The scandal of asylum-seeking children going missing from Home Office hotels (Ministers resist terms such as ‘kidnapped’) is an extreme situation. But they are not the only children suffering at the hands of the UK’s migration policies. The Lords Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee has recently published All families matter: An inquiry into family migration.
One strand of our inquiry was the importance of families to society. “Strong, supportive families make for more stable communities”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak remarked recently. We agreed. “We take the welfare of any child who comes into contact with the Home Office incredibly seriously; their well-being is of paramount importance”, Home Secretary Suella Braverman told our committee. Sadly this is not the law, nor does it reflect the experiences reported to us in evidence.
Ten years after a major set of reforms, we set out to assess family migration policies. We found that they fail both families and society.
We were dismayed and upset by a number of clearly typical stories of families forced to live apart; of parents having to bring up children alone until they can be joined by their foreign partners, provided they earn enough. Of children growing up without a parent and of families who could not be joined in the UK by elderly parents from overseas for whom they are desperate to care (no visa was issued in 2021 to people in that situation). And of child refugees who cannot be joined by any relatives. Questioned by the committee, the Home Secretary defended the policy.
We were shocked and ashamed to hear comments like, “I feel that, although I am a British citizen, I have no rights”. And the rules now apply where, before Brexit, there was free movement. Many European citizens, their families, and British citizens with European relatives, are also now affected.
The Home Office sees separation as a matter of choice and regards online contact as adequate. The committee profoundly disagreed. Daddy does not live on the computer, and he does have legs even though they don’t appear on the screen.
Granny may not be granted a visa to visit. Nor Mummy, because wanting to come frequently to the UK means she is likely to overstay her visa.
A young friend told me recently that she and her family are moving; “It’s to be near Paul’s parents, for childcare”. Grandparents play a significant role in family life, for both financial and emotional reasons. Families whose heritage includes South Asian, for instance, feel this acutely; a family consists of more than two generations.
In addition, modern families are often extended or blended, including stepparents for instance. The Home Office recognises only the traditional ‘nuclear’ model.
A child’s best interests, which generally mean being with family, should be at the heart of family migration decisions. Family law can teach us much when it comes to protecting children. We believe that it is in the best interests of a child living in this country to be surrounded by their family and to remain here. The voice of the child must be heard.
It was no surprise to hear of the difficulties that applicants have in accessing good quality legal advice. We heard powerful and helpful evidence from members of the legal profession, as well as applicants themselves.
Evidential requirements—how you prove your case—are excessively complex and fees alone are prohibitive. People are left distraught.
On top of all this, the Home Office is appallingly poor in its processing of applications. Delays pile up, and communication is dreadful. You phone to ask what’s happening with your application, you have to give your credit card because you’re charged for the call, and some time later, even after getting through to someone, you are still none the wiser.
Our whole society is impacted. Essential skills in the workforce are lost when people feel they have no alternative but to leave the UK, and some people may not come in the first place. Health services are especially affected because the sector particularly includes people in whose culture it is embedded to care for your parents – but we need doctors and nurses in the UK.
An individual’s contribution to the economy is weakened when a partner or parent is not allowed into the country. They cannot share the financial or practical burdens of raising children. In extreme cases, migration policies force families into destitution, making them reliant on the state. The Home Secretary told the committee that the policies strike the right balance between respecting family life and protecting societal interests. The committee recognises that strict criteria and vetting of applications is necessary; public support demands it. But the committee believes that policies that respect family life also benefit society. We are far from having the right balance.
The Home Office had sight of the report before publication. Its reaction was, “there are a number of family visa routes available for partners, spouses, children and adult dependent relatives of those already settled in the UK”. I look forward to responses to our detailed recommendations, including confirmation of just what routes are ‘available’.
Current migration rules are at odds with the commitment to family life. Humanity and decency should be at the heart of rights-based family migration policies. There is considerable scope for the Home Office to simplify complex rules and improve its standards for processing applications and the interests of both families and society would be served by this change.