have failed to answer those questions, and we have an obligation to do so. We must respond by engaging in communities to understand the local impacts of migration. We must make sure that communities with migrant populations are appropriately resourced and supported, so that the pressure on services is mitigated, migrant and indigenous communities get to know each other, and employers are prohibited from undercutting wages. Indeed, one issue uncovered prior to the EU referendum that got little coverage was the direct recruitment of people from abroad, which should not be allowed.
I would like to talk about a couple of refugees, Samia and Marzia, and say why they came to the UK and how I got to know them. Samia is a refugee from Syria. I first got to know her when she came to my Oldham office on a Friday night in 2015, saying that she was going to be made homeless. Although she had been granted refugee status fairly quickly, which is not everyone’s experience—I would like to raise that point with the Minister—she was no longer eligible for temporary accommodation because of issues with her residence permit. She could not get the accommodation that she needed and was going to be literally turned out on to the streets.
I pay tribute to my wonderful team. My office deals with a number of immigration and asylum claims, and I cannot speak highly enough of what they do. They sprang into action and managed to get a temporary stay for Samia while her new residence permit was sorted out. While all that was happening, we learned more about why and how Samia had arrived in the UK. She was an architect in Syria and fled her home, which she loves, leaving friends and family, after the bombing started in 2014. She described her fear for life. Unfortunately, she was separated from Samir, her husband. She arrived on her own in the UK and was sent to Oldham, where we met. The next step for us was to find Samir and reunite the family.
I am happy to say that there is a good ending to this story. We were able to find Samir, and this lovely couple, who are both architects, were reunited. They now live in Oxford and are contributing to our economy. We do not hear enough about those kinds of stories or how refugees are a net benefit to this country.
I first met Marzia at an International Women’s Day event in Oldham five years ago. She was a family court judge in the criminal justice system in Afghanistan. She had the temerity to set up education centres for girls, which unfortunately was not very popular with the Taliban. She was targeted by them, and after being run over and spending many weeks in hospital, she was told when finally released that she was going to be killed. She fled Afghanistan in fear for her life and arrived in the UK. Once in the UK, she moved to Oldham—I will say a little about that in a moment. As she told me, at the age of 43, having left her family, friends and career as a professional lawyer, she had to start all over again, learn a new language, which is increasingly difficult with cuts to English classes for speakers of other languages, and find a new identity and purpose.
“The negative assumptions about me contributed to the deterioration of my mental health. The asylum system is harsh.”
Now Marzia is a British citizen, and I was delighted to be invited to her citizenship ceremony. She works in my office as a caseworker, helping people who were once in her position. Her views on the asylum system are scathing. She says:
“We have had some refugees who have waited 15 years for a decision about their status. Do you think this is right? 15 years in no man’s land… They are expected to learn English in spite of there being no free English classes, to pay for English when you’re not allowed to work and have £5.00 a day to live off.”
In addition to working for me, Marzia speaks about her experiences wherever she can. She has even written a book about not just her life in Afghanistan and the circumstances that led her to leave, but her experience of the asylum system. She wants people to understand the propaganda in the tabloids and increasingly online.
We must remember why the refugee convention exists and think about what we would want if our families were affected. That is why I am calling on the Government to ensure compassion, dignity and humanity in the asylum system; not to let people languish for years in no man’s land without determining their status; to ensure there are funded English classes to help people integrate in their new homes and communities; to enable people to work while they await their status; to support local authorities through a new migrant impact fund to ensure asylum seekers and refugees are properly supported and integrated into their new communities; and especially to fast-track the process of reuniting children with their families. As Marzia says,
“I am a refugee but I am a human being, like you.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on securing this debate and more specifically on his persistence in addressing this issue. To be honest, this could be quite a short debate, because it is on a narrow point, the issues are clear and we are going over the same ground that we have gone over many times before. What we actually need now is some action from the Government to comply with these points, not more long rhetorical speeches.
On Tuesday this week, I joined a demonstration in Parliament Square organised by Safe Passage, which is an excellent organisation that campaigns for refugee and migrant children. One of the key speakers—in the sheeting rain for some time—was the noble Lord Dubs, who I am proud to say is a near neighbour of mine in Hammersmith. As is well known, he was a refugee himself and secured the important Dubs amendment. It is still to the Government’s shame that, I think, less than 300 of the 3,000 children who should have come to the UK as part of the Dubs amendment are actually here. [Interruption.] The Minister is mouthing from a sedentary position that the figure may be slightly more than that, but I suspect that whatever figure she comes up with will still be nugatory by comparison to not just what was required, but what was promised.
The same reasons that are given for the cases we are discussing today are given for the Dubs children—that we do not want to have pull factors or that local authorities will be overwhelmed by the numbers of children arriving. Those are very threadbare arguments. One of the other speakers at the demonstration was Stephen Cowan, who is the leader of my own council in Hammersmith and Fulham. He pointed out that that council alone, which is a small council, had agreed to take 200 unaccompanied children over a 10-year period. Other speakers at the event included a group of children from the London Borough of Islington who had got together a petition, gone to see the mayor of Islington and persuaded Islington Council to take in 100 children over 10 years. In other words, there was no shortage of compassion and practical remedies being offered, and every time it is the Government who are not stepping up to the plate.
Even if children reach the UK—often through dangerous and torturous means—they find that there are additional burdens to go through for their relatives to join them here. I have visited Calais twice. Displaced people are seeking refuge every day, whether in Calais, Lesbos or in war zones themselves. Generally speaking, they seek refuge in other developing countries; 85% of refugees are in developing countries and 0.02% of the world’s displaced people are in the UK, so although we have a good record on this issue over the decades, we are not doing enough now.
As is addressed in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, there are practical complexities, which are often deliberate. For example, there may be no access to consular, or indeed any, process of registration at the place that migrants are actually coming from. Whether the issues are legal or financial, the process is very difficult. Then there is the matter of legal aid, which was withdrawn under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Only through enforcement by the courts—and reluctantly—have the Government agreed to any restoration of legal aid, although that has still not happened. We are still in the desultory territory of exceptional case funding, and we know how limited that is.
