Politics

What safe routes? Britain's broken system forcing refugees to take dangerous journeys, report finds

Many people fleeing conflict zones qualify for the UK's family reunion visa – but find it impossible to get one

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a boat, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a boat. Image: Mstyslav Chernov / Unframe

Refugees fleeing conflict zones are being forced to embark on perilous journeys to the UK despite qualifying for visas on a government ‘safe route’.

A new report by the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) lays bare the failings of the UK’s family reunion scheme, one of the only ‘safe routes’ available to refugees. 

It documents how many people who qualify under the terms of the scheme can’t even apply because there’s no Visa Application Centre (VAC) to register biometrics, and states the Home Office’s default position is to reject applications anyway.

With both the Conservatives and the Labour Party promising to ‘stop the boats’ and a rejuvenated Reform UK polling well, immigration has again been one of the hot topics of this election. 

Despite this, neither Labour or Conservative manifestos made a pledge to offer safe routes to sanctuary for those fleeing danger, persecution and war. That was left to the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Greens.

RAMFEL’s head of campaigning Nick Beales said the family reunion system is “not fit for purpose and needs overhauling” by the next government.

“The lack of a functioning system leaves those in conflict zones with no choice but to take dangerous journeys,” he said. “If the next government is serious about preventing such journeys, then creating a workable application process that allows those with UK family ties to swiftly and safely secure family reunion visas should be a priority on day one.”

RAMFEL’s research, conducted over two and a half years, shows that even making applications under the family reunion scheme is impossible for many because of the requirement to attend a VAC to register biometrics. Many conflict zones, such as Sudan and Gaza, do not have a VAC. Nor does Afghanistan.

It also evidenced that the government’s default position has been to refuse family reunion applications, regardless of whether the person qualifies under the rules of the scheme.

In one of the few family reunion routes – Appendix CNP, which covers children – the government refused 83% of applications between April and September 2023. In another route, Appendix Adult Dependant Relative, the refusal rate was 96% between 2017 and 2020.

It is therefore left to immigration lawyers to challenge these decisions, with around two-thirds overturned in court between 2019 and 2022. RAMFEL itself has never failed to overturn a family reunion refusal.

To make matters worse, there are huge delays in processing applications and, once rejected, an average wait of 43 weeks for an appeal date. That means people stuck in conflict zones who qualify for one of the UK’s ‘safe routes’ are having to wait over a year for a visa – or make their own way here.

The government’s own analysis confirms that family ties are one of the driving factors motivating refugees to try and get to the UK.

And RAMFEL said its work in Sudan shows this is the case. 

“When last year’s conflict started we were working with 14 people there, 13 of whom were children, seeking to apply for family reunion in the UK. One year on, only two have been given UK visas, with many either stranded in Sudan or having attempted dangerous journeys and suffered serious abuse en route,” it said.

RAMFEL said until the UK government creates effective safe routes it is inevitable that desperate people seeking safety with their loved ones will continue to make their way here.

It has five demands of the next UK government that would make a difference:

1. Removing the need to attend VACs when no VAC is operating in the country of application, as was done for Ukrainians after Russia’s invasion in 2022

2. Introducing a more expansive definition of “family member” 

3. An approach that approves rather than refuses family reunion applications

4. Hiring more decision-makers so that family reunion applications are processed more quickly

5. Immediately restoring legal aid for people whose applications are rejected, to make it easier to appeal

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