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Refugee family reunion: a user’s guide
- How to apply: forms and procedure
- What requirements must be met?
- What kind of refugees can sponsor family members?
- How can I avoid my application being refused?
- Is there a right of appeal against refusal?
- Where can I get help with making an application?
This post is intended for refugees (including those with humanitarian protection), their families and their friends trying to understand the rules on refugee family reunion.
The requirements to be met are fairly straightforward and simple for children and partners who existed at the time the refugee fled their country of origin.
These applications are free and there is no need for the refugee based in the UK to show a particular level of income in the UK or meet any English language requirements.
For new family members such as a new spouse the refugee married after leaving the country of origin or newly born child or for children who are over the age of 18 at the date of application or for other relatives, the normal immigration rules apply and these are far harder to meet.
Where the refugee family reunion requirements or other immigration rules cannot be satisfied it remains possible to rely on human rights arguments and to argue that your application should be considered “outside of the rules”.
How to apply: forms and procedure
All applications for refugee family reunion are free of charge.
If your family are outside the UK
Each of your family members must apply separately for family reunion using the online form on the government’s website.
In addition to this each applicant will need to fill out a paper Appendix 4 (VAF4A) form.
Each family member applying must also get their fingerprints and photograph (‘biometrics’) taken at a visa application centre.
It is important to check before applying because visa application centres are not available in every country and the person applying for family reunion might need to travel across a border to reach the application centre.
In certain exceptional circumstances it may be possible to argue that you don’t have to travel to the visa centre. Doing this is complex and it will be important to get legal advice on this issue early on if you believe it will be very difficult, dangerous or impossible to attend the centre.
Your family members will also need identity documents. If they are able to do so, they should obtain passports.
If it is not possible to obtain passports, you must consider which other identity documents are available to them to prove their identity. If they are successful in their application the UK Entry Clearance post will need a document in which to issue the visa.
It is also important to have a contact email address or telephone number for your family members abroad. This is so that the visa centre can contact them about their documents and appointments. If they do not have an email address, family members in the UK may provide their addresses and contact numbers.
If your family are inside the UK
Applications are normally made from abroad but if your family member manages to reach the UK then the rules allow applications to be made from within the UK.
It will be important to get legal advice if your family member arrived recently in the UK and did not have a visa when they arrived because the new provisions in the Illegal Migration Act 2023 may make applications for these family members more complex.
Each of your eligible family members can apply by email to UKVI Family Reunion Team, firstname.lastname@example.org or letter to UKVI Family Reunion Team, Admin Team, 7th Floor, Capital Building, Liverpool, L3 9PP.
What requirements must be met?
These depend on the relationship between you and the family member you would like to join you in the UK. There are some general requirements which must be met in all cases as well, though.
The relevant rules are set out at Appendix Family Reunion (Protection). There are certain general requirements which everyone applying for family reunion must meet. These are set out at paragraphs FRP 1.1 to FRP 3.1 and include:
- A valid application must be made, as set out above.
- The person applying must establish their identity and nationality. To do this they will need identity documents such as passports, travel documents, birth certificates or national identity cards.
- Family members must meet the suitability requirements. This means that they must not have committed acts that fall within the exclusion clauses of the Refugee Convention. These are serious criminal offences such as war crimes or serious non-political crimes.
- There is also a list of grounds for refusal based on suitability which are contained in Part 9 of the immigration rules. This is a long list that relates to past immigration and criminal history, and would lead to an application being refused.
The other requirements depend on the type of family member who is applying.
Partners (spouses, civil partners and unmarried partners)
Paragraph FRP 4.1 of the rules sets out the key relationship requirements which are:
- The applicant must be the partner of the refugee. If they are married or in a civil partnership, they will need to show the certificate of marriage or civil partnership. If they are unmarried partners then they must have been living together for at least two years before the refugee left the country to seek protection.
- The marriage or civil partnership must have occurred before the refugee left their country of origin.
- Both the applicant and their partner intend to live permanently with each other and the relationship must be ‘genuine and subsisting’.
- The relationship is not within the “prohibited degree of relationship” as set out in paragraph RWP 2.1 of Appendix Relationship with Partner. Essentially your spouse cannot be your child, parent, sibling, uncle/aunt or niece/ nephew.
You do not need to show adequate maintenance (money for the family to live on); nor anything about your accommodation or income. You can receive welfare benefits and still sponsor family members to come to the UK if the other requirements are met.