When will the Government ensure free access to legal aid for migrant children in these circumstances? These are simple points. When will there be good representation and assistance for unaccompanied children in the UK or families who want their adult children to come here? When will family reunions be permitted—when will the rules be changed, so that reunions come within the scope of the immigration rules? When will the promises that have been previously made, including to Lord Dubs, be honoured? If the Minister can answer those simple questions today, we can move on. Otherwise, I suspect will be back here having this debate again very shortly.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on bringing this motion to the House on World Refugee Day. I am proud to be a sponsor of his Bill, which will be of great benefit to society in general and to the young people who need the help it offers.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as this Parliament keeps limping on, there is certainly plenty of time for the Government to get the Bill in Committee and table a money resolution so that we can make progress? I am sure that he, like me, would like to see that happen.
It is frustrating that the Bill has stalled because the Government will not give it a money resolution, and it is very sad that we are in this situation after the Bill has passed its Second Reading. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to see progress.
On 9 February, I visited some of the refugee camps just over the channel with Care4Calais—a charity that distributes clothes, sleeping bags, tents and other necessities. I cannot forget the harsh conditions in which the refugees there find themselves, with little electricity or hot food, no hot water, no heating, no privacy and the constant background of cold and damp. All this is coupled with the knowledge that their loved ones still face danger back in the country they have escaped.
I heard at first hand from refugees in Calais about the life-threatening situations they had fled. For some, it was religious persecution; for others, the stark realities of war and sometimes torture. Many of the refugees were young—still in their early teens—but already they had experienced horrors in their lives that many of us would find difficult to imagine. The terrifying steps these refugees will take to escape torture and persecution are telling. I spoke to young boys who had clung to the underside of lorries, risking death for hours, and others who had been stowed in the boots of cars. I met a family who had crossed the sea in winter in a tiny dinghy the size of one of the rowing boats in St James’s Park.
We must ask ourselves what prompts people to take such extreme actions. These are not the actions of people who have the choice of a comfortable life back home, nor of people who have taken decisions lightly: no, they are the actions of desperate people who want to survive and build a better life; people who need and deserve the help of rich nations like our own.
It was clear in Calais how often it is the young men who will make the journey first in the hope that they can carve an escape route for their loved ones. One young man I spoke to in Calais told me that he often speaks to his mother on the phone. I asked him, “Does she know where you’re living now?” He smiled ruefully and answered, “She’ll cry if I tell her, so I say I’m in a hotel. I just want a good job so I can make her safe.” I asked him what brought him to the camp. Like so many others, he said that it was his family’s conversion to Christianity that effectively placed a death sentence on their heads.
We cannot sit back and ignore this kind of persecution or people’s death-defying attempts to escape, and should they make the journey safely here, we surely owe it to them to allow family reunion. Some argue that to reunite children with their families will mean taking in too many people. I am afraid that that argument is one of prejudice and selfishness. According to Oxfam, the UK has taken in substantially fewer people than would constitute its fair share. In 2018, the UK received five asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK, while the European average is 14. Even at that number, over two thirds of applications are rejected. In this context, it seems nothing less than cruel to block the reunion of refugee children with their families. It is well known that doing so will condemn these children to greater likelihood of mental health problems and leave them less able to engage with society. This right already exists for adult refugees in the UK, who are able to bring their families over to join them having been successful in their asylum application. It is therefore perverse that the same right is not given to child refugees.
One of my own team in Parliament is part of a family who fled torture in Algeria in the 1960s. Her family are proud of their integration and achievements in this country: proud to be British, proud to contribute economically and socially, and proud to have done well in their chosen professions. They have thrived, but how many others are prevented from doing so because they are being cut off from their loved ones?
That brings me on to the subject of legal aid. It is now seven years since legal aid was made unavailable for family reunion cases. Although the need for family reunion has greatly increased, the Ministry of Justice has been prevented from bringing justice to refugee children. The fact that £600 million has been taken from the legal aid budget in the name of austerity has meant more isolated children, left to fend for themselves. Refugee family reunion has been described by the Government as a straightforward immigration matter, but there is clear evidence to show that this is not the case.
In its report, “Not so straightforward”, the British Red Cross argues that a substantial percentage of refugee family reunion case are highly complex. These cases are in fact anything but straightforward. Yet because of the removal of legal aid, refugees wishing to reunite with their families must apply without legal help or must themselves pay to hire legal advisers. Of course, refugees are rarely able to hire solicitors or legal advisers on their own due to financial insecurity. Instead, they are left to navigate a fiendishly complicated system that sometimes requires DNA evidence and documents that have been long since destroyed in the rush to escape war or torture.
If we are to be the open, civilised and tolerant country that we aspire to be, we urgently need to make refugee family reunion possible. Part of this would include the Ministry of Justice committing to a statutory funding regime for legal assistance for refugee family reunion cases. We cannot pass by on the other side. It is time as a nation that we behaved like the good Samaritan we should be and took family reunion seriously.
Today marks World Refugee Day. I am proud to represent Brightside and Hillsborough in Sheffield. We have a proud legacy of welcoming and supporting refugees over many decades. My city was the first “city of sanctuary”, established more than a decade ago. We are home to a vulnerable person relocation scheme. I am pleased that our Labour council has recommitted to the scheme until 2020, and hopefully beyond. Yet the scale of the challenge is enormous. Globally, there are 25 million people who are refugees and 68.5 million forcibly displaced from their homes due to war, persecution or environmental catastrophe. Today we are reminded of their plight and suffering, but also recognise the enormous contribution that refugees make here in the UK and beyond.
