On the 3rd February 2016 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Immigration Bill in committee. The Bishop of Norwich, Rt Revd Graham James, spoke in support of an amendment co-sponsored by the Bishop of Southwark on family reunion for refugees. Following the response from the Government the amendment was withdrawn.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who has added his name to Amendment 234, cannot be in his place, but I am glad to speak on my own behalf and, I hope, for him, too, since we are of one mind on this matter.
One of the great privileges of being a bishop in the Church of England is found in the many connections we have with Anglican dioceses overseas. The diocese of Southwark has very long-standing links with Zimbabwe, while my own has an association with Papua New Guinea that has gone on for 60 years. I was last there in August and September, visiting the remoter parts of the western highlands, which was a challenge. The welcome is amazing and humbling, but what one learns is about the huge significance of family and kinship roots in such societies. They make all the difference for individuals between flourishing and destitution. They provide the practical and emotional bonds through which people make sense of life. They are the source of social and financial security, elder care, child care and so on.
I reflected while I was there on the atomistic character of many British social and family relationships, which seem very limited and limiting by contrast, and certainly unthinkable to them. Consequently, when states fail and insecurity becomes unbearable, as we have already heard, families do shift, but they do not fracture even if the world around them does; mutual obligations hold. When one flees terror and ruin, there can be no better way to do it than with those with whom there exist bonds of affection and mutual obligation. It may seem to us to be an organisational and financial necessity to break up family units or kinship groups, but to those within them in such situations, it seems like madness.
I appreciate that rules already exist to provide for a degree of family reunion, but the sentiment behind the amendment is that they are too restrictive. What sort of family life do we believe in if a minor is admitted to the UK and granted asylum status but there is no basis in the Immigration Rules for parents or siblings to join him or her—or, in reverse, if a Syrian father is granted asylum but not his 19 year-old daughter left in a refugee camp? I realise that the Minister may argue that such cases can be considered outwith the Immigration Rules, but the number of these visas is dropping rapidly, down to just 11 in 2014, which suggests that this is a route that is now very little trodden indeed. I would be grateful for the Minister’s reflection on that tiny number in this context.
The problems and issues underlying our net migration figures do not subsist in family reunion, nor are they caused by them, and hence I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to Amendment 234.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Bates) (Con): My Lords, I am aware of the calls from the Refugee Council and the arguments cited in favour of widening the family reunion criteria. I have also listened carefully to the arguments put forward today, and in particular to the personal stories that bring to life the statistics that we are considering.
We recognise that families may become fragmented due to conflict and persecution, and the speed and manner in which asylum seekers often flee their country of origin. Our policy already allows immediate family members of those with refugee leave or humanitarian protection who formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country to reunite with them in the UK. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the minimum income threshold of at least £18,600 would not apply where a refugee is sponsoring their pre-flight spouse or partner to join them here.
British citizens are also able to sponsor their spouse or partner and children under 18 to join them under the family rules, providing they make the appropriate entry clearance application and meet the relevant criteria. The rules have been in place since July 2012 and reflect our obligations under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Where an application fails under family reunion provisions, our policy also requires consideration of exceptional or compassionate reasons for granting a visa outside the rules. This caters not only for extended family members of refugees where there are exceptional circumstances but for family members of British citizens who are unable to meet the financial requirement rules.
Our policy is more generous than our international obligations require. Some EU countries require up to two years’ lawful residence before a sponsor becomes eligible and impose time restrictions on how quickly family members must apply. Additionally, there are specific provisions in the Dublin regulations, which the noble Lord, Lord Green, referred to, to unite unaccompanied children who claim asylum in another member state with their parents or other relatives, where they can take care of the child and it is in the child’s best interests to bring them together. We granted more than 21,000 family reunion visas between 2010 and 2014. Numbers are likely to increase in line with the numbers of recognised refugees in the UK.
Our policy prevents children with refugee status in the UK sponsoring their parents to join them. This is a considered position designed to avoid perverse incentives for children to be encouraged or even forced to leave their country and undertake a hazardous journey to the UK. As Save the Children pointed out, many children are feared to have fallen victim to people traffickers. Allowing children to sponsor their parents would play right into the hands of traffickers and criminal gangs and go against our safeguarding responsibilities.
I know that this point has been raised; we frequently discuss unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We also know that one of the key concerns of the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR, our partners in the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, is that the best interests of the child are often served by keeping the family unit together in the region rather than providing an incentive for them to undertake a hazardous journey. It is also the reason why the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme takes family units from the region. That is the specific intent: bringing families together to the UK.
We have talked about this country’s great generosity. Many of the wonderful stories in the media have been of families from Syria arriving together. They have been pre-cleared and immediately have access to welfare and the right to work. Accommodation has been provided for them. It is an outstanding scheme, which we can all be very proud of. We do not believe that widening the criteria to include so many additional categories of people is practical or sustainable. We must be very careful not to inadvertently create a situation which encourages people to undertake the hazardous journey.
With regard to the British Red Cross, with which we work very closely, we have already accepted recommendations it made in its report Not So Straightforward: The Need for Qualified Legal Support in Refugee Family Reunion, published on 9 July, around simplifying the application form and providing consistent, accessible guidance. We are improving our guidance to caseworkers and redesigning the application form to ensure that applicants better understand the process and what is required of them.
In relation to Calais, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, the UK is contributing £7 million to help with the relocation of migrants away from the Calais centre, where the conditions are so appalling. There is a day centre adjacent to that where migrants living in the area can receive legal advice, including on family reunion.
The rules on Dublin have been explained. I suppose that what we are saying is that we have looked at this carefully and we think that families should be kept together in the best interests of the child. In the case of the Middle East, it might often be best to keep families together in the region rather than locating them here. We have provisions under the Syrian vulnerable persons schemeand are working with the Red Cross to ensure that people understand the current rules under Dublin which they are entitled to exercise. There are exceptions for very difficult cases so that we can be as receptive and sensitive as possible. We therefore do not feel the need for either of these amendments at this stage.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate: the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, my noble friend Lady Lister, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, and the noble Lord, Lord Bates. These are serious matters where refugees need to be treated fairly and compassionately. The amendment in my name is only asking for a review while that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, goes a bit further but is specific as to who it would apply to. I hear what the Minister has said and I will reflect on that. I may return to this issue on Report but, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 231 withdrawn.
(all speeches made during the debate on the amendment can be seen at Parliament.UK)