The UK's Immigration Rules allow for refugees to be joined in the UK by immediate family members in certain circumstances. Provisions in EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) can also be used to reunite families separated across the EU/UK. The Regulations will cease to apply in the UK after the Brexit 'transition period'. This has given extra impetus to pre-existing calls to widen the scope of the UK's rules.
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UK Immigration Rules
The UK’s rules cater for a refugee’s ‘pre-flight’ partner and dependent children (under 18). They do not allow unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor applications from family members. Refugee family reunion visas are issued free of charge and are exempt from some of the eligibility criteria that usually apply to family visa applications.
Relationships that aren’t covered by the refugee family reunion rules, such as dependent adult relatives, adopted children, and ‘post-flight’ family members, are subject to different visa rules. These have significant application fees and more restrictive eligibility criteria, such as adequate maintenance funds and knowledge of English requirements.
There is scope to grant refugee family members leave “outside the Immigration Rules” in exceptional scenarios. This might apply, for example, in order to facilitate the entry of a dependent child over 18, or an unaccompanied child with a close relative in the UK. But campaigners argue that these applications are rarely granted, and that applicants would have greater certainty and superior rights if their circumstances were covered by the Immigration Rules rather than policy guidance.
Legal aid is available for family reunion applications in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was removed for cases in England and Wales in 2013, but in late October 2019 it was reinstated for applications involving unaccompanied children.
Campaigners have criticised the rules for being too restrictive. Successive recent Governments have maintained that the rules and policy guidance provide a “comprehensive framework” for family reunion. They have expressed concern that more generous rules, including allowing child refugees to sponsor applications, might encourage asylum seekers to come to the UK and put children at greater risk of trafficking.
The Dublin III Regulation and Brexit implications
There are concerns that separated families, including unaccompanied children, may lose routes to family reunion if the UK doesn’t negotiate an agreement with the EU or broaden the scope of its own Immigration Rules after the Dublin III Regulation ceases to apply.
The Government has confirmed that it intends to seek a family reunion agreement with the EU for separated children but has not made a similar commitment for adult cases. The EU has not formally indicated its position.
The number of family reunion applications made to the UK under the Immigration Rules or Dublin III Regulation has increased in recent years. In 2018, the UK accepted 1,028 transfers on family reunion grounds under the Dublin Regulations. 159 were children joining relatives in the UK.