In March 2018, I stood before the House to deliver a speech in favour of the Second Reading of the private Member’s Bill on family reunion introduced by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). I explained that I supported the Bill for all the refugee and migrant constituents in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, and for their loved ones who were unable to join them in the UK. I talked about my constituent Abdul—a young man from Syria who had settled in Sheffield after completing his degree there. Abdul attempted to rejoin his family in Syria, facing many dangerous situations along the way. It quickly became apparent to him that a reunion in Syria would not be possible due to the ongoing war, and so he returned to the UK. On his return, Abdul made every effort to ensure that his family would join him safely in the country he now called his home. He sought help from every agency and organisation available to him to be able to be reunited with his family as quickly as possible. Despite his efforts, and compliance with the Home Office guidance and procedures, the process proved to be painfully slow and disappointing. It was an arduous journey for Abdul, separated from his elderly parents who had serious health problems for over 11 years while the request for reunion was dealt with.
I am very pleased that after that speech and following my plea to the Minister, Abdul and his family were finally reunited. I met the family a few weeks after they had arrived safely. It is fair to say that it was an emotional day for us all. Both I and his mother cried. I would like to place on record my sincere gratitude to the Immigration Minister, who responded swiftly to my request and was able to assist Abdul and his family. However, while Home Office policy can be useful in exceptional scenarios like that of Abdul and his family, I am afraid it is not good enough that families are still suffering, proving that the system is not fit for purpose—and the cases continue to come forward.
Only recently I have been approached with another deeply worrying case. Ms Sermani is a Syrian refugee, too, who came to the UK through family reunion to join her husband. She was separated from her children, aged six and 10, while undertaking the extremely dangerous journey to safety. Four years have now passed, and we are aware that the children, now 10 and 14, are currently living in Turkey. Their biological father disappeared during the war, and his whereabouts are not known. It is quite possible that he will have lost his life during the conflict in Syria.
It has been four desperately sad years since Ms. Sermani has seen her young children. I cannot begin to imagine what it must feel like to live with so much distance between them. Despite her numerous attempts to bring them to the UK, she has had no success. I have been informed by the Home Office that under current rules, as she came to the UK under her husband’s refugee status, she does not have refugee status in her own right. This means that she cannot bring her children to join her through a family reunion application. Her husband is unable to make the application for them to reunite under his status as he is not their biological father. It is beyond shocking that we are confronted with this situation. Due to Home Office rules, the children will remain in another country without either parent.
I raise Ms Sermani’s case, with her consent, to highlight her personal plight but also the real, practical problems we are facing when dealing with such cases. These arbitrary criteria leave people extremely vulnerable, falling through the cracks of the system. The current bureaucratic barriers are actively keeping parents separated from their children. This is not the Britain that I know and we must do better.
The hon. Lady highlights an interesting case. Surely there have to be guiding principles from which the Home Office’s rules stem. The rules have not been written from those principles in a way that allows that person to come here. In the absence of rules, the Home Office should fall back on principles, and the woman being able to be reunited with her children is a case in point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. I hope that my speech today will alleviate the process for this family. I hope the Minister is willing to help, and I ask her to reconsider the application of Ms Sermani in my constituency. I also ask her to look at what more the Government can do to ensure that the guidance allows for greater flexibility in cases that do not fit the criteria directly.
Finally, as we mark World Refugee Day, I urge the Minister to allow the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill to come back to the House, so that we may move forward. It is vital that the House has the opportunity to debate the Bill in Committee as soon as possible. We owe it to the many people who will rely on the passing of the Bill to be reunited with their loved ones.
I commend the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) for bringing the important subject of refugee family reunion to the Chamber—I apologise for not being able to pronounce his constituency; I promise to rectify that.
I commend the Red Cross for the drop-in event it held earlier this week, with refugees from various areas. I was able to meet up with one of my constituents, a young man called Yusuf who is a refugee. He does not sit around waiting for his status—he is helping other refugees and ensuring that they are not isolated. He is a brilliant young man and a brilliant example of how refugees want to get stuck in and involved in this country.
It is important to remember that refugees do not willingly give up their home and community to move to another country. They have been forced to flee, whether by war, violence or persecution, and have had to leave all familiar people and places and deal with a completely new life, learn a new language and set up a new home. We need to understand how dislocated and alone they must be feeling, and we should do everything we can to welcome them and help them settle.
That should include refugees being able to work—a right that is currently denied them as they go through the complex and detailed process of seeking the right to reside here in the UK. I appreciate that we are dealing with family reunion matters, but I need to highlight the need for refugees to have the right to work while they wait the many months or even years that it takes to obtain legal status. Not being able to spend their time usefully employed can have a seriously detrimental effect on their mental health. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you were alone in a foreign country with no money and had to sit and stare at four walls all day, how would you feel? How would anyone here feel? Many refugees want to work. They have the skills that we desperately need here in the UK, so we should be helping them to use those skills to help themselves and the community they find themselves in.
To return to the motion under debate, I support the call for close relatives of all refugees in the UK to be able to reunite with their families. I note with concern that legal aid for family reunion applications was removed in 2013 because it was felt that those applications are straightforward and easy to prepare. In reality, they are far from straightforward—they are difficult for any refugee to deal with, especially in a language they are not familiar with. Legal aid for these applications is available in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in the interests of fairness, I argue that it should be reinstated in England and Wales.
Currently children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way that an adult can. That is an unfair and discriminatory practice on the grounds of age.
In Newport West, we have a diverse mix of people from all across the globe, and we have always welcomed the stranger. However, refugees who arrive in Newport are often disoriented and need help to navigate their way through bureaucratic processes and the practical business of settling down in a foreign land. We are fortunate to have an organisation called The Sanctuary, which provides a welcome and support for refugees in Newport. The project grew out of a desire to support a few Eritrean women who started attending Bethel Community Church in the centre of the city, but it now has its own property and staff, who provide a fantastic service to refugees and asylum seekers across Newport.