When spouse applications are refused it is usually because the couple cannot adequately prove they were lawfully married before the sponsor left the country of origin or they cannot show a ‘genuine and subsisting’ marriage.
When unmarried partner cases are refused it is usually either because the couple cannot adequately prove that they lived together for two years or more before the refugee left the country of origin or they cannot show a ‘genuine and subsisting relationship’, having been separated sometimes for a long time.
Home Office guidance confirms, however, that there may be cases where an unmarried partner should be granted a family reunion visa even where they have not lived together with their sponsor for two years, for example where “the requirement to live together would have put a same-sex or unmarried couple in danger”.
Ahmed is from Somalia. He married Fatima before he left Somalia and they had two children together. They fled to a refugee camp in Kenya but could not all manage the journey to the UK. Ahmed travelled alone and successfully claimed asylum. He is looking for work but has not found any yet but his first priority is to apply for his family to join him.
Fatima is eligible to come to the UK as Ahmed’s married before they left Somalia and the fact Ahmed does not yet have a job or accommodation sorted out does not matter.
As discussed below, Fatima will need to show both that she is legally married to Ahmed and that she is who she says she is.
Children of a refugee
The requirements for the child of a refugee or person with humanitarian protection are set out at Appendix Family Reunion (Protection) of the Immigration Rules at FRP 5.1-6.2. The key requirements are that the child must:
- Be the child of a person in the UK (the ‘sponsor’) who has leave as a refugee or with humanitarian protection leave. This includes stepchildren and children who were adopted in a country whose formal adoption procedure is recognised by the UK. It does not cover so-called ‘de facto’ adoptions or customary adoptions where children live with other family members as part of their family but there has been no legal adoption process. For this see ‘Other children related to a refugee’ below.
- Be under the age of 18 at the date of application or if they are aged 18 or over exceptional circumstances must apply. See ‘Exceptional circumstances’ below.
- Not leading an independent life. They cannot be married or in a civil partnership, and must not have formed an independent family unit.
- Have been part of the family unit of the refugee at the time the refugee left the country of origin. This means that they were born or conceived before the refugee fled their country of origin.
There is no requirement to show adequate maintenance and accommodation is available without recourse to public funds. A sponsor can be in receipt of welfare benefits but still sponsor his or her children to come to the UK if the other requirements are met.
Returning to the example of Ahmed and Fatima, we have already seen that Fatima is eligible for a refugee family reunion application. What about their two children?
As long as the children were born or conceived before Ahmed left Somalia, are not yet 18 at the date of application and they have not formed an independent family unit, they will also be eligible. As it happens, Ahmed left Somalia 5 years ago and Mohammed and Amina are aged 7 and 9 so they will be fine, as long as they can prove they are Ahmed’s children.
The fact Ahmed does not yet have a job or accommodation sorted out does not matter.
Children over the age of 18
If the child seeking entry under the refugee family reunion rules is over 18 at the date of application, they must demonstrate that there are exceptional circumstances (at FRP 6.2 of Appendix Family Reunion) and that they should be allowed to join family in the UK. Relevant factors can be where:
- the child is financially and emotionally dependent on the parent or the parent’s partner;
- the parent is in the UK or qualifies for family reunion or resettlement and intends to travel to the UK; and
- that the child is not leading an independent life, has no other relatives to provide financial or emotional support, and cannot access support or employment in the country in which they are living and whether they would likely become destitute if left on their own.
Refugees in the UK are also able to sponsor children who are not their own, such as nieces or nephews or grandchildren. Under this route you could also bring other children being raised as part of their family as a ‘de facto’ adoption.
The relevant rules are in Appendix Child staying with or joining a Non-Parent Relative (Protection) (Also known as Appendix CNP) of the Immigration Rules and are slightly different to those in Appendix Family Reunion.
The main requirements are that the applicant:
- is the relative of a person in the UK (the ‘sponsor’) with leave as a refugee or with humanitarian protection leave.
- is under the age of 18 at the date of application and has satisfactorily established their identity and nationality.
- is able to show there are serious and compelling family or other considerations which make exclusion of the child undesirable.
- must not be leading an independent life, cannot be married or in a civil partnership, and must not have formed an independent family unit.
- can and will be maintained and accommodated adequately in the UK without additional recourse to public funds and in accommodation which the sponsor owns or occupies exclusively.
- suitable arrangements have been made for the applicant’s care and accommodation.
It can be seen that the requirement to show adequate maintenance and accommodation without recourse to public funds does apply in this type of case. However, the minimum income threshold of £18,600 does not apply.
