All families matter: An inquiry into family migration Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

Families Matter

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”1

1.Family matters to everyone. The “natural and fundamental group unit of society” may take many forms, but the importance of family bonds is understood in every society and in every nation around the globe.

2.Separation has always been a reality for some families. Sometimes people develop relationships across borders and sometimes people choose to move from one country to another, knowing this will mean living apart from members of their family—perhaps intending to reunite with them one day. British people meet partners of other nationalities. Life is complicated, and circumstances change. Children are born to parents of different nationalities, and it may not be possible to live together as a family unit. In some cases, people are forced to move away from their country and family, seeking sanctuary and security elsewhere.

3.In the United Kingdom, families may be separated because immigration laws control the entry and stay of people in the country. While almost all those who are British or Irish citizens, together with Commonwealth citizens with the right of abode, have the right to enter and live in the UK, any family where one or more members are nationals of other states (non-nationals) can only live together in the UK if the non-national seeks special permission, known as “leave to enter” or “leave to remain”. There are many people who find that the Immigration Rules and practice keep them apart from close family members, even where they themselves are British citizens and have never lived outside the United Kingdom. The reality of family separation may mean that family members cannot care for one another in person, and enjoy family life as a unit.

4.The Home Secretary told us that “it is not feasible for all those people who might wish to come to the UK to do so”, adding that “we do not have an unlimited capacity to welcome every single person who is in a difficult situation in their home country”.2 We do not argue this but we do believe that the current rules do not adequately respect the right for families to be together. We took evidence from people who had many different reasons for going through the long and often emotionally draining, and expensive, process of bringing family to the UK. People embark on the process because being with their family is vital to them and to the wellbeing of their families. In many cases, there are important caring responsibilities to consider. We heard from individuals whose main concern is the safety and security of their relatives currently living in unsafe countries.

5.In approaching the subject of family migration, the Committee began with questions. Are the rules around family migration fair? Do they recognise the (often complicated) reality of modern family life? Are the policies implemented in a way that protects the best interests of children? Are the rules around bringing family members to the UK consistent across different immigration pathways? Does the Home Office apply its own guidance consistently? Is the process of making applications clear and understandable to those affected? Do they benefit society as a whole?

6.Our inquiry comes at an important moment. The UK’s departure from the European Union means that family migration rules now apply to people who would previously have benefitted from free movement provisions. There is continuing interest in, and controversy surrounding, asylum policy, with the Government having recently introduced wide changes through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and more recently having announced further new policy. The UK’s response—in some ways highly commendable—to a series of geopolitical crises has provided a safe haven to many in need.3

7.Yet there has been little discussion of family migration policies in the round, and a Government analysis of the impact of the reforms introduced in 2012 on family migration has also been lacking. The purpose of this report is to bring the question of family migration back to public attention in a sensitive and purposeful way. We make a number of recommendations to the Government.

A decade of reform

8.It is now ten years since the Coalition Government introduced a major reform of the family immigration system. The reform was effected through a series of measures. One aspect of the reform was the tightening of the Adult Dependent Relative (ADR) route, often used to bring elderly parents to the UK to be cared for by family here, which limits the issue of such visas. The 2012 reform also saw the introduction of a new financial requirement, often referred to as the “minimum income requirement”, which limits the ability of British citizens or permanent residents to make their lives in the UK with a foreign partner. The “probationary” period for spouses and partners was also extended, such that they can now reach settlement (known as “indefinite leave to remain”) only after five years of living in the country, compared with two years previously.4 The reform also resulted in more applicants relying on human rights exceptions to remain in the country, setting them on a 10-year path to settlement. In an effort to ensure that “those who are subject to immigration control have a form of access to healthcare commensurate with their immigration status”, the Government passed an often-misunderstood reform in 2015, introducing an “Immigration Health Surcharge” which most immigrants must pay as an additional contribution to the NHS and is calculated on an annual basis.5

9.The 2012 reforms were introduced at a time when there was considerable attention on the overall levels of immigration to the UK from outside the EU. Family separation, or requiring families to leave, was considered to be the price of protecting the public finances and promoting social cohesion. It was widely assumed at the time that the changes would not affect the family reunion rights associated with EU freedom of movement rules for eligible citizens.

