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Justice and Home Affairs Committee

Corrected oral evidence: Family migration

Tuesday 25 October 2022

11.10 am


Members present: Baroness Hamwee (The Chair); Baroness Chakrabarti; Lord Dholakia; Lord Hunt of Wirral; Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws; Lord McInnes of Kilwinning; Baroness Primarolo; Lord Ricketts; Baroness Sanderson of Welton; Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia.

Evidence Session No. 7              Heard in Private              Questions 67 - 75



: Witness 1; Witness 2.



  1. This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken.




Examination of witnesses

Witness 1 and Witness 2.

Q67             The Chair: Thank you both very much for coming. This is a private meeting, as you have requested. We all have questions, and we might come in unscripted because of things that you tell us, but first I would like both of you to introduce yourselves and tell us how you would like us to address you, because I know you would like to keep your names, where you live and your occupations private. We are particularly interested in the relatives you have sponsored, have tried to sponsor or are trying to sponsor, how long you have been separated and the immigration route you pursued or are pursuing.

Witness 1: First of all, thank you so much for the opportunity. I am honoured and privileged to be here today to present myself.

The Chair: It is our honour and privilege.

Witness 1: I am 21 years old, and I am from Eritrea. I have been here since 2017.

The Chair: What about your relatives? Who are you trying to sponsor, or who did you try to sponsor?

Witness 1: I have sponsored my siblings. They are here with me now. It has been a difficult journey.

Witness 2: I am a Hazara, which is a persecuted minority group in Afghanistan. I have refugee status in the UK. The relatives my wife and I want to sponsor are the teenage siblings of my wife, who have fled Taliban persecution and are currently in hiding in one of the neighbouring countries. We have been separated from them since August last year.

The Chair: Welcome to your wife as well, who is sitting behind you.

Q68             Lord McInnes of Kilwinning: Thank you very much for coming. We are very interested in how you have been able to keep in touch with your family members. Obviously, Witness 1, your brother and sister had very different routes as you have gone through this process. Your sister was in prison, and I think your brother was people-trafficked. Would you be able to tell us how or if you were able to keep in touch with them during that two-year period? Did you use electronic means such as WhatsApp? How did that work in speaking to them and knowing how they were getting on through the process?

Witness 1: It was very difficult at first, because they did not have phones to contact me, especially my brother, who was homeless in Khartoum. I did a search with a friend who lives in Khartoum and finally they found him and helped him to contact me with their phone. My sister was also in Khartoum with him, so I was in touch with them. They separated after Khartoum and my sister tried to go to Egypt, but she was imprisoned. That was very difficult.

When I made the journey, the journey was very difficult and I saw many horrible things. So that comes to my mind every time when I think of them. I was helped by other people and charities, which I used to search for my siblings. We were using WhatsApp and a white calling card, which you pay for and then add money to. It was hard; they were struggling a lot.

Lord McInnes of Kilwinning: You really could not have good contact with them through that period of time.

Witness 1: Yes, especially when my sister was in prison. It went on for weeks. Phone calls to them were not allowed, but sometimes they were. When I got that opportunity, I contacted them. There was also a charity in Aswan, a church, that went to them and helped them. I found the opportunity to contact them, but for my family it is very expensive. There is no internet connection. You can only call; there is no video calling. You cannot talk openly; I could not tell my siblings what had happened because you can be heard. That was my fear.

Lord McInnes of Kilwinning: Witness 2, your family are in a neighbouring country to Afghanistan, like Witness 1’s. Have you been able to keep in touch with them electronically? How has that been? Is it a regular service and a reliable means by which you can communicate with your wife’s siblings?

Witness 2: My wife and I have formally taken guardianship of the children, because they have no one else in the world. Unfortunately, the length of our interaction is quite limited, minimal, depending on their mood and on whether they want to get in touch with or talk to us, for example.

My wife came to this country in January this year. So far, she has briefly spoken to her three siblings only three times, and for not more than a couple of minutes. When they fled Afghanistan last August, their parents were unfortunately dragged out of a passenger vehicle and shot dead by the Taliban, who were travelling in another vehicle behind them. Luckily, my wife and her three teenage siblings survived and crossed the border illegally, but they were then abducted and tortured, and I had to pay a huge ransom for their release.

The oldest sibling, who is about 17 years old now, tried to take his own life because­ he thought that there was no future or life remaining for him. Coming from that part of the world, where I was born and brought up, you can video call to an extent for a few minutes. They are temporarily in the guardianship of my married sister and my brother-in-law. They do not talk at all, and if I insist on talking to them through my sister, that does not happen. They are completely desperate and do not have the most important things: their security, safety and access to basic amenities, including education and healthcare. They are in hiding.

So, coming back to your question, this cannot be a replacement. If you say, for example, that communication will suffice or be okay, it is not in our situation.

Lord McInnes of Kilwinning: That is very helpful. Thank you very much.

Q69             Baroness Chakrabarti: I am sorry for not being there in the room with the committee.

Thank you so much for your courage in coming; it means a lot to the committee. How does the experience of family separation affect your emotional and physical well-being? How does it affect your ability to settle or even integrate in British society?