Returning to Ahmed and his family again, Ahmed’s sister, her husband and three of her children were killed in an explosion. One of her children, Amaal, survived and Ahmed and Fatima have looked after her ever since. Amaal is 8 years old now and, because of injuries sustained in the explosion, is now disabled.
Amaal will not be eligible to join Ahmed and the rest of the family until Ahmed can find a job and organise adequate accommodation. This is because the adequate maintenance and accommodation without recourse to public funds requirement does apply to this type of application where the child is not the refugee’s own child. Amaal’s tragic personal background and age means that she will probably meet the “serious and compelling” circumstances requirement, though.
Where you cannot meet one or more of the above requirements, the Home Office will consider whether the application should still be granted in consideration of the following exceptional circumstances at CNP 3.3 of Appendix CNP:
- The applicant has no parent with them; and
- The applicant has no family other than in the UK that could reasonably be expected to support them; and
- There is an existing, genuine family relationship between the applicant and the UK-based relative; and
- The applicant is dependent on the UK based relative.
If the applicant meets all of the above, the application can be granted on this basis.
There is a requirement to show adequate maintenance and accommodation without recourse to public funds. However, there is no other minimum income requirement.
What kind of refugees can sponsor family members?
Refugees who claimed asylum in UK
Most refugees in the UK claimed asylum once they had reached the UK. It is clear that they can sponsor family members as described here.
If a refugee becomes a British citizen, however, they lose the right to refugee family reunion and will need to apply using another route under the immigration rules.
The Home Office guidance confirms that resettled refugees are eligible for family reunion, providing they have been recognised as refugees.
This does not include those who have been granted indefinite leave to remain under one of the Afghan routes; for example, if you have been granted leave to remain under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (or ‘ARAP’), you will not be considered an eligible sponsor for the purposes of refugee family reunion. You should seek legal assistance if you are in the situation.
Throughout this guide, the term “refugee” has been used, but what is said here applies equally to those granted humanitarian protection.
Both Appendix Family Reunion and Appendix CNP refer to sponsors simply as having “protection status” which includes those with both refugee and humanitarian protection leave.
For more guidance on eligibility, the government guidance on family reunion is worth a look.
How can I avoid my application being refused?
There are some reasons for refusing applications which commonly arise. Careful preparation of an application with these potential reasons for refusal in mind can help increase the chances of success.
However, the quality of decisions is often poor, and even the best and most thorough applications can still be refused.
Proof of family relationship
The Home Office guidance states that applicants should include the following documents with their application to confirm they are related as claimed. If you have any of these and are applying for family reunion, you should include as many of these as you possibly can, as they are crucial to persuading the Home Office that you are who you say you are.
- marriage certificates
- traditional marriage ceremony documents
- documents relating to accommodation or joint purchases
- DNA evidence offered voluntarily at the applicant’s expense from an accredited laboratory as set out in Home Office DNA policy guidance on gov.uk at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/dna-policy
- birth certificates or other documents that can prove parental relationship, such as baptism certificates or taskeras
- adoption orders
- original letter from UKVI or Immigration Enforcement (IE) confirming the sponsor has leave and status as claimed in the UK
- family photographs
- wedding photographs
- wedding invitations
- witness statements (from the sponsor and applicant, wedding guests, family members, or person who conducted the ceremony)
- communication records (telephone records, emails and letters for the period they have been apart, or social media messages)
- any other evidence indicating the relationship is as claimed
The best kind of proof of relationship is for the refugee to have mentioned the family member at the time that they claimed asylum. The asylum application process includes lots of questions about family members.
If you did not mention family members during the asylum process, you should be able to explain why (for example, because you were concerned about their safety).
Proof of subsisting relationship
As well as proving a formal legal relationship of marriage in spouse and partner cases, it is also necessary to show that the relationship is “subsisting” and that the couple intend to live permanently with one another in the UK.
In cases where the separation has been fairly brief and the couple have stayed in touch, this requirement may not be too much of a problem. In cases of prolonged separation and where the couple may have not been able to contact one another, this can be more of a problem.
Evidence in the form of mobile or landline phone records, any physical correspondence, letters or cards, screenshots or transcripts of text messages, WhatsApp messages or other messaging services, video call logs or the equivalent and any evidence of financial support such as money or bank transfers can all help prove that the relationship is genuine and subsisting.
Where there is doubt about a relationship, one option is to obtain a DNA test. This can establish the truth of a claimed parent-child relationship or a sibling relationship.
