On 8th July 2022, the House of Lords debated the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate on this Private Member’s Bill- his speech and contributions from other peers are below:
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I am pleased to speak today in support of this Bill. In doing so, I declare my interests as a member of the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy—RAMP—project and as a trustee of Reset.
The Bill proposes sensible provisions to consider the wider notion of family when enabling refugee families to come back together. Family reunification is often a neglected safe and legal route. The simple principle is that those who have been forced apart from family members due to persecution, war and other factors should be able to rebuild their lives with their loved ones when they have been granted protection as a refugee. In recent years, the largest safe route to the UK has been via family reunion, with 90% of those travelling this way being women and children.
It is on children that I would like to focus, namely the right of a child to reunite with their family, particularly their parents, when rebuilding a life here in the UK. Currently, we have the situation where we decide to layer more trauma on a child by expecting them to grow up separated from their parents and be placed in state care. Across Europe, the UK is simply an outlier in this regard.
We often hear the right to a family life spoken about in a negative way when deportations are prevented or delayed based on this principle, but we do not hear enough about a child’s right to a family life when arriving in the UK unaccompanied. Take Bibi, who was evacuated from Afghanistan last summer. She is now 18 and has been caring for her younger siblings, aged 16 and eight, alone in the UK since becoming separated from their parents in the crush outside Kabul airport. She is terrified for her parents, who have been questioned and harassed by the Taliban.
Bibi has had to grow up fast, caring for her two younger siblings alone. She says:
“In the chaos we lost our parents—my brother was holding my dad’s hand, my sister held my mum’s hand.
At the airport the army were using tear gas so we couldn’t see each other—it was terrifying. We were all crying, we couldn’t find our parents but we knew it wasn’t safe for us to leave the airport to find them.
When I see my sister so sad I can’t control myself. My sixteen-year-old brother also wants and needs his mum and dad. It’s hard living with such uncertainty, we don’t know when we will get a house to live in and if our mum and dad will be able to come and live in it with us. It is best for my sister and brother to have their mum and dad back. It is best for our future. My sister needs her mother, I am not her mother. We don’t have another choice, we need them to come here.”
This is an intolerable situation and has occurred through no fault of either the parents or their brave children.
Without an expansion of family reunion rights for children, families will remain separated and those who are here, while safe, will remain unable to move forward with their lives. I therefore ask the Minister: what assessment have the Government made about the ability of unaccompanied refugee children to integrate in the UK, given their lack of refugee family reunion rights?
It is also important to acknowledge that although refugees do not undertake dangerous journeys lightly, without access to safe routes relatives will be more likely to travel informally to be reunited with their loved ones. It is of note that in the first quarter of this year, the top nationality crossing the channel in boats were people from Afghanistan.
Often when reviewing legislation, I keep in mind the verse from the Book of Micah: God has told you what is good, to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. This can be broadly interpreted as, “How can we be and do better?” This Bill proposes a way to do this in the interests of the child, and I urge the Government to consider its proposals carefully.
Lord Paddick (LD): The current rules are too restrictive if, for example, the sponsor of a child or partner has not yet received a decision on their asylum claim, or if the sponsor is under 18. As we heard, there is a mounting backlog of asylum claims that have yet to be decided, with some decisions extending into months and even years. An unaccompanied minor is in even more need of their family than a traumatised adult—yet the UK is almost alone in Europe in not allowing an unaccompanied asylum seeker to sponsor their family to join them, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said. His story of a family separated in Kabul was compelling. Apart from the welfare of the child, the cost of safeguarding them is bound to be higher than if they were placed with other family members.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op): We need a scheme and a policy that protects and looks after vulnerable people when they come to the UK. We listened to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and his description of the children coming from Afghanistan was heartbreaking. Thousands of miles away with no parents, they are left here and it is heartbreaking; they do not know where their parents are.
Baroness Ludford (LD): The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, made a salutary correction to our historical perspective on the story of the Kindertransport. It was, of course, incomplete and she is right to focus our attention on the sadness and despair—I must get her note on the name of that book, though it will be in Hansard, obviously. I found what she said about the sense of abandonment very moving; how can children prosper in such circumstances? I was pleased that the Minister also picked up on that point. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham also raised the question of the trauma for the child in expecting them to grow up without their parents and quoted very moving testimony from Afghanistan.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.