Witness 1: I was studying, but I could not focus on my studies. Thoughts of the past journey and my siblings scared me every day, so I could not focus on my education. Mentally, I was always scared, and I had pain inside my mind. I am always afraid of what will happen to them, but I want to work hard and achieve more. I want to strive. It was always painful and stressful, so I had a lot of nightmares. It was scary.

Witness 2: The separation has badly affected our mental health conditions. You asked about video calling and interaction, and I touched on the fact that they were tortured, which means that my wife has huge mental health problems. She cannot sleep properly, and when she goes to sleep she gets something like electric shocks. If she tries to get some sleep or rest at night, she cannot because everything flashes back into her memory, reminding her of what happened. She has never shared the torture aspect with me in detail, even when I have asked, and I cannot force her any more. But I understand the pain and anxiety that she has gone through for 10 months in the UK and, prior to that, five or six months in the country where she was waiting for her visa to come here.

The separation has affected my own mental and physical health conditions very badly, apart from the professional commitments and challenges that I need to deliver on as a civil servant. I cannot sleep, because for most of the night I sit on the bed and recite some supplications and Koranic verses in the hope that she can get some sleep, but she does not. She lacks energy; when she walks for even five minutes, she feels so exhausted, as if she were an elderly woman. My wife and I have become like a sandwich pressed from both sides, because she has not been able to be reunited with her family members—we are scapegoats, sacrificed for her immediate safety—or with the children.

Q70             Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia: Thank you both very much. Coming before a Select Committee must be bad enough, but talking about personal feelings like this must be truly scary. You are doing brilliantly, so please keep up the good work.

I declare my interests as a lawyer. Did either of you need access to legal advice, and did you find that that was readily accessible? If it was, was it useful? Did you have anyone to help you to unscramble the legalities and reunite your families?

Witness 1: At first, I did not even know whether family reunion could happen. I shared my experience with a charity called CARAS. I cried every day. They advised me that I could have a family reunion, and they were able to help me. So I connected with CARAS, and with its help I managed to get a solicitor. I could not have done it without their help.

My solicitor took a long time to process things, and I was more emotionally stressed and could not handle it. Another organisation, the SLRA, and Katherine Low Settlement were able to help me to find another solicitor who could help me and could understand my emotion. It was very hard; I could not do it by myself.

Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia: So once you found the second solicitor, was there an improvement in processing your papers?

Witness 1: Yes, there was a lot of improvement. Emotionally, I was able to be listened to and be helped. Everything was great.

Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia: Great. Thank you very much. How about you, Witness 2?

Witness 2: We needed legal advice, and we were very fortunate to have the full support of the Afghan Pro Bono Initiative, which is a joint project between Safe Passage, Refugee Legal Support and leading law firms in the UK. I come from a law background and am half way through studying for my LPC, but there was no way for me to represent the children on my own. That is why having access to legal advice was of the utmost importance at that time.

On the complexity of the application, we could not apply under the refugee family reunion rules, so we applied under another part of the Immigration Rules, which took it outside the rules. The case is close to paragraph 297 of the Immigration Rules, but it will have to be outside the rules; it cannot quite meet the exact criteria required by the Home Office in paragraph 297. It is taking a huge amount of work and time to prepare the evidence for the application, including showing a family link, which is challenging due to the children’s lack of documentation; drafting witness statements; going over and itemising financial documentation; instructing an expert social work report; and liaising with the Home Office to organise TB and biometric tests for the children.

Q71             Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: Hello. Thank you very much for coming. Witness 2, I know about the Hazara people and have been working on the persecution of them. You have spoken about your wife’s siblings being in another country—I will not ask you where—but has any attempt been made to contact British consular services there?

Witness 2: Are you asking if I am seeking assistance from them?

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: Yes. Have they attempted to go from their hiding place to see people at the British consular services or the embassy?

Witness 2: The short answer is no. I contacted other government departments, including the FCDO, which explained that unfortunately they could not help.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: I will explain to my colleagues what the situation is in different places. Witness 1, I do not know what the situation is now, but where are your siblings? Are they still in Egypt?

Witness 1: They are here with me, but when my sister was in Egypt it was very hard to process her fingerprints because she was in prison. It took a long time to process, but my solicitor helped, and UNICEF and a charity from Egypt gave me a lot of support and a lot of involvement. But there was a lot of delay from the Home Office. Finally, she was able to give her fingerprints, and she is here with me in the UK.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: I saw the photograph of you being reunited. Did the consular services help? Did they go into the prison to take the biometric tests?

Witness 1: No, they said that they could not do anything because she was in prison.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: Were the British consular services able to help her get out of prison?

Witness 1: No, the UNHCR was involved.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: So it was the UN refugee commission that got her out?

Witness 1: Yes.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: When was the biometric testing done?

Witness 1: It was done a few weeks after she got out of the prison.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: Then they took her to the embassy for the testing. So the difficulty was that she was in a prison. Okay. Thank you.

Q72             Baroness Primarolo: Was there any information or support from the Home Office when you started this process? You talked about all of the evidence and the problems with amassing it. Was there any support, guidance or help from the Home Office, or were you left entirely on your own?

Witness 1: There was no help from the Home Office. When I was doing the family reunion, I was in touch just with the charity and my solicitor. My first solicitor took a long time even to respond, so I was stressed. The charity and especially the second solicitor spent a lot of time helping me with information about what I had to do and the evidence. I was in good contact with her.