10.Conducting our inquiry in 2022, we had the opportunity to take evidence about the impact of these changes a decade after they were introduced. Our evidence showed that many families have been separated as a result of the changes, whereas some decided to leave the UK to reunite elsewhere. The 2012 reform of the financial requirement alone was expected to bar between 13,600 and 17,800 people of all ages from entering the country every year.6 Three years after the reform, the Children’s Commissioner for England estimated that up to 15,000 children had been separated from a parent by the financial requirement.7 This is, to the best of our knowledge, the latest figure available.

11.The UK’s departure from the EU means that the policies on family migration now also apply to citizens of the European Economic Area and of Switzerland, with the consequence that many more families will be separated than was once anticipated. In respect of the ADR route, we heard that “Brexit now makes the UK a rare case globally, totally unexpected by the 2012 reform, that virtually no new immigrant—including fully naturalised citizens—can be joined by their parents.”8

12.There is a tendency to conflate the number of refugees and asylum-seekers with the number of those seeking entry into the country by all pathways. Since the agreement reached between the UK and French Government in 2002, measures have been put in place to close down the unauthorised and often risky routes through the Channel Tunnel using trains, lorries and other vehicles to secure entry. However, as a consequence, the number of those seeking entry into the country for asylum purposes, using unsafe and inappropriately equipped craft, has increased to the point where those entering by this means now exceed the previous totals entering across the Channel prior to the Le Touquet agreement.

13.The picture is becoming complicated in other ways. In the last two years, several “bespoke” routes have been introduced in response to geopolitical crises, most notably the Hong Kong British Nationals (Overseas) Route; the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy; the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme; and the three schemes for Ukrainian nationals and their relatives (the Ukraine Family Scheme, the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, and the Ukraine Extension Scheme). The ways that different schemes operate reveal different and apparently inconsistent approaches to different groups. We wanted to consider such inconsistencies as part of our wider examination of family migration policies.

The experience of separated families

14.A common thread that ran throughout our inquiry was the distress of separated families. We were told that the experience of the family reunion application process was “often a lengthy and traumatising process in itself” and that it involved “stress, depression, other diagnoses and worsening of existing conditions … and impacts on physical health and wellbeing including insomnia, panic attacks, alcohol misuse, hair loss, and weight issues.”9 Several witnesses also mentioned the “crippling financial costs” that threaten to push families into destitution and force some to alter their career and other life plans.10

15.Our attention was drawn specifically to the situation of children, whose development is impaired by separation and emotional issues. “Being separated from a parent for even 6–9 months is a long time in the life of a child”, we heard from expert witnesses, who also told us that separation “can adversely impact children’s language learning, school attainment and longer-term educational and labour market performance”, not to mention “profound feelings of anxiety and circular worries about their family members as well as feelings of loneliness, displacement, guilt and self-doubt at their perceived failure to help their family members”.11 We counted several references to suicide in the evidence we received, in relation to adults and children alike.12

16.Separated families may use “modern means of communication” to keep in touch across borders. While they may bring some comfort, we asked for feedback from families and heard that reliance on such means is very problematic for many. Relatives abroad may not have access to communication devices or a suitable internet connection, especially when they live in war-torn regions or in countries where the State controls communications.13 Even in the UK, some families “struggle to pay for phone cards out of their Local Authority/benefits allowances.”14 Isolated, elderly parents abroad, who may lack IT literacy, “cannot have a reasonable conversation with you just through a video call, and it just becomes more and more upsetting as they age.”15

17.When modern means of communication are available, we heard that they were “painfully inadequate substitutes for the physical presence of a partner or parent”.16 Described as “a necessary evil”, we were told that they “cannot by any means replace face-to-face communication that can nourish and develop meaningful relationships.”17 As Families for Justice told us, the experience of the Covid pandemic taught us there was “no substitute” for a hug, “one human being embracing another human being.”18

18.We heard that modern means of communication were particularly inadequate and often damaging when children were involved. We were told that “many children become overwhelmed by the conflicting emotions of wanting to be with their loved one, even if it is through a computer or mobile phone screen, and the devastation of knowing they are so far away while doing so”, resulting in children refusing to speak to their parent because “they find it too painful”.19 A vivid illustration was provided to us by Rebecca Eribal, a member of campaign groups BritCits and Reunite Families UK who was herself separated from her husband by the Immigration Rules. She told us:

“One community member’s child communicated with his father solely through Skype. The child did not believe that her dad had legs, because she had only ever seen the upper half of his body. Another child believed that his father lived in the computer. Technology helps, but it is really just a plaster on a gaping wound, which takes a long, long time to heal.”20

19.In written evidence, the Home Office emphasised that separation and the use of modern means of communication was the choice of families: “A decision made under the family Immigration Rules will not stipulate any expectation that a family unit should separate. Where a decision refuses an application for leave to enter or remain based on family life this will be based on an assessment as to whether the family can relocate outside the UK together. Whether the family choose to separate is always a matter for them to determine.”21

Our approach

20.In July 2022, we launched our call for evidence, which was disseminated widely to interested stakeholders.22 Our aim was to approach family migration policies in the widest possible sense, looking at general trends in the design of family immigration pathways, as well as looking at the impact of family migration policies on families and on society as a whole. Specifically, the scope of our inquiry included not only family visas, but also family migration aspects of other routes (including, for instance, a refugee’s sponsorship of a family member). We also wanted to consider family immigration that is not happening because of the Immigration Rules and emigration because of the Immigration Rules.

21.Our evidence also reinforced our concerns about the culture and approach of the Home Office itself. While we did not seek evidence regarding wider issues around resourcing and the organisation of the Home Office, they have been a prominent theme in the evidence we received.

Evidence programme

22.Over the course of our inquiry, we held seven evidence sessions and spoke to a total of 21 witnesses. We also reviewed over 80 written submissions, including submissions from individuals who wanted to share their families’ own experiences anonymously with the Committee. We are grateful to all our witnesses and contributors for their time and valuable input. A list of oral and written evidence can be found in Appendix 2.

23.We received a written submission from the Home Office and were able to put some of our questions to the Home Secretary when she appeared before us in December 2022.23 We are grateful to her and to the officials who contributed. The Permanent Secretary agreed to provide the Committee with further information, including responses to our questions on the training of caseworkers. This information was outstanding at the time we agreed this report.

24.Our Specialist Adviser for this inquiry was Dr Helena Wray, Associate Professor, Law School, University of Exeter. We would like to thank her for her invaluable advice, insight, and support throughout the inquiry. We are also grateful to academics who attended two private seminars before we launched the inquiry, and to the organisations and stakeholders who helped us disseminate the call for evidence.

25.During the evidence programme we heard from academics and practitioners. In a session with economists, we discussed the impact of family migration policies on public finances, growth, and the labour market. We heard from some local authorities, despite many citing pressures on staff time and resources when responding to our queries.

26.In a session on international comparisons, we heard from academic experts from Canada, Norway, and The Netherlands. While Canada is recognised by the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) as having “favourable” family reunion policies, national policies are considered “halfway favourable” in Norway and “unfavourable” in The Netherlands.24 In choosing these countries, we note that there is no country which compares directly with the experience of the UK, as the situations in other countries reflect different histories and different overall approaches to migration and citizenship policies more broadly. This session also allowed us to hear how the UK’s approach to family migration is seen from abroad. As Professor Audrey Macklin, Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, put it: “What strikes me about the UK system is that it seems to desire to prevent and deter families from living together.”25

27.As well as taking evidence from academics, lawyers, and practitioners, we also wanted to hear from individuals who themselves, through different circumstances, had experience of navigating the system. Among them, we spoke to two refugees whose evidence has been published on an anonymous basis. Transcripts of all the oral evidence sessions have been made available on the Committee’s pages of the parliamentary website.

28.We share our findings in this report. We attempt to strike the right balance between the needs of families and wider political and societal considerations. We set out our conclusions (bolded) and recommendations (bolded and italicised) in this report. We believe that the recommendations are consistent with providing a fair, transparent, and humanitarian set of family migration policies, while ensuring the Government retains control of immigration.

Structure of this report

29.This report is structured as follows:

Box 1: Note on terminology

1.In this note, we define some of the terms we are using throughout the report. Individual situations vary and we acknowledge that these terms may not be most accurate in all circumstances.

