A new report by the British Red Cross shows that refugees are having to navigate war zones and face other difficulties that put their lives at risk when applying for a family reunion visa.
Refugees who have been granted asylum can apply to bring their close relatives to join them in the UK through a family reunion visa. In the last five years, the Home Office has issued more than 29,000 visas under this category to people from different parts of the world. Family members from Eritrea, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and other countries facing conflict and unrest received about two-thirds of those visas granted in 2019.
Biometrics screening, which involves the submission of photographs, passports, and fingerprints, is one of the requirements by the Home Office for a family reunion visa. Applicants will have to appear at the UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) to complete this and other requirements for the visa.
The nearest VACs to many applicants are often hundreds of miles away, which will require multiple journeys. For those from countries where there are no VACs, many will have to make unauthorised border crossings to process their visa. People in this category face the highest risk as they will sometimes be at the mercy of smugglers to get to their destinations. Adding to these rigors, long journeys to the Home Office designated clinics for tuberculosis tests potentially expose them to yet more risks the report states.
49% of 100 families the researchers spoke to found the process exposed them to enormous risks, just to provide personal data and documents. Since 2010, 9 out of 10 applicants have been children (58%) and older women (33%), which further increases the chances of child mortality and sexual violence.
One woman told the researchers how she had to travel for several days by camel with her children. She had to keep them awake throughout the night so they did not fall off during the journey. Another woman recalled how she travelled with her children, aged five, eight, and ten, to another country to submit their application. After travelling for four hours from her residence to a village near the border, she then had to pay a smuggler 8000 USD for another nine-hour journey, taking off early evening and journey across difficult terrain.
The British Red Cross finds the process applicants go through to complete the application to be dangerous. Their report calls for a better system. “In some cases, children and adults are forced to navigate war zones, flee sexual violence, hide for fear of imprisonment or abuse, and are even forced to pay smugglers,” the report revealed.
Some of the recommendations made in the report include reducing the journeys applicants make to just one, and only once a positive decision has been made on their case. Furthermore, they request the ability to submit biometric data in other ways, if a family cannot reach a VAC safely.
Since 2016, the Home Office has been making changes to improve family reunion visa applications. This includes the inspection and re-inspection of the process at some of its centres and the transfer of the bulk of the decision making role to a dedicated team in Sheffield. Various research reports by the British Red Cross, however, show that those changes are slow and would require more effort to considerably ease the rigours applicants face.
Scrutiny has been heightened after Home Secretary Priti Patel pledged to reform the UK’s asylum system by offering more “safe and legal routes”. As the BRC has revealed, important work is needed to make sure one of the only existing “safe” routes for families doesn’t involve undue risk.
[Header image: BBC]