UK law needs a new definition of 'family'

UK refugee law needs a new definition of 'family'
5 min read
01 Feb, 2018
Comment: If refugees are to 'integrate', they must be allowed to reunite with their families, writes Sophia Akram.
Refugees arriving from Syria and elsewhere need support in reuniting with their families [Getty]
With an extant refugee crisis on the continent, the UK won't win any awards for its part in taking it on.

Already under-committing by only promising to settle 20,000 Syrian refugees; and backtracking on its pledge to take 3,000 unaccompanied children, the question then turns to "what about the lucky ones who already got here?"

Well, a new report by Oxfam and the Refugee Council has found that many refugees resettling in the UK are not integrating so well because of another UK policy, which stops many of them reuniting with their loved ones.

This may confuse those who know that international law dictates that everyone has a right to family. The Dublin III regulation also means those granted asylum can also apply for asylum for their family members.

The controversy lies over the word "family", however. As it stands, the UK's definition is too narrow, as it applies the rules to only the nuclear family - spouses and dependent children under 18. This is keeping many refugees separated from who they consider family, which is preventing them from integrating into British society.

The report's authors who interviewed refugee council staff responsible for resettlement gave enlightening examples of how separation has had profound impacts: physical, practical, emotional as well as mental.

And frankly, none of them are hard to relate to.
Successful integration requires work and mental energy that is often not available to refugees experiencing family separation

How can they integrate?

Of course, without their family members, many can't envision a long-term future for themselves in the UK. Why would you expect those missing their loved ones to be able to put their heart into English classes when they remain distracted, worrying about their relatives from wherever they have fled.

As the report poignantly points out, "successful integration requires work and mental energy that is often not available to refugees experiencing family separation".

Not to mention the guilt, anxiety and depression that can arise from being separated. And the practical considerations of having to bear additional caring responsibilities if the main carer is still in their country of origin.

There are also the lengths to which people will resort in order to ensure their family members do join them. The report cites incidents of paying smugglers, saving their small benefit payments to pay legal/administration costs or even returning to dangerous situations like conflict zones because they're overcome with worry.

Considering the plight of many refugees, including the danger they may have fled and the harrowing journeys they have endured, the added weight of separation can only compound the hardship they've already experienced.

So, the answer isn't difficult if you ask yourself exactly how easy you would find it to integrate in such circumstances.

Similarly, the report also found that family reunion aids integration for new arrivals and family members already in the UK. Sharing information about British culture and processes as well as practical burdens while eliminating psychological distress appeared to allow people more time to integrate.

There's more to 'family'

An already-flawed system that needs considerable improvement, even where refugees are eligible for family reunification, therefore, needs even further amending by expanding this definition of "family".

In many parts of the world, various members of the extended family are as close as those counted within the nuclear unit. Uncles, aunts and grandparents and so on can make up vital support networks.

A new definition of family should include dependent relatives; adult sons, daughters and siblings who have not yet formed their own families; parents; new spouses and their children; and persons on whom the refugee is dependent.

Particularly in the anti-immigration political climate the UK finds itself in, the government's propensity for doing the immigration system any favours is slim

MPs will have a unique chance to make this happen in March 2018 as a private members bill is being introduced into the Commons by Angus MacNeil. The Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, if passed, would allow child refugees to sponsor parents and siblings under 25. It would also allow adult refugees to sponsor their parents, children and siblings under 25. Legal aid for refugee family reunion, which was stopped by a 2012 Act, would also be reintroduced.

The Bill has gained the support of Amnesty International UK, the British Red Cross, Oxfam, Refugee Council and UNHCR. But to get the bill passed, McNeil, an SNP MP, may be facing stark odds. It will need backing from the government and the record of non-Conservative members of parliament getting their bills passed doesn't look good.

Particularly in the anti-immigration political climate the UK finds itself in, the government's propensity for doing the immigration system any favours is slim.

But Oxfam and the Refugee Council show that the government has it all to gain by passing the Bill. This isn't just in the best interests of refugees who are suffering the absence of family members for a whole raft of reasons explored in the report. Nor is it only in the best interests of the child where unaccompanied minors are concerned. It's in the best interest of UK society as well.

Welcoming people into the UK and offering them sanctuary doesn't just have to be a humanitarian act. The country benefits from all they have to offer, and keeping refugees - people who have lost an awful lot already - from their family is also keeping them from giving their very best.

Reuniting refugees with crucial family networks beyond the country's current narrow "nuclear" definition will help them integrate fully into society. And that benefits just about everyone.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.