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Family Reunion Visas: Gaza

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to assist family reunion under the existing visa rules for persons in Gaza.

My Lords, in any humanitarian situation, the UK must consider its resettlement approach in the round, rather than on a crisis-by-crisis basis. We use existing pathways in response to events to support British nationals, those settled here and their family members. At present, there are no plans to create a new immigration route for those affected by the security situation.

There are Palestinian families here who would urgently like family reunion with their relatives in Gaza on a temporary basis, perhaps modelled on the Ukrainian scheme. People are in real difficulties. Would the Minister care to comment on this? People in Gaza cannot apply for a family reunion visa to join family in the UK without leaving Gaza—but they cannot leave Gaza without a visa. Surely we can do better than that.

My Lords, the safety of all British nationals affected by the conflict in Gaza continues to be our utmost priority, but individuals who are not British nationals should apply for a visa to enable them to enter the UK in the normal way—and of course much of the process is online. Individuals who are not British citizens must not travel to the UK without existing permission to enter or remain previously agreed.

My Lords, under the Ukrainian scheme, about 174,000 people came to the UK, and there were extensive categories of family relationships under that scheme. Can my noble friend the Minister outline whether the same categories apply for this family reunification scheme—and, if not, why not?

The Ukraine family scheme was a temporary visa approach rather than a refugee scheme. It is not a route to permanent resettlement; it formed part of the response that we made with other countries to the Russian Government’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. The Ukraine family scheme was developed in close consultation with the Government of Ukraine, who have been very clear that they would like their citizens to return to Ukraine when it is safe to do so. Obviously, similar discussions with the Government in Gaza would not be possible, so the two situations are not analogous.

Is the Minister aware that the immigration tribunal judges found the Home Office’s decision on this to be “irrational”? The concern is even deeper: the Home Office found itself able to expand the situation for those in Hong Kong who were under fear of persecution, but those who are in Gaza, who are in fear for their lives, the Home Office seems to be completely silent about. Therefore, there is a concern about double standards. Given the requirement on the occupying power, the Government of Israel, to ensure facilitation of the very documentation that the Minister said is necessary, what discussions has the Home Office had with its interlocutors in the Israeli Government to ensure that the visa process for documentation is facilitated?

I might dispute the noble Lord’s premise there: I am not sure that I would characterise it as an occupying power. I reiterate what I said earlier: British nationals and those family members can obviously apply using normal routes.

My Lords, has the Minister made an assessment on how many students from Gaza studying here in the UK cannot go back to their homes because their homes have been obliterated? What financial and other support has been provided to those students?

I wonder whether I could interrupt the Question to pay a very brief tribute to Lord Field of Birkenhead. He was a man of the highest integrity, and MP for Birkenhead for many years—but it is his work on modern slavery that I refer to. He was responsible, with my help and that of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, for persuading Prime Minister Theresa May to have the Modern Slavery Act. He was the chairman of a small group, including me, which reviewed the work of that Act. He will go down in history as a great MP—he was only here briefly, unfortunately, through ill health—and a man who did a great deal on modern slavery.

Can I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that, in his opening question, my noble friend Lord Dubs specifically used the word “temporary”, and then prayed in aid the notion of “temporary” in supporting the Ukraine arrangements. Can the Minister think about the fact that what was being asked was whether we could find space in our hearts and systems to allow for family reunion from Gaza for those people in such dire straits, on a temporary basis?

I take the noble Baroness’s point—but, as I say, we keep all existing pathways in response to events under review.

I join the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in the tribute that she made to our noble friend Frank Field—I am sure that we all join with that.

Judicial review has found that the family of a Palestinian refugee can apply for a visa without the use of biometrics. The Home Office has said that it is complying with that, so can the Minister outline to the Chamber how it is complying, and whether that applies to all those who should seek a visa application from Gaza?

The noble Lord asks an important question. The judgment was handed down a couple of weeks ago; obviously, we have received the outcome and officials will provide advice very shortly to Ministers on how it will impact ongoing and future operations.

My Lords, I join the comments about Lord Field. He was my first boss; he paid me £12 a week—I was overpaid. We campaigned for poverty reform with Ruth Lister— the noble Baroness, Lady Lister—the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, Lord Pakenham, and many others. He was a remarkable man of integrity and persistence, and quite contrary on occasion, but he made a formidable difference—and, of course, he was a graduate of the University of Hull.

My Lords, can I revisit an answer that the Minister gave a moment ago? He said that Israel was not an occupying power in Gaza. My understanding, by looking at the FCDO website, is that the British Government’s formal position is that Israel is an occupying power in Gaza. Could he take this opportunity either to correct what he said or to explain why the Government have changed their policy?

If I spoke incorrectly, of course I correct it. I have not read the FCDO advice, but if that is what it says, then I correct the record.

My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me if I follow the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, about Lord Field. I worked with Frank Field for more than 50 years; he fought more than anybody else I know for people in this country who are poor and disadvantaged, and they have lost a treasure with his death yesterday.

My Lords, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the Minister referred to the Government making decisions about special visa schemes on a crisis-by-crisis basis. What criteria do the Government apply in making those judgments? Perhaps the Minister can point me to where it is written down, so that we can all see how the Government are making them.

It very much depends on the circumstances and other factors. For example, there were separate arrangements made after earthquakes in places like Turkey and Syria.

My Lords, is not the policy of issuing visas being used deliberately to cut back the number of immigrants in the country—particularly those from India—with very severe damage to, for example, research groups and universities? Could we have an undertaking that this policy will change?

This country is actually very generous: between 2015 and 2023, some 53,574 family reunion visas were granted to family members. We are the third most generous country in Europe, after Germany and Sweden. I do not really know what this Question has to do with universities.

My Lords, in response to an earlier question, the Minister gave a rather flippant answer when he said that he had no knowledge of the internet in Gaza. The question was serious; I ask that he reflects on his response and writes to noble Lords, and puts a copy in the Library.

I disagree. How am I supposed to know how the internet runs in Gaza? It was not a flippant answer; it is factual.

My Lords, can I press the Government to find the imagination to help those in Gaza seeking refuge under the most extraordinary, inhumane circumstances? It would do the Government and this country a great deal of good if they could reach out and do something positive.