It’s wise to choose for a private member’s bill a discrete topic to address a problem which has been identified and can be relatively easily solved – and which the Government might be prepared to see implemented. But sometimes the concern to take forward a cause overtakes wisdom – thus my Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill which finished making its way through the Lords on 3rd July and has been taken up in the Commons by Tim Farron.
Most cultures recognise the importance of family, for day to day support, practical and emotional, as well as at significant dates in the calendar. We do in the UK, but there is a shortfall. Recently a number of parliamentarians heard from two teenagers who know what it’s like to be separated from their family: pain, stress, worry about the safety of loved ones.
My Bill will reunite more refugee families.
Maya and Khalil represented the many young refugees whose stories are hard to hear without emotion. Like almost every other refugee I’ve met, people who have often survived the most extreme experiences, they talked about how keen they are to get an education and how they are determined to contribute to society: model citizens, who have contended with everything that being a refugee means, and separated from family too.
My Bill will help more refugee families to be reunited. Under the current rules, adult refugees are only allowed to bring their partners and children under 18 to join them in the UK. This can present the invidious choice of leaving some family members behind, or putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers and traffickers.
Siblings aren’t allowed. Take a young man who has lost the whole of his family in war, apart from a brother of 16. He could reach the UK and be recognised as requiring refugee protection, but wouldn’t be able to sponsor his brother to join him.
The Bill will also allow refugee children in the UK to sponsor their closest family to join them. The UK is almost alone within Europe in not allowing child refugees to be joined by family members. Despite accepting that it is not safe for these children to return home, the Government prevents them from being with their parents, forcing them to grow up in a new country without the support of their family.
I believe my Bill goes with the grain of current public opinion – as demonstrated by the outrage over the treatment of the Windrush generation. Government ministers warn of a “pull factor” and of children being sent to the UK so that their families can follow. But when you listen to refugees and hear about the dangers they face on the way… well, frankly I’ve never bought that argument.
When I was waiting to go into the chamber for the last stage of the Bill in the Lords, I commented to a doorkeeper that it’s quite an emotional moment when you say, “My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass”. “When will it get through the Commons?” he asked. “It won’t. The Government opposes it”, I explained. “Oh, what a shame.” “Yes, but it’s all part of a campaign. I’m not the only person calling for this.”
We're still fighting for the Bill in the Commons - it is scheduled for its second reading on 26th October.
The points made in debates on the Bill, and in other debates, have added up to a loud, clear call on the Government to amend the UK’s rules to allow more refugee families to be reunited; to better reflect the reality for families separated by war and persecution; and to accept that families belong together.
Baroness Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs in the House of Lords.