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Refugee family reunion: a user’s guide

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 straightforward and simple for children and spouses that existed at the time the refugee fled his or her country of origin. The children must still be under the age of 18 when the application is made, though. These applications are free and there is no need to show a particular level of income in the UK; even those who are receiving welfare benefits can apply for their family members to join them as long as they can adequately prove that they are related as claimed.

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.

How to apply: forms and procedure

All applications for refugee family reunion are free of charge, including applications by those with humanitarian protection. The forms are available for free download from the Home Office website.

If your family are outside the UK

Each of your family members must apply for family reunion through the Government’s visa website. In addition to this application, each of your family members should fill in the Family Settlement Application Form (VAF4A) and the Appendix 4 to it. They must also get their fingerprints and photograph taken at a visa application centre.

It will always be necessary to travel to a visa application centre, even where this is very difficult or dangerous.

If your family are inside the UK

Applications are normally made from abroad but if your family member manages to reach the UK somehow then the rules allow applications to be made from within the UK. Each of your family members may apply for free using the FLR(O) form.

Ignore the section on cost: these applications are free of charge.

Do not send the form to the address given on the FLR(O) form. Instead, send it to:

Complex Casework Directorate
Family Reunion
Admin Team
7th Floor
Capital Building
Liverpool
L3 9PP

What requirements must be met?

It mostly depends on the relationship between you and the family member who you would like to join you in the UK. There are some general requirements which must be met in all cases as well, though.

All applications

There are certain general provisions which all applicants for family reunion must meet.

  1. Refugee family members must apply for a visa, formally called an “entry clearance”, before they travel to the UK. If already in the UK, though, it is possible to apply from within the UK.
  2. Refugee family members must not have committed acts that fall within the exclusion clauses of the Refugee Convention. These are acts such as war crimes or serious non political crimes.

The other requirements depend on the type of family member who is applying.

Spouses and civil partners

The rules for spouses and civil partners are set out at paragraph 352A of the Immigration Rules. The key requirements are:

  1. The applicant must be married to or be the civil partner of the refugee.
  2. The marriage or civil partnership must have occurred before the refugee left his or her country of origin.
  3. Both the applicant and their partner intend to live permanently with each other and the marriage is subsisting.
Click for full text of paragraph 352A: spouses and civil partners

There is no requirement to show adequate maintenance and accommodation without recourse to public funds and refugee family members are exempt from the minimum income threshold of £18,600. A refugee can be in receipt of welfare benefits but still sponsor his or her family members to come to the UK if the other requirements are met.

When spouse and civil partner cases are refused it is usually because the couple cannot adequately prove they were lawfully married before the refugee departed the country of origin or they cannot show a subsisting marriage. These are discussed further below in the section on refusals.

Example

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.

Unmarried or same-sex partners

The rules for unmarried or same sex partners are set out at paragraph 352AA of the Immigration Rules. The requirements are broadly similar to those for spouses and civil partners but with some additional or slightly different key requirements:

  1. The refugee must have been granted status on or after 9 October 2006
  2. The parties have been living together in a relationship akin to either a marriage or a civil partnership which has subsisted for two years or more
  3. The relationship must have existed before the refugee feld his or her country of origin
  4. Both parties intend to live permanently wit the other and the relationship is subsisting
  5. The relationship is not “consanguineous”, meaning not brother and sister or uncle and aunt or first cousons, for example.
Click for full text of paragraph 352AA: unmarried partners

As with spouses and civil partners, there is no requirement to show adequate maintenance and accommodation without recourse to public funds and refugee family members are exempt from the minimum income threshold of £18,600. A refugee can be in receipt of welfare benefits but still sponsor his or her family members to come to the UK if the other requirements are met.

When unmarried partner cases are refused it is usually because the couple cannot adequately prove they lived together for two years or more before the refugee departed the country of origin or they cannot show a subsisting relationship, having been separated for sometimes a long time.

Children of a refugee

The requirements for the child of a refugee are set out at paragraph 352D of the Immigration Rules. The key requirements are that the child must:

  1. Be under the age of 18 at the date of application
  2. Not be leading an independent life, cannot be married or in a civil partnership, and must not have formed an independent family unit
  3. Have been part of the family unit of the refugee at the time the refugee left the country of origin.
Click for full text of paragraph 352D: children

As with spouses and civil partners, there is no requirement to show adequate maintenance and accommodation without recourse to public funds and refugee family members are exempt from the minimum income threshold of £18,600. A refugee can be in receipt of welfare benefits but still sponsor his or her family members to come to the UK if the other requirements are met.

Example

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 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.

Other children related to a refugee

There is provision in the Immigration Rules for a refugee to sponsor the entry of children to whom the refuge is related but who are not his or her own children. For example, the children might be nieces or nephews or grandchildren. The relevant rule is paragraph 319X of the Immigration Rules. There are requirements over and above those for a refugee’s own children, however. The main requirements are that the applicant:

  1. Be under the age of 18 at the date of application
  2. Be able to show there are serious and compelling family or other considerations which make exclusion of the child undesirable and suitable arrangements have been made for the child’s care
  3. Not be leading an independent life, cannot be married or in a civil partnership, and must not have formed an independent family unit
  4. Have been part of the family unit of the refugee at the time the refugee left the country of origin
  5. Can and will be maintained and accommodated adequately in the UK without additional recourse to public funds.
Click for full text of paragraph 319X: children of a relative

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.

Example

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.

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, he or she loses the right to refugee family reunion and will need to apply for family members using the normal immigration rules.

Resettled refugees

There are an increasing number of refugees who have been resettled to the UK under the UK’s two resettlement schemes, the Gateway Protection Programme and the Syrian resettlement programme, or under the Mandate Refugee Programme.

