Tesfa fled Eritrea two years ago when he was still a child. After a terrible, year-long journey during which he was crammed onto a boat crossing the Mediterranean with 400 other people, he arrived in the UK and claimed asylum. He is now living and studying here, but finds it very hard to be without his family – the people with whom he feels most safe and secure.
Refugee family reunion rules do not allow Tesfa to bring his family to join him because he is a child. We have a perverse situation where refugee children are not allowed to bring their close family members to join them in the same way as an adult can.
Almost every other EU country allows children to sponsor family members because they recognise that these are some of the most vulnerable children, who have already been through the unimaginable, should not then be told they cannot grow up with their families.
Labour will be supporting a private member’s bill on Friday that would give unaccompanied refugee children the right to sponsor family members to join them. This would affect a small number of children but have a transformative effect on their lives.
Family reunion is crucial for integration. Many refugee children are unable to focus on putting down roots as they feel guilty and worried about family members. Speaking to Refugee Council, Mwanza described attending English language classes but leaving having taken nothing in. He was too worried about his wife and daughter who are still in a refugee camp in Central Africa. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said “there is a direct link between family reunification, mental health and successful integration”.
On top of this, family reunion applications are complex and almost always require a lawyer, as those applying have no access to legal aid. The form is long, language may be a barrier and providing evidence of a family tie can be nearly impossible when a family has been torn apart by conflict. Labour supports expanding legal aid for family reunion cases.
Immigration rules restrict not just the rights of refugees, but British citizens as well. In order to bring a family member to come and live here, a British citizen must earn at least £18,600 a year. This requirement is the highest in the world in relative terms. Almost half of British citizens, including many in full-time work cannot meet the requirement. Labour would replace this with a prohibition on recourse to public funds.
Our approach to family reunion is based on Labour values, which Diane Abbott set out in her speech a few weeks ago. Labour respects the right to a family life. We will take the approach that: if you are a child granted the right to be here, so will your parents or carers. If you have been brought up by carers or parents with a right to be here, so will you, even after you turn 18.
This underlines our commitment to human rights. This is the application of Labour values. It is the right thing to do.
Afzal Khan MP is shadow immigration minister and MP for Manchester Gorton.
This piece was commissioned by guest editor Diane Abbott.