Last week the immigration inspector published a 74-page stinging criticism of the Home Office’s approach to family reunion applications. After three previous inspections the Home Office’s performance had “deteriorated” and the inspection revealed “a system beset with delays and a team ill-equipped to manage the complexity and volume of applications”.
As with asylum decisions, the scale and growth of the backlog is staggering – the inspector reported 8,000 pending applications, 72% of which were already outside the 12-week service standard. Almost 40% had been waiting twice as long. At the Refugee & Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL), the last three decisions received took 11 months to be decided. The Home Office was “constantly firefighting”: prioritising only those cases where legal action had been threatened, or an MP was chasing – creating a two-tier system.
Delays mean vulnerable people are trapped in countries neighbouring conflict zones, living alone or in precarious circumstances, at risk of kidnapping, imprisonment, exploitation, smuggling. Roughly 90% of applicants are women and children. Many of those we work with are either refugees in third countries, or would qualify as refugees in their own right. The report acknowledges that family reunion is one of the main safe and legal routes into the UK and suggests that “the lack of an effective family reunion route carries with it the risk that vulnerable people will resort to dangerous journeys to join their family members in the UK”.
Home Office officials quoted in the report blamed ‘speculative’ or ‘abusive’ applications, without being able to provide data “or even a sense of the scale of this issue”. This is something we see repeated across different Home Office teams – a recent inspection on immigration detention found the Home Office to be “held back by a narrative that placed abuse of the system ahead of protecting the vulnerable”. Perhaps no surprise when the ministers they answer to hurl unfounded accusations of abuse at migrants or their representatives.
The Home Office has at least accepted many of the recommendations in the report, including dedicating staff to family reunion applications and introducing criteria for expediting applications based on vulnerability.
Inspectors would have uncovered further failures if they had also examined the quality of decision-making, which we find is frequently deficient, with expert evidence often ignored or dismissed without explanation.
Take our client Ahmed (pseudo names have been used for anonymity), who fled Eritrea and reached the UK in 2018, where he was granted refugee status. He applied for his younger sister, Mariam, who is in Ethiopia, to join him. An independent social worker’s report documents their very strong bond and Ahmed’s parental role. Mariam says that she “wouldn’t have been alive” without him.
Ahmed and Mariam’s sister were previously captured and forcibly returned to Eritrea. Mariam’s sister remains imprisoned, and their mother fell ill and died in Eritrea over a year ago. Since the summer of 2022, Mariam has been living completely alone in Addis Ababa. She says “It is important for me to be with my brother because there is no other person who can help me, and I am not in a safe place […].” The social worker’s report states that in her seven years’ experience she had “never assessed a child to be at as great a risk of harm as (the applicant) is”.
The Home Office refused the application without meaningfully considering the social worker’s report or the risks Mariam faced. We appealed, and although the Home Office fought the case all the way, they did not bother to send a representative on the day of the hearing.
In an extraordinary judgment allowing the appeal, the judge said:
“She is living in the most dangerous of circumstances and has found to be at risk of imminent harm by independent social workers. Her sister was forcibly returned from Ethiopia to Eritrea so the appellant has direct knowledge of how dangerous the situation is for her. She is described by an independent social worker as a “terrified child”.
That has been a total failure by the respondent to carry out fair or timely decision making for refugee family reunion or to consider the evidence. The facts of this case drive me to raise the urgency of allowing this particular child entry to the UK without further delay.”
Three weeks later, the Home Office is still yet to issue Mariam’s visa.
Upon allowing the appeal, the judge urged Ahmed to plead with his sister not to travel to Libya, acknowledging, as the inspector did, the obvious link between lack of access to family reunion and refugees embarking on dangerous journeys.
The Home Office is unwilling to make the same link. In a recent refusal of family reunion for another client, the Home office said:
“In the UNHCR Report it is recommended that you reunite with you sponsor in the UK as you will otherwise embark on a hazardous journey across North Africa and the Mediterranean to Europe. This recommendation is based on speculation, as it cannot be said conclusively what you may or may not decide to do in future, and there is no objective evidence that supports this conclusion.”
Family reunion rules themselves are currently excessively restrictive. The UK is the only country in Europe not to allow unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor relatives stuck abroad. Siblings are also excluded from making an application. Change is welcomed.
There should be recognition that being forced to flee conflict or persecution can cause the ‘nuclear’ family unit to dissolve and people are forced to rely on other family members. The Ukraine family scheme allowed UK-based Ukrainian refugees to apply for extended family members to join them, including adult children; grandparents and grandchildren; siblings; aunts and uncles; nieces and nephews; cousins; parents-in-law; grandparents-in-law, and even siblings-in-law. This flexible approach could be extended to all refugees.
The Private Members’ Bill which recently passed through the House of Lords, expanding the family reunion criteria and easing access to legal aid would be well received. The Home Office has accepted many of the recommendations in the report and it is hoped that amendments are seen shortly.