Refugee challenges are focus of University research

Wed 13 October, 2021
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The University of Bedfordshire’s Centre for Research in Law (CRiL) has published a report on refugee family reunion, looking into the challenges faced by refugees seeking to be reunited with their families in the UK.

The report was researched and written by a team of academics and professionals in the refugee sector based at CRiL, with the support of a grant from the Families Together Programme, administered by the British Red Cross.

Titled Refugee Family Reunification in the UK: Challenges and Prospects, the report provides a comprehensive analysis of the complexities of the legal and policy framework for refugee family reunification in the UK.

From the analysis, the report calls for a radical change in the Home Office’s approach to refugee family reunification and recommends in particular:

  • The adoption of a broader understanding of the notion of family, to include at least young adult children and siblings under the age of 25;
  • The extension of the right to sponsor family reunion to refugee children;
  • The introduction of an additional category of eligible family members, based not on defined grades of relationship but on the existence of a factual situation of dependency;
  • In the decision-making process, the adoption of a realistic and compassionate approach to evidentiary matters, which recognises the difficulties often faced by refugees in supplying documentary evidence;
  • Recognition of the inherent complexity of refugee family reunification applications and the consequent need to reinstate legal aid for family reunion cases, to ensure that all refugees can benefit from qualified legal support.

Report cover pageDr Silvia Borelli, Principal Lecturer in Public International Law at the University and co-author of the report, says the research’s findings compounds existing evidence that the UK’s refugee family reunion system needs to improve. She commented:

“Refugees have a legal right to be reunited with their families in the safety of their new host country. Our report adds to the existing evidence that, at present, the UK refugee family reunion system does not allow those who have sought sanctuary from persecution in the UK to be reunited with their loved ones.

“The fact that unaccompanied refugee children are not allowed to act as sponsors for their parents to join them in the UK is a particularly striking gap in the UK system and one of which the UK should be ashamed; there are, however, many others.

“As illustrated by recent events in the English Channel, individuals will go to any lengths, including undertaking dangerous journeys which put their lives at risk, in order to be reunited with their families.  It is the duty of the UK, as of any other civilised country, to ensure that family reunification can happen through safe and legal routes.

“We hope that this report will make a contribution to the ongoing debate on refugee family reunification, by providing evidence-based recommendations for changes to the current system.”

The other co-authors of the report from CRiL are Fiona Cameron, Dr Elena Gualco and Claudia Zugno. The group’s research builds on the experiences of refugees who have navigated the family reunion process in recent years and highlights the inconsistencies of the decision-making process that their applications have been subjected to.

Also underlined in the report are the difficulties faced by the refugee sector in coping with the demand for assistance following the withdrawal of legal aid for family reunion cases.

Refugee Council logoFamilies Together, who supplied a grant for the research, is a coalition of organisations led by Refugee Council, Amnesty International, British Red Cross, Oxfam and UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Andy Hewett, Head of Advocacy at Refugee Council, hopes the report will influence Home Office policy, specifically in terms of expanding family reunion rules. He said:

“The report provides a comprehensive oversight of the current challenges families face when navigating the UK family reunion process, including the limited definition of family, which leaves many families faced with the appalling choice of remaining permanently separated or embarking on long and dangerous journeys in order to reunite.

“The report includes a number of recommendations endorsed by the Families Together Coalition, including an expansion of the current family reunion rules. Expanding the rules would allow more vulnerable women and children to safely reunite, including children who’ve been separated from their parents and adult dependent children to reunite with their parents.”

As well as conducting vital research into immigration law, the University also runs a Refugee Legal Assistance Project (RLAP). RLAP provides free legal assistance to refugees who wish to bring their family members to the UK, and is run by specifically trained student volunteers in conjunction with Bedfordshire Refugees and Asylum Seekers Support (BRASS).

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