DNA testing is optional and Home Office guidance states that “where applicants choose not to volunteer DNA evidence, no negative inferences can be drawn from this”. However it might help where there is little other evidence of a relationship.
If you decide to submit DNA, the test should be commissioned from one of the Home Office approved services. It would be wise to obtain legal assistance in obtaining DNA evidence to ensure that the service suppliers are accepted by Home Office decision-makers.
Returning to the earlier example of Ahmed and Fatima, we saw that Fatima and the two children were eligible for entry as the family members of a refugee. However, Fatima will still need to prove that she is legally married to Ahmed and the children will need to prove that Ahmed is their father.
If Fatima has her original marriage certificate and the children have original birth certificates naming Ahmed as their father then this would normally be sufficient proof for the Home Office. Even then, the Home Office will sometimes question whether such documents are fakes, particularly if there are any inconsistencies or discrepancies on them concerning dates or exact names.
Some refugee families will not come from countries where marriage and birth certificates were issued or, even if they did, will have lost them during the difficulties they have experienced. If the family members were named by Ahmed in his original asylum application this may be sufficient. Otherwise, DNA tests may be needed. If DNA tests of Ahmed, the children and Fatima are commissioned, these should prove that Ahmed is the father and that Fatima is the mother.
Proof of identity
Even where the relationship can be proven (i.e. Ahmed is married to Fatima), it is still necessary to prove that the person applying for the visa is the right person (i.e. that the person applying actually is Fatima).
Often people are refused because they have poor identification and they were not mentioned in their partner or parent’s asylum claim. The family member should ensure that they have as strong identification as possible in order to persuade the Home Office of their identity.
A further problem sometimes arises in refugee family reunion cases where the family member applying cannot obtain a proper passport or identity document from the country in which they live. This is particularly a problem where the family member lives in a refugee camp in a host country outside the country of origin. Where no valid passport can be obtained, this can make it hard to make a valid application for a visa. However, it is still possible to make the application, and the Home Office should issue a FAV (Form for Affixing a Visa).
Children have formed independent family unit
Appendix Family Reunion requires that a child be a part of the family unit at the time when the family was separated by one or both parents becoming refugees (see: FRP 6.1(b)).
Where the children were living with the parents immediately prior to separation this is usually simple. Even if the child was no longer living together with their relevant parent immediately before the parent fled, there may still be reasons why the child should be seen as having been in the same family unit as the parent. This will depend on the facts of the case.
For example, in a situation involving a child of divorced parents, if there is regular contact with both parents, a child may be a part of both the mother and father’s family unit.
More complex cases may involve a minor child of the refugee parent having become a parent themselves while they are still under the age of 18. Additional evidence of the relationship and dependency (financial and emotional) between sponsoring parent and child who is now a parent themselves will be required to show that the child has not formed their own independent family unit.
Is there a right of appeal against refusal?
There will almost always be a right of appeal against refusal of a refugee family reunion application because it is an application that involves important human rights.
The Home Office and Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) do not always provide appeal forms and may claim there is no right of appeal.
But whether there is a right of appeal is not for the Home Office or ECO to decide.
Appeal forms can be submitted directly to the immigration tribunal and a judge can decide.
Where can I get help with making an application?
Legal aid (free legal assistance funded by the government) is no longer automatically available in refugee family reunion cases in England and Wales (the position is different and better in Scotland).
However, it is possible to apply for Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) for family reunion.
This is an application to the Legal Aid Agency. You will need to demonstrate: (1) that your case is important and concerns your human rights, and (2) that you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.
If your ECF application is granted by the Legal Aid Agency, a lawyer can work on your case under legal aid, and you will not have to pay fees to your lawyer. Do be aware that it can be very difficult to find a legal aid lawyer who is able to take your case on.
The Government website maintains a list of Legal Aid Providers and you can also find a list of OISC regulated organisations that offer immigration advice. The Red Cross may be able to assist and there is information about their services on their website. Some law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux may also have limited funding for assisting in refugee family reunion cases.
You can also check for yourself what the Home Office website and policies say about refugee family reunion:
- Appendix Family Reunion (Protection)
- Appendix Child staying with or joining a Non-Parent Relative (Protection)
- Family reunion: caseworker guidance
This blog post was originally published in January 2016, with help from Paul Erdunast. It has been updated by Ellie Doyle and Rhona French, Family Reunion from Europe Project, a project run by Refugee Legal Support in collaboration with Coram Children’s Legal Centre and is correct as of the revised date of publication.
Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.
Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.