Resettled refugees should be eligible for family reunion, proividing they have been recognised as refugees. The Immigration Rules do not say anything about resettled refugees but they do not need to: a refugee is a refugee.

Helpfully, Government guidance (SET10.4) seems to confirm this:

Applicant/s to join a sponsor who is on the Gateway Protection Program or Mandate Refugee Program will go to the Embassy / Mission and identify themselves, either by stating that they are related to a family member who was resettled to the UK under one of the two programmes or they may provide a letter. Such applications should be considered under the current FR policy. The ECOs (Home Office officials) need to be satisfied that the sponsor declared the dependant on their resettlement application to confirm that they are all related as claimed.

In the Red Cross’s study on refugee family reunion (page 24 of their report), three sponsors were eligible for refugee family reunion because they entered under the Gateway scheme. Nonetheless, the Red Cross suggest in a footnote that there is debate as to whether they are eligible for family reunion.

Humanitarian protection

Throughout this guide I have referred to “refugees” but what is said here applies equally to those granted humanitarian protection instead of refugee status. Immigration Rules 352FA, 352 FD and 352 FG run through parallel provisions for those granted humanitarian protection on or after 30 August 2005.

If you have been granted humanitarian protection before 30 August 2005 and you would like your family to join you, you must have acquired indefinite leave to remain before you can sponsor a family member and then you will have to rely on the normal immigration rules.

For more guidance on eligibility, the Government Guidance on family reunion is worth a look. You should also look at the Refugee Family Reunion Report from the Red Cross, an excellent source of information.

How can I avoid 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 to reduce the chances of a refusal, although with some entry clearance posts where the quality of decisions is particularly poor and the refusal rate high even the best and most thorough applications may still be refused.

Family member is over the age of 18

If the child seeking entry under the family reunion rules is over 18 at the date of application, or the application is by a parent or grandparent of a refugee, the application is very likely to be refused. These relationships fall outside the Immigration Rules on refugee family reunion.

An application under the main Immigration Rules and Appendix FM as an Adult Dependent Relative faces additional hurdles, has to be paid for and very few such applications succeed.

If these requirements cannot be satisfied the only other possibility is to rely on human rights arguments. However, very few human rights arguments outside the Immigration Rules ever succeed.

Example

David’s father fled to the UK and successfully claimed asylum. David was 17 at the time his father left but has since then turned 18. He cannot succeed under the refugee family reunion rules. If he is to join his father in the UK he would somehow need to succeed under the virtually impossible Adult Dependant Relative rules, on human rights arguments (also unlikely) or apply in his own right as a student or similar.

Proof of family relationship

The Home Office Guidance states that applicants should include the following document 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 certificate (original preferably or a copy)
  • Wedding photos
  • Birth certificate (original preferably or a copy)
  • Original letter from UK Visas and Immigration confirming the sponsor’s leave status in the UK
  • Family photos (where possible)If insufficient evidence has been provided by the applicant, the application may be deferred and further enquiries made to the Evidence and Enquiries Unit (see ECG on referrals). For example, enquiries with E+E may confirm that the relationship is as claimed if mentioned on the sponsor’s SEF application form.

The best kind of proof of relationship is for the refugee to have mentioned the family member at the time that he or she claimed asylum, usually on the Statement of Evidence Form; the asylum application process includes lots of questions about family members.

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, What’s App messages or other messaging services, Skype 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.

DNA tests

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.

If going down this road, a DNA test should be commissioned from one of the Home Office recommended services.

DNA tests can reveal that a relationship is not as had been thought. For more information on dealing with the fall out from such results, see this post: Proving paternity in British nationality law: rule change on effect of birth certificates.

Example

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, this should prove that Ahmed is the father and that Fatima is the mother.

Proof of identity

Even where the relationship can be proven (Abdul is maried to Fatima, for example), it is still necessary to prove that the person applying for the visa is the right person (is the applicant truly Fatima, for example).

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 obtaied, this can make it hard to make a valid application for a visa.

Children have formed independent family unit

Immigration Rule paragraph 352D(iv) requires that a child be in the same family unit of the parent at the time when the family were split. The easy scenario is where the children were living with the parents immediately prior to separation owing to one or both parents becoming refugees.

If the child was no longer living with the relevant parent immediately before the parent fled their country of origin, there may still be reasons why, depending on the facts of the case, the child should be seen as having been in the same family unit as the parent. The Upper Tribunal in BM and AL (352D(iv); meaning of “family unit”) Colombia [2007] UKAIT 00055 is clear that “the child of divorced parents who spends the bulk of his time with the mother and otherwise has regular contact with his father” may, on the facts of the case, be in both the mother’s and the father’s family unit. So a child may be in more than one family unit at once. These sorts of questions of fact are not clear-cut, but nor very often are the facts of refugee family reunion cases.

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. Rights of appeal were changed in 2015 but there is a right of appeal against refusal of a human rights claim, and it seems unarguable that an application for refugee reunion amounts to a human rights claim.

The Home Office and Entry Clearance Officers do not always provide appeal forms and may claim there is no right of appeal. Whether there is a right of appeal is not for the Home Office or ECO to decide; appeal forms can be downloaded and 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 available in refugee family reunion cases.

The Red Cross may be able to assist and there is information about their services on their website. Some law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaus 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:

Finally, remember, this is what it is all about:

 


With thanks to Paul Erdunast for his assistance with preparing this blog post. If you have suggestions for improvements in the information provided here, please do leave a comment.

Colin Yeo
Colin Yeo A barrister specialising in UK immigration law at Garden Court Chambers in London, I have been practising in immigration law for 15 years. I am passionate about immigration law and founded and edit the Free Movement immigration law blog.

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