MPs from across the political divide voted on Friday in favour of changing the law to enable families divided by conflict and persecution to be reunited in the UK.
A Private Member’s Bill from the SNP’s Angus MacNeil MP, the Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill, and received cross-party backing from 131 MPs, taking it over key threshold and moving it one step closer to becoming law.
This Bill would allow a wider range of family members to be reunited with refugees in the UK. It would provide a route for child refugees to grow up with their families, and allow young people who have turned 18 a better chance to be reunited with their parents. It would also reintroduce legal aid so that refugees who have lost everything can afford to navigate the complicated process of reuniting with separated family members.
“I came to the UK as a child refugee and three years on, I’m still living here alone”
Currently, the Government’s rules prevent refugees in the UK from being reunited with anyone other than their partner or child under 18. Child refugees who arrive in the UK alone are also unable to bring their parents to join them under the current rules. Such a restriction sets the UK apart from most other countries in the EU.
The groundswell of support in Parliament is putting growing pressure on the UK Government to back the new rules or adapt existing ones.
A host of famous faces have also come out in support of the Families Together campaign including: Patrick Stewart; Gwendoline Christie; Peter Capaldi; Vivienne Westwood; Anish Kapoor; Alan Cumming; Juliet Stevenson; the Kaiser Chiefs; Anita Rani; Laura Mvula; Theo James; Anoushka Shankar; and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors David Morrissey and Neil Gaiman.
Following last week’s vote, the Refugees (Family Reunion Bill) will progress to the next stage where it will be examined further by a committee of MPs.
Speaking after the vote, Mr MacNeil said: “Today marks a welcome step forward for many refugees in the UK who are desperate to be reunited with their loved ones.
“It’s fantastic that this new law received the backing of colleagues from across the political divide. It’s clear that this issue isn’t about party politics, it’s about doing the right thing and it was pretty obvious to all of us that families belong together and that children belong with their parents.
“I hope that Ministers come to the same compassionate conclusion: they change their mind and alter the rules – putting an end to the misery of refugee families with the stroke of a pen.”
Reacting to the news, Yohannes, a 19-year-old refugee from Eritrea who is living in the UK, said: ‘I’m so happy that MPs are helping to bring refugee families together. I came to the UK as a child refugee and three years on, I’m still living here alone, while my sister is stuck in a camp in Ethiopia. The camp isn’t safe and she is a girl on her own – I am scared she might be hurt. I’m studying and working right now, but it’s hard to think about the future when I’m so worried about my little sister.
“Just like our own children, young refugees need their families around them to thrive.”
I hope the government will now listen and change the rules so my sister can join me here in safety.”
Actor Juliet Stevenson, who watched the debate in the House of Commons, said: “We can’t change the horrific experiences young refugees have faced escaping war and persecution. But what we can do is support them in rebuilding their lives. Offering safety and security is only the first step. Just like our own children, young refugees need their families around them to thrive.”
The Families Together campaign is backed by a coalition of organisations, including UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency; the Refugee Council; Amnesty International, the British Red Cross; Oxfam; and Student Action for Refugees (STAR).
The organisations agree that widening family reunion rules would allow more refugees a safe and certain future, and could remove the risk of people taking dangerous journeys to be reunited with their loved ones in the UK.