2.Separation” refers to any situation in which people are living apart from one another because the Immigration Rules do not allow them to live together in the UK. “Reunion” refers to any situation in which people are able to live together after a period of separation. Sometimes the evidence we received refers to “single parenthood” or “lone parenthood” meaning a situation in which a child (or children) is (or are) living with one parent, the other absent because the Immigration Rules do not allow them to live together in the UK—rather than a situation in which one parent is not part of the family unit or is deceased.

3.Family visa” refers to any authorisation to enter or stay in the UK granted by the Home Office under its family migration pathways.26 This typically includes the grant of temporary “leave to enter” or “leave to remain” in the UK (usually for 2.5 years), or of “indefinite leave to enter” or “indefinite leave to remain” (also referred to as “settlement”) in the UK.

4.Spouses and partners of British citizens and permanent residents are subject to a “probationary period” of five or ten years, known as the “five-year route to settlement” and the “ten-year route to settlement”, before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain. The five-year route is for spouses and partners who meet all the requirements of the Immigration Rules. The ten-year route is for those who cannot meet all the requirements of the Immigration Rules but have been allowed to stay as an “exception”, usually because refusal or expulsion would breach their human rights.

5.Applicant” refers to the person who is seeking the right to enter or stay in the UK. In the context of family migration, applicants need a “sponsor”, who is one of their relatives. For a visa to be granted, both the applicant and their sponsor must meet certain requirements. The sponsor is usually an adult British citizen, someone living permanently in the UK, a refugee, someone present in the UK for work or study purposes, or a citizen of the European Economic Area present in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme.

1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16

2 Oral evidence taken on 21 December 2022 (Session 2022–23), Q1 (The Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC MP, Home Secretary)

3 Home Office, New Plan for Immigration: legal migration and border control, CP 706 (24 May 2021): [accessed 6 December 2022]

4 House of Commons Library, Immigration and asylum: changes made by the Coalition Government
, SN/HA/5829, 24 March 2015.

5 Postgraduate students and their dependants who arrive in the UK on a student visa, for instance, must pay several hundred pounds a year (typically £470 each) at the time of their application and can then access the NHS. They are prohibited from accessing other public funds.

6 Written evidence from the Scottish Government (FAM0015), citing The Migration Observatory, University of Oxford, The Minimum Income Requirement for Non-EEA Family Members in the UK (27 January 2016): [accessed 9 December 2022]

7 Children’s Commissioner, Skype Families: the effects on children of being separated from a mum or dad because of recent Immigration Rules (9 September 2015):

8 Written evidence from Marcus Lin (FAM0020)

9 Written evidence from SOGICA (FAM0022) and Professor Katharine Charsley (FAM0029)

10 Anonymous written evidence (FAM0003) and from John Lowrie (FAM0016)

11 Written evidence from Professor Katharine Charsley (FAM0029), the Scottish Government (FAM0015) and The Migrants’ Law Project (FAM0038)

12 Written evidence from Professor Katharine Charsley (FAM0029), Kids in Need of Defense (KIND UK) (FAM0032), The Migrants’ Law Project (FAM0038), Safe Passage International (FAM0082), Medical Justice (FAM0098) and Q 75 (Witness 2)

13 See, for instance, written evidence from The Migrants’ Rights Network (FAM0037), The Migrants’ Law Project (FAM0038) and RAMFEL (FAM0039).

14 Written evidence from The Migrants’ Law Project (FAM0038)

15 Q 66 (Dr Kamal Sidhu)

16 Written evidence from Professor Katharine Charsley (FAM0029)

17 Written evidence from Reunite Families UK (FAM0035)

18 Written evidence from Families For Justice (FAM0049)

19 Written evidence from F. Twist (FAM0043) and Families For Justice (FAM0049)

20 Q 66 (Rebecca Eribal)

21 Written evidence from the Home Office (FAM0103)

22 Justice and Home Affairs Committee, ‘Call for evidence’ (July 2022):

23 Written evidence from the Home Office (FAM0103) and oral evidence taken on 21 December 2022 (Session 2022–23), QQ 1–16 (The Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC MP, Home Secretary)

24 Migrant Integration Policy Index, ‘Family Reunion’ (2020): [accessed 8 December 2022]

25 Q 44 (Professor Audrey Macklin)

26 HM Government, ‘Family visas: apply, extend or switch’: [accessed 20 December 2022]

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