accessibility & help

Family reunion: a difficult fight to see your family

How do you prove your children are yours – when they’re 3,000 miles away?

After the trauma of fleeing their home, one small comfort is that a refugee can legally bring over their children and partner. They don’t have to stay apart forever.

This is called ‘family reunion’ – and it’s part of UK and international law. But some families cannot afford the legal help to make it happen – and it’s keeping loved ones apart.

The government withdrew legal aid for family reunion in 2013, describing it as a ‘straightforward’ process. However, our research shows that it is really anything but simple. 

Not so straightforward

Last year, we helped to reunite more than 250 families torn apart by conflict or natural disaster. We look at 91 of those cases in our Family reunion report

The report shows that family reunion can be very complex. Without expert advice, difficult issues can stop or delay the reunion from even happening. This lack of legal support also leaves women and children stranded in dangerous situations.

Revealed: danger and difficulty

Lives left in danger

  • The vast majority – 95 per cent – of people waiting to come over to the UK were women and children. Meanwhile, some of those children (36 per cent) were living without a permanent carer or parent. 
  • To submit essential papers, families were required to travel to their nearest British embassy. For some, this meant journeys across areas of violence and armed conflict. Ninety-six per cent of people exposed to security risks like these were women and children.
  • These delays left some family members in dangerous situations – which also drastically affected the well-being of those left anxiously waiting in the UK.

Struggle for evidence

  • Most refugees (62 per cent) needed some English language support with their applications.
  • 74 per cent of people were missing at least one form of required documentation, such as a birth or marriage certificate.
  • In 23 per cent of cases, the reunion was with a stepchild or adopted child, causing extra legal and procedural difficulties.

Not simple at all

  • Our report demonstrates that refugee family reunion is not straightforward. 
  • Refugee family reunion is about protecting lives, so it should be considered part of the asylum process – and not immigration.
  • To bring their families to the UK, refugees need to fill out a complicated form – and they have to do this on their own, without any professional help. 
  • Only qualified legal advisers can deal with the many significant complexities that arise during the process.

Main recommendations

Families belong together. That’s why we’re calling for a simpler and safer refugee family reunion process, with help to cover the cost of legal fees.

The government should:

  • Find a way to publicly fund legal providers, so they can give free legal advice to refugees seeking family reunion.
  • Simplify the application form that refugees need to complete.
  • Give out consistent guidance, which is easy to find. 
  • Make the process safer for the family left behind – for example, protecting women and children, vulnerable to violence or exploitation. This includes making it easier to reach British embassies. 
  • Consider the challenge of getting hold of documents – especially if a refugee has clearly mentioned family members in an asylum claim.
  • Be more flexible and responsive to atypical cases, such as adopted children.
  • Give people an opportunity to submit further evidence, at different stages of the process. 

Read the full report

Join the debate

Agree that families belong together? Want to comment on our research? Get in touch on Facebook or Twitter.

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