The Sanctuary provides practical help and support by providing English classes, advocacy support, mother and toddler groups and an afterschool youth club, which provides a safe place for unaccompanied minors. I am so pleased that refugees in Newport West can access the services and support at The Sanctuary. The staff there play an important role in ensuring that refugees settle and integrate into our community and can play a full part in our city.
It is important that the Government act to ensure that close relatives of all refugees in the UK are able to reunite with their families in the UK, and I add my voice to the call for these reforms to be introduced swiftly and without delay.
It is always good to have the opportunity to speak about these matters. I thank the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)—I hope that is the right pronunciation; I have been practising it for the last 15 minutes. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said she was challenged by it, and so was I. The hon. Gentleman has been a great advocate from the very beginning, and he deserves a lot of credit for his leadership on this matter. He has the support of a movement of MPs from all parties for what he is trying to secure.
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet her in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and we discussed some of the things that her Department is doing. I thank her for the way she responded to the issues we brought to her attention and for what her Department is doing. I also thank her for giving me the opportunity to name some of the refugees whose cases are in the system. All MPs probably take advantage of the opportunity of meeting her to drop into conversation the name of someone whose case we feel should be looked at urgently.
I firmly believe that, as Members of Parliament, we have a solemn duty to be a voice for the voiceless and to speak out for all those who are oppressed, regardless of their nationality, race, colour or creed. For that reason, I am delighted that Members of this House have the opportunity and the privilege to recognise World Refugee Day. This House shines today, and Members’ contributions have been excellent.
We are seeing record levels of displacement globally, with more than 70 million people displaced worldwide—70 million. Sometimes numbers are bandied around, and we do not know how to process them, so let me put it another way. We are dealing with a situation where the entire population of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are forced out of their homes. Imagine driving down London’s streets with nobody there—that is what it means.
Something must be done to tackle this situation, and to do that, we need to tackle all the root causes. That is why I would like to discuss one of the biggest drivers of displacement: the persecution of religious and belief minorities and systematic violations of the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. I thank the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar for referring to the persecution of Christians. In a report entitled “The Persecution of Christians and Global Displacement”, Open Doors stated that religious persecution was a “dangerously underestimated” factor behind some people’s decision to flee their home. The charity estimated that around half of Syria’s 1.7 million Christians have left their country due to a combination of conflict and religious persecution.
When the Minister and I met a few weeks ago, I mentioned that six Syrian families have been relocated to my constituency of Strangford, and particularly Newtownards. That is an excellent Government scheme, and I commend them for that, but it is only part of the success story. Those families are traumatised and under pressure. They have come to a strange town, and not all of them can speak the language; the children can learn it quickly, but their parents cannot. I met all the families through The Link charity and Strean Presbyterian Church in Newtownards. It was wonderful to see the community come together through their churches and their faith. These are Christian families who had to leave Syria—some of the 1.7 million people who were displaced—and come to Newtownards. The community got together, with the support of Government, to secure them housing, access to hospital care and education for their children and to try to get them employment. It always encourages me greatly as the Member for Strangford to see just how generous people are when it comes to making things happen.
We see a similar pattern in Iraq, where the numbers of Christians have fallen dramatically due to religious persecution. It is estimated that there were approximately 1.5 million Christians there in 2003, but now numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. The assessment is that there are now approximately 250,000 Christians.
As Chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, I also speak out on behalf of many non-Christians who fled their homes because it was not possible to practise, change or give up their faith or belief without suffering discrimination or, in many cases, extreme violence. For example, there are an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh due to displacement by the brutal onslaught of the Burmese military. We have spoken about that in this Chamber before, and it really hurts me—it hurts us all here—when we have to listen to horrific stories of brutality, violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse and the murder of loved ones.
Although there have inevitably been difficulties and tensions, it is deeply humbling to reflect on the kindness with which a country with extremely limited resources such as Bangladesh has welcomed those in desperate need. On this World Refugee Day, I think it is worth asking ourselves: would we have the same courage and would we have the same compassion to do the same? Bangladesh is a very poor country, but it has welcomed those people in—the 1.1 million Rohingya. It is also worth asking ourselves if the UK and the international community truly have done everything in our power to tackle this issue.
Apart from Myanmar and the middle east, there are many other parts of the world where huge numbers have been displaced due to religious persecution. For example, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria has displaced over 2 million people. For this reason, promoting freedom of religious belief and encouraging peaceful co-existence between different religious communities is vital to any long-term solutions for the refugee crisis.
It is also why policy development for these two areas should not be totally separate; we have to marry those two together. On this point, I would like to congratulate the Home Office—I did it earlier, and I want to reiterate it—on its development of a new training module for asylum caseworkers to help them better assess applications made on the grounds of religion or belief-based persecution. I understand that all caseworkers will have received this training by the end of June—that was confirmed at the meeting—and I commend the Government for their efforts. Let us give credit where credit is due, which I think it is important to do in any debate we have in this House. This is an important step, which I hope will go some way to addressing the disproportionately low numbers of religious or belief minority refugees who have been granted asylum by the United Kingdom.
Figures obtained by the Barnabas Fund under a freedom of information request show that out of some 4,850 Syrian refugees accepted for resettlement by the Home Office in 2017, only 11 were Christian. Again, I would just say that we have over half of them in Newtownards. This is only 0.2% of all the Syrian refugees accepted by the UK. I know that the Government have been very generous, but may I very gently say that I would have liked to see a wee bit more focus on Christian refugees so that they get an equal opportunity of being accepted?
In January, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins)—he was in earlier on, but is away just now—and the hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) visited Lebanon, with the support of Aid to the Church in Need, to investigate why so few religious minority refugees were being referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Can the Minister give us some response to that, although it is not her responsibility directly, so that we can hear what discussions have taken place?
