Home Affairs CommitteeSupplementary written evidence submitted by British Red Cross (ASY 72a)

The complexity of the Refugee Family Reunion process

1 Introduction

The aim of this short submission is to highlight the unnecessary legal and other complexities embedded within the Refugee Family Reunion application process. The paper will examine the need for funding for specialist guidance and support throughout this often complex application process. The paper will conclude with suggestions on how this process could be improved and simplified for applicants, sponsors and decision makers. This may result in significantly less costly and lengthy appeals.

Throughout this paper the term “refugee” will be used to refer to people granted refugee status and Humanitarian Protection. The term “applicant” will refer to the family member overseas wishing to enter the UK under the Family Reunion provisions and the term “sponsor” will refer to the refugee, resident in the UK wishing to bring in and be reunited with what are normally pre-flight family members.

2 The Application Process

Finding the form and necessary guidance

The application for Refugee Family Reunion must be submitted online and in English. A great deal of information about the sponsor is required. The vast majority of applications are instigated and completed in the UK by the sponsor because the applicants may live in precarious circumstances including:

  • Living in refugee camps or in hiding.
  • Living in very rural areas with no internet access.
  • Little or no understanding of English.
  • Low levels of computer literacy or prohibited from using internet cafes through cost or security fears.
  • Restricted or no access to advice or support overseas regarding the application process.

Refugee Family Reunion is a complicated process because of the amount of documentation and evidence required. Documents are often sent from the UK to remote parts of the world and back again, and applicants must often travel a vast distance to attend interviews. It is clearly a highly emotive process and one that applicants often need a great deal of practical and emotional support to get through.

Legal Aid

In order to undertake Refugee Family Reunion casework, a professional must be an LSC accredited solicitor or a caseworker registered at least at Level 2 with the OISC. To conduct any appeals related work, the caseworker must be registered at Level 3. In their lobbying paper seeking an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill as it progressed, through the House of Lords, the UNHCR stated that:

……”reunification of the family unit plays an important role in ensuring the protection and well-being of individual members of a refugee family. Respect to the right of family unity requires not only that States refrain from action which would result in family separations, but also that all States pro-actively and in a humanitarian spirit, take measures to maintain the unity of the family and reunite members who have been separated.

UNHCR remains concerned that the withdrawal of legal aid for family reunion cases could prohibit access to family unity, as without legal aid, refugees in the UK may not be able to afford legal representation. Legal aid is an important way of ensuring that refugees who would not be able to act as litigants in person due to restrictions of language and literacy , as well as an inability to navigate the complex procedures, rules and regulations, might access their right”248

The British Red Cross thoroughly endorses the UNHCR’s position and is extremely concerned that the withdrawal of Legal Aid funding for this work is forcing families to remain apart. This has a devastating impact on all members of the family, especially children, who have a fundamental right under the UNCRC to reside with their parents.

3 The Application Form

There is no specific form upon which Refugee Family Reunion applications may be made. The form used to make such applications is an Entry Clearance form known as Visa Application Form 4A (VAF4A) and it is found on the visa4uk website. A hard copy of the form is still available but is very difficult to find and is frustratingly different to the online version, rendering it useless as a guiding tool. The hard copy version of the form is accepted in very few overseas posts. Unfortunately, another website, the official Home Office website, must be accessed to compete part two of the application. Official guidance and policy instruction is very difficult to find and applicants and sponsors without professional support may easily fall prey to erroneous and misleading advice. Unfortunately, this advice is readily available on unofficial websites and chat room forums. The first two questions on the on-line form are crucial yet complex. Answering them incorrectly leads to an incorrect form, a great deal of confusion and a likely refusal.

It is most likely to be the sponsor or advocate who builds the application. It is therefore likely that the sponsor or advocate’s e-mail address and password will be inputted at the registration stage of the form. This immediately makes it seem that it is the sponsor rather than the person’s overseas application; in fact the actual applicant may not see the application—particularly if there is no representative or supporting agency involved. The entire form is written in the third person which is a challenge in itself. Advocates and caseworkers experienced in Refugee Family Reunion work will normally construct detailed covering letters and submissions which add crucial information that is not asked for by the general application form. Representatives will explain areas of complexity, such as explaining why a specific document may not be available. They will also provide witness statements or alternative evidence when it’s required. Furthermore, advocates and caseworkers will often cross check paperwork with the initial asylum application, highlighting and explaining any anomalies. This attention to detail often assists the decision maker to make a well-reasoned decision and prevent costly refusals and appeals.

Throughout the general application form, there are constant references to adequate maintenance and accommodation testing, as well as references to sponsorship undertaking. This causes a great deal of confusion as there is no such testing under Refugee Family Reunion provisions. This often leads sponsors to assume that they must have an adequate sized house and have a salary that is commensurate with the given thresholds before applying for their family. This often adds to the already existent distress and pressure.

Below there are just a few examples of where the on-line application form causes confusion and contention:

4 Summary

Refugee Family Reunion applications are often complex, time consuming and can be costly when they become appeals. Much of this cost can be avoided if the applications are supported by specialist caseworkers and are “front loaded” with all necessary documentation and translated material submitted in a well ordered manner. Tiny errors in the forms can lead to refusal and lengthy waits for appeals to be heard in the UK. The fact that advisers must be accredited or regulated suggests there is acceptance that the process is complicated. Applicants are very often vulnerable to poor advice that can lead to very serious and distressing ramifications.

5 Solutions and suggested actions

Improving the application form

We submit that a dedicated, focussed application form is required to enable Refugee Family Reunion applications to be completed competently. This will result in decisions being made more swiftly and effectively and will reduce the amount of mandatory refusals, review and appeal work. We believe that such a form could be constructed with very little impact on resources and would be highly effective, making it very welcome in the sector.

A dedicated form would reduce the unintended pitfalls and ambiguity inherent in the general form. This would ensure that decision makers had all the information required in an easily digestible manner, making the entire process more efficient and humane. All relevant guidance and a relevant sponsorship undertaking form could easily be linked to a focussed application form, immediately making the process more effective, transparent and fair.

Custom made Refugee Family Reunion application forms asking relevant questions will assist all parties involved and reduce lengthy and costly delays. This will reduce anxiety and stress on separated families.

Improving the overall process

We submit that allowing the entire application process to be conducted in the UK and under the asylum umbrella would simplify this process and allow greater control. This would enable swift cross checking with the asylum and refugee documents, and would allow advisers to contact case workers when necessary. Although documents, records, DNA and health testing would still need to be sourced, sent and undertaken from abroad, processing all material in the UK would allow greater control and efficiency. If public funding is available to enable specialist advisers to assist sponsors with their initial application, the resulting reduction of traffic flowing through the courts will also provide a cost saving.

Creating an end to end, one stop service would counter further costs as sponsors know where to seek advice and not “shop around”. This means that they will be more likely to submit competent applications in the first instance.

British Red Cross

July 2013

Prepared 11th October 2013