Several issues were discussed during the trip, but one of the principal concerns was that there seem to be communication issues between the UNHCR and religious minority refugees. We know that through the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, as well as through the Barnabas Fund, Open Doors and Release International, which are all coming back with the same thing. Nearly all the refugees whom the delegation met were unclear about their rights and UNHCR’s available support, leading to a feeling that the UNHCR was not for them—that is very worrying—and that they should seek support elsewhere. The UNHCR has to realise that it is for everyone, and let us make sure that this is rammed home today.
It is important to note that the UNHCR is under enormous pressure, which I understand and respect, and that it is underfunded, which I understand as well, and overworked, so this is not intended as a criticism. I am trying to highlight areas where the United Kingdom and the UNHCR might be able to work together to improve the situation.
I congratulate the Home Office on the 5,806 family reunion visas granted in 2018, and I add my name to the call for the Government to introduce reforms to family reunion rules to ensure that the close relatives of all refugees in the UK have safe and legal pathways to unite with their families in the UK.
The six families that have been integrated among the communities in Newtownards and have done extremely well also have other relatives, as the Minister knows, who are still detained in and unable to get out of Syria. These are family members, so when it comes to the title of this debate—“Refugee family reunion” is what it says up there on the Annunciator and on the Order Papers in front of us—this is about making sure that the families who have also sought asylum can get asylum alongside their families. Everyone one of us has families, and knows how important it is to have family. Almost the only thing that keeps us sane is our family and it is really good to have that, but how much more so for those refugees to have their families and to have them close.
I, too, start by paying a massive tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), first, for securing this debate, but secondly, for his relentless pursuit of reform of the family reunion rules in the face of what hon. Members have rightly described as pretty shabby Government behaviour in relation to his private Member’s Bill. I dare say there were other topics he could have picked for his Bill that would have made him even more popular among the citizens of the Outer Hebrides, if that was possible, but he chose this one because he believes passionately in it. He has thrown himself into this cause heart and soul, and I thank him for doing so. More generally, we have had some incredibly powerful and measured speeches from across the Chamber, so I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.
This debate and the motion tabled have been a very fitting way to mark both World Refugee Day and Refugee Week. It is a week during which we celebrate the rights enshrined in the refugee convention—as has been pointed out, we helped to draft it—and also commit to defending the principle that states should provide shelter for those fleeing persecution from other countries. As hon. Members have pointed out, it is also a week during which we celebrate the huge benefits that refugees can bring to their new homes if they are given the chance to flourish.
It is often said in this Chamber, and it has been said again today, that we have a strong track record of offering sanctuary to refugees, and I agree, although the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) was quite right to point out some of the challenges posed by certain political and tabloid voices, and the need for all of us to be leaders in defending the rights of refugees. However, we should not see this simply as an act of charity, because this country does benefit too. We must also say thank you to our refugee community for the massive contribution they make in all walks of life.
World Refugee Day is also a good time to thank all the organisations and individuals up and down the UK that work relentlessly to support refugees and campaign on their behalf. As we have heard, many of these organisations have been in Parliament this week, either hosting or attending Refugee Week events. We have had Play for Progress, which my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar hosted. I was lucky enough to host René Cassin, and we have had the International Red Cross, the International Observatory of Human Rights and many more. I would like to take this chance to pay particular tribute to the Scottish Refugee Council, which does tremendous work day in, day out. It is a source of lots of information and ideas for me, and I wish it well as it launches its own refugee festival today.
Finally on the subject of Refugee Week, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I am pleased to see the Minister for Immigration here today because—and this may cause shockwaves in the Chamber—I too want to commend her and the Home Office for what they have announced this week about refugee resettlement. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme has been a tremendous success, and it is excellent that the experience and expertise gained in operating that system, offering safety to 20,000 vulnerable Syrians by 2020, will not suddenly become redundant, but instead be put to greater use in a broader resettlement scheme thereafter. As an Opposition spokesperson, it would be remiss of me not to suggest that the Government might go further both on numbers and in giving a longer-term commitment, but it is a very welcome step in the right direction, and I thank the Minister and her Department for that.
The reason why resettlement is more important than ever is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the hon. Member for Strangford have said, that the global displacement of people has reached record levels. Just yesterday, the UNHCR reported that the population of displaced citizens has now reached 70.8 million people, and 25.9 million of them are refugees, which is almost double the number from a decade ago. The UNHCR estimates that 1.4 million refugees need to be resettled, but last year only 81,300 places were offered by 29 states—a gap of 90% that is getting bigger rather than smaller. Every place we can offer truly counts. Hon. Members have said that we can, and should, do more with the Dubs amendment, with relocations from Europe, and with the asylum system, and I agree.
The key part of my hon. Friend’s Bill—family reunion—can be part of solving the crisis that I have just spoken about. Many of those who apply to come to the UK under the refugee family reunion rules—and those who would apply under the expanded rules that we seek through the Bill—are themselves refugees, and it makes sense for them to be alongside their refugee families in the UK, rather than isolated in refugee camps. More fundamentally, however, family reunion is about the rights of those refugees who are already here. Refugee status will never be fully effective unless it comes with all those rights that are essential to allow a person to rebuild their life. The convention relating to the status of refugees ensures that refugees can work, study, and access housing and social security on the same basis as the host country’s citizens.
What could be more essential for someone trying to rebuild their life than the presence of their family? As the hon. Member for Strangford said, the Government do allow family reunion, and last year there were 5,806 cases of partners and children who were able to join refugees here. We welcome that, but our refugee family reunion rules remain more restrictive than international best practice, and more restrictive than leading refugee organisations would wish.
As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) rightly said, the reforms in my hon. Friend’s Bill are modest, and they are also reasonable for all the reasons that have been set out today and in numerous debates beforehand. How can it ever be right that someone’s 18-year-old daughter cannot join her refugee parents here, but her 17 and 15-year-old siblings can? How can we say to refugee children living among us in the UK that even though they know where their parents are, we will not allow them to come here?
In response to such questions, the Government generally point to alternative routes in the immigration rules, but as everyone knows, those alternatives are more complicated, much more restrictive, and they come with far fewer rights than refugee family reunion. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) said, it is great that now and again there are exceptional cases and exceptional results are granted, but we want all refugees in the circumstances set out in the Bill to be able to access refugee family reunion rules in a straightforward manner.
In response to what the Home Affairs Committee called the “perverse” rule that stops children sponsoring their parents to come in under family reunion rules, the Home Office plays the “pull factor” card—an argument I hate. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, that argument is not founded on evidence, and it runs contrary to everything that leading international refugee organisations tell us. To my mind, it is also totally immoral because when looked at from a different angle, it essentially makes an example of refugee children who are already here. It says to refugee children, “We must ensure that you live separately from your parents so as to discourage others from coming here”, which is a brutal way for any Department to operate.
Such reasoning is also deeply flawed. If I had fled my country of origin and discovered that my child had ended up as a refugee in a third country, I would move heaven and earth to join them there. If I could not do it through family reunion rules, I would pay people smugglers or buy a dinghy to do it myself. Refusing to recognise the right of child refugees to sponsor their parents does not stop people using unsafe illegal routes—on the contrary, it forces more people to use them—and my hon. Friend’s Bill is about creating safe, legal alternatives.
The hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and for Newport West (Ruth Jones) raised the issue of legal aid, which is also covered by my hon. Friend’s Bill. I know from my experience as an immigration solicitor how complicated those applications can sometimes be. The issue is set out in an excellent report entitled “Not so straightforward” by the British Red Cross, which notes
“the need for qualified legal support in refugee family reunion”.
People can still get that support in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and they should have it in England and Wales as well.
My hon. Friend has won this argument and he won the vote last year, and it is disgraceful that the Government are not honouring and implementing the will of the House. It is not clear whether the Bill is being blocked by the Home Office or the Treasury or—more likely—by the Whips and business managers.
Is it particularly frustrating that the Government are not willing to provide time for our hon. Friend’s Bill to progress, given how much time is available? Nothing else of any substance is happening, and with the greatest of respect to the next Backbench Business debate, if Members keep that going until 5 o’clock we will be quite impressed. Time and capacity is available, and many other private Member’s Bills are also not getting the light of day that they deserve.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There is enough time for a five-day debate on the Bill.
I fully intend to keep the next debate going until 5 o’clock, and I hope that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will join me in that ambition.
That is also subject to the Chair’s agreement.
I certainly do not doubt their ability to do that, Mr Deputy Speaker. In conclusion, the continued blocking of this Bill is disrespectful to Parliament, but more importantly it is disrespectful and damaging to our refugee community. A fitting conclusion to refugee week would be for the Government to listen and to reunite more families, which is exactly the instruction that Parliament has given.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on securing this debate on World Refugee Day and on his excellent speech, and I thank all those who have contributed to this excellent debate. On this special day I thank and acknowledge the many charities that work with refugees, including Amnesty International, Oxfam, the Refugee Council, the Red Cross and the many other groups, including in my city, that have worked for decades to help refugees. The hon. Gentleman has been a consistent campaigner for refugee family reunion. I was extremely happy to speak on Second Reading of his private Member’s Bill, and in his debate during refugee week last year. The Government’s paralysis makes this feel like groundhog day.
I know from personal experience how frustrating it is when the Government stall a Bill’s progress. I am at my wits’ end about the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, which has been in purgatory even longer than the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. Its Second Reading was in December 2017, and we still have no money resolution. The Committee has now met 31 times without discussing a single line of the Bill, which must be a record. The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill is another route to addressing this issue, but it has also got lost somewhere in Committee. The Government are at the end of their feeble life and are running scared of the House, even on issues as important and urgent as refugee family reunion.
The key to any successful refugee story is integration. People who flee violence come to rebuild their lives in the UK, but how can we expect anybody to recover from the trauma of conflict, and put the pieces of their lives back together, without the support of their family? Children who have had to flee their homes are currently barred from bringing close family members to join them in the UK. As the debate on refugee family reunion goes round and round, the Government continue to rely on discredited claims about “pull factors”. They argue that allowing children to sponsor family members will encourage more children to make the dangerous journey to the UK, but the evidence does not support that position. In fact, providing safe, legal routes to family reunion prevents dangerous journeys, and only when people feel that they have run out of options do they take the enormous risk of making their own way to the UK.
As long as there exist the “push factors” of war, conflict and violence, children will be forced to leave their homes and become separated from their families. It is our humanitarian duty to ensure that any child who makes it to our shores has the best shot at making a better life for themselves, which must include being surrounded by their family.
The Labour party believes in the right to a family life. At the moment, the definition of “family” under the refugee reunion rules is too narrow. It includes only a pre-flight spouse or partner and dependent children under the age of 18. As someone with adult children who are no longer dependent on me, I object strongly to the insinuation that they are no longer close family. In war and conflict, family relationships can become even more complicated. For example, younger children are often under the care of older siblings. Under a Labour Government, if you are a child who is granted the right to be here, so will your parents or carers be. If you have been brought up by carers or parents with a right to be here, so will you, even after you turn 18. In the refugee context, it is essential that close family do not lose out because they are not included in the arbitrary rules set down by the Government.
I was very happy to hear Members’ emphasis on the importance of legal aid in refugee family reunion cases. We recently had a major victory of unaccompanied and separated children coming back into the scope of legal aid. The fact that they were ever excluded is a testament to how far the Government went with their swingeing cuts to legal aid and the punitive hostile environment. I congratulate the Children’s Society on its significant victory.
During the passage of the Immigration Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, Labour has called for legal aid to be reinstated for early legal advice for all immigration matters. The Home Office often claims that legal aid is not necessary to complete an immigration application, but that is simply not the case, especially for children, those who do not speak the language, or people who are otherwise very vulnerable. Recent figures show that over half of all immigration appeals are now successful. That is shockingly high and shows how important court cases are in holding the Government to account on immigration. Justice is meaningless if people do not have the means to claim it, and legal aid is a fundamental part of enabling people to access justice. We know that early access to legal aid helps to save money in the long run, as people are less likely to end up in needless court hearings and appeals.
In conclusion, the Minister has been saying for over a year that she will take a close look at family reunion rules, but we have yet to see any concrete progress. The Government do not even need legislation to get these changes passed. It is in the Home Secretary’s gift, under the immigration rules, to change the eligibility for family reunion and ensure refugees do not spend another birthday, Christmas or Eid separated from their relatives. I hope the Minister will commit to that today.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I may crave your indulgence for a bit more time than was originally anticipated, because there has been a lot of content in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on securing this important debate on refugee family reunion. I welcome his ongoing dedication to the issue, and his insight and passionate contribution this afternoon. Indeed, we saw that from Members across the House during the debate.
It is of course apposite that we are discussing this issue on World Refugee Day and during refugee week, as we celebrate the important contribution refugees make as they rebuild their lives in the UK. We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it, honouring our international commitments under the refugee convention and the European convention on human rights. In the year ending March 2019, we granted refugee status or another form of protection to over 17,000 people, an increase of over 20% on the previous 12 months. Over that same period, we also issued about 5,700 visas to family members of refugees in the UK.
Sadly, as we have heard from several Members, global humanitarian need continues to grow, with over 70 million people around the world forced from their homes and about 25 million refugees. The UK’s resettlement schemes are an integral component of our humanitarian response to that challenge, addressing the needs of some of the most vulnerable refugees, and providing safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives here. In every year since 2016, the UK resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state.
As many will be aware, earlier this week the Government reaffirmed their ongoing commitment to refugee resettlement. We are on track to deliver our current commitments to 2020 and have now resettled nearly 16,000 refugees under our vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. Importantly, from 2020—I have been particularly keen on this—we will consolidate our biggest resettlement routes in a single new global scheme, under which we will aim to resettle in the region of 5,000 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees in the first year of operation. More than half of those resettled under our existing programmes are children, the majority of whom have been resettled with their families. I expect that to continue.
A key part of the new resettlement offer will be that those resettled through our community sponsorship and “mandate” routes will be in addition to our yearly, global commitment. While numbers have historically been small, we intend to explore ways to maximise the contributions of both these routes. The mandate resettlement scheme resettles recognised refugees who have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them. Going forward, I will look at options to adjust the scope of those eligible to allow for a higher uptake in referrals for resettlement from UNHCR.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) made reference to being the parent of grown-up children who are now independent of him. I can honestly say that I am the parent of a grown-up child who is most certainly still dependent on me. [Laughter.] I am very conscious that across the globe there are many what I regard as young people, between the ages of 18 to 25, who are still dependent on their parents. It is in that particular aspect that I have a very keen interest.
I will now turn to the comments made by Back-Bench Members, because they have been insightful and useful to this debate. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar spoke about his encounter with Yohannes and the importance of work for resettled refugees. I have been impressed and delighted, over the course of the past 18 months, to meet resettled refugees who all emphasise the importance of work in giving them a route to integration. I have met employers who have played their part, too.
It is important to draw a distinction between those who are here seeking asylum and those who are here as refugees already with status. I will freely admit that the proportion of those who have status and are in work is still woefully low. We are at a time of incredibly high employment—higher than at any time in my life—yet for those who have been resettled the numbers are still low. There are some inspiring stories, but it is absolutely imperative that we work hand in glove with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and civil society to help people into work.
Some of the most inspiring schemes have been community sponsorships—various Members across the House have made reference to them—where the community wraps its arms around individuals, taking them on a journey to find school places for their children, helps them with their English, ensures childcare support while they attend ESOL classes, and helps with CVs and getting into work. I pay particular tribute to World Jewish Relief, which has a fantastic programme running in Bradford. It focuses determinedly on giving people interview experience and finding them appropriate clothing to wear to interviews, help with English, help with CVs and help into work.
Some of the Christian Syrian refugees in Newtownards are talented in carpentry and their work is as good as that of any carpenter. The only thing holding them back is their grasp of the language. If they understand the language, they are then able to go on building sites in safety. Language is the thing that opens the door.
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. Sometimes it is language and sometimes it is the recognition of qualifications. I tell people repeatedly the story of a Syrian refugee in Kent who was qualified as an accountant in Syria, yet can only work as a bookkeeper here. As a Government, we have to be imaginative. Her English was brilliant. She needed not English language lessons, but to be able to upgrade her qualification. It is important that we are creative in finding routes to work.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) gave a very wide-ranging speech and I agreed with much of it. She spoke of the dreadful language use in 2016. I am always reminded of a poster I used to drive past on the A3. I am quite ashamed to repeat the words, but I will do so. It simply said, “The Turks are coming”. I have always sought in this role to be careful and measured about the language I use, and to bring a very human tone to the debate around immigration. It has been an interesting and challenging debate over the past 18 months, but we need to move away from speaking in tabloid headlines.
The Minister is making some very powerful points. As I was trying to hint at, or perhaps more than hint at, does she believe that all leaders, including us—as MPs, we are leaders—and particularly, leaders of parties need to demonstrate in their language and behaviour that such language is unacceptable?
I absolutely agree and that applies not just here, but in other Parliaments around the globe, and this is about not just language, but tone.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke about the Reverend Davidson and the children brought here as part of the Kindertransport. Several months ago, I met Vera Schaufeld, who was a Kindertransport child. She had an immense impact on me and I am very much aware of the incredible work of the noble Lord Dubs in the other House, who has been an inspiration to many of us.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) spoke about the Dubs amendment, and I remind him of one point. While we were discussing that amendment, he cited the figure of 3,000, but the Government were always clear that we would discuss the matter with local authorities and find common ground about the number of places that they had available. The final figure that was settled on was 480. We have always refused to give a running commentary on how we are doing on numbers, but it is important to reflect that at the start of 2018 we changed the qualifying date so that more transfers would be possible. At the end of last year, we removed the date altogether, so that we could continue our work with France, Greece and Italy to meet that commitment. Of course, there is still the challenge of best interests tests, where children must go through the process with the UNHCR. Sometimes that is not as swift as either I or the UNHCR would like.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) spoke about Abdul, who had settled in her constituency, and the heartwarming story that he had been reunited with his family. She said some very kind words about me, as did various other Members. It almost felt like this was some sort of swansong at the Dispatch Box, but I reassure hon. Members that the Scottish National party has called an Opposition day debate on immigration next week and some other Scottish colleagues will see me return to Westminster Hall the week after—I am not quite gone yet.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned resettlement in Strangford and the important role of faith communities. I am always struck by that, and it is not simply Christian communities. In Lambeth this week, I saw a number of resettled refugees, including one young Muslim woman from Syria who had been resettled in an apartment in the synagogue. It was an absolutely brilliant example of how faiths are working together. I am absolutely delighted to hear tales such as that, and what has really been impressed on me over the last year is the very important role of the faith communities, and indeed, of all those involved in community sponsorship, which has been such an important part of our schemes.
Let me turn briefly to the policy background, because I am sure that I am about to run out of time. I reassure hon. Members that we recognise the importance of family reunion, and our policy provides safe and legal routes to bring families together. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough cited a particular case, but over the past five years we have granted over 26,000 family reunion visas to family members of refugees in the UK. There are also separate provisions in the rules that allow extended family to sponsor children to come here. Where there are serious and compelling circumstances, refugees can sponsor adult dependent relatives living overseas to join them when, owing to age, illness or disability, that person requires long-term personal care that can be provided only by relatives in the UK.
Child sponsors is an incredibly controversial issue and I am sure that it will provoke Members into seeking to intervene on me. It is important that we maintain the safety of children. Over the last six months or so, I have been really struck by the numbers of perilous journeys that have been made across the channel. In very many instances, children have been on board wholly unsuitable craft in the busiest shipping lane in the world. We know that those people have fallen prey to organised crime gangs and people smugglers and that they have paid enormous sums of money to have their lives put at risk. I am sympathetic to the view that we should carefully consider how we might expand our family reunion schemes, but I do not wish to do anything that sees yet more people and yet more children put in those terrible situations. We know that they are exploited by organised crime, and while we work hard with our colleagues here and abroad to ensure that there are arrests and convictions, it is an incredibly dreadful situation that we must seek to contend with.
Everybody across the House wants to avoid people having to turn to people smugglers to get anywhere around the globe, but the point made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) was that the rules, as they stand, force parents to turn to people smugglers if they are going to be able to join their family in the United Kingdom. It is having the opposite impact to what the Minister would like.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention—the Whip is smiling at me. I just want to make the point, in slight defence of myself, that I am not blocking the Bill. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar knows that he must continue to persist with business managers, as I am sure he will.
In conclusion, I thank Members for their insightful and thought-provoking contributions. I will—I hope—continue to reflect on them in considering the Government’s approach on this going forward. I look forward to further debate on these points and others with hon. Members and stakeholders, who have made such an important contribution.
I welcome the tone of this debate; it has been absolutely fantastic. By comparison with the debate on 16 March last year, there have been no voices speaking against or running up false flags. We are trying to do something that is very unambitious—we are only trying to catch up with 25 other European countries that have no difficulty operating the modest change that we are trying to bring in. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) said, people are using dinghies and so on to cross the channel because they cannot get here legally, and we are just trying to open up the legal avenues.
I thank the many Members who have contributed, including the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill); I thank him for his knowledge, what he added to the debate and what he told us about Chislehurst and his honourable past. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) gave a great, wide-ranging speech. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) pointed out that we should not have any need for this debate. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) related the story of his trip to the jungle. I mentioned in my speech that when we meet people, it opens up another avenue of thought. People are in the jungle because they have changed their religion—in the instance he raised, they had become Christian—and have to escape for the protection of their own lives.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) made a very interesting point about the case that she is dealing with involving the woman who cannot bring her children over, and I hope that the Home Office will have been listening. I do not think I have interacted with the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) before, but she is certainly following in the footsteps of the great Paul Flynn, who was a friend of mine in the House, and I welcome the humanitarian note that she struck. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who demonstrated his excellent Gaelic pronunciation, gave a speech, again, driven by his humanity.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for making very good points, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for his intervention, in which he said that we have the time in this Parliament for a lot of things to happen. I take the Minister’s point about an instruction to the business managers, who are just few yards outside the door, to enable this to happen. I hope that the business managers in the Conservative Whips Office are listening to this microphone and making sure that that happens.
I want to mention Jalal from Afghanistan, who spoke at our event on Tuesday about what it is like being a young refugee. He spoke very well in, I think, his third or fourth language, including about the difficulties that young men, in particular, face and how they can fall through the gaps. There is a lot to be done and yet to do, but we are only trying to do something very little at the moment.
Finally, I appreciate Members’ very good efforts to say the name of my constituency. I sometimes do not find it easy to say the name of Welsh constituencies, but that gives us a little reminder, by serendipity, of the language challenge that is presented to many refugees. We only have to learn two or three words to say “Na h-Eileanan an Iar” but most Members here did it very well, albeit with concentration. I thank them for that and for their contributions, and I will let you move on, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I see that you are very anxious to do so.
That was the longest two minutes I have ever seen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that 20 June is World Refugee Day; further notes that, with record levels of global displacement across the world, many refugee families have been separated by war and persecution; welcomes that in 2018 the UK granted 5,806 family reunion visas to partners and children of refugees in the UK; and calls on the Government to introduce reforms to family reunion rules to ensure that the close relatives of all refugees in the UK have safe and legal pathways to reunite with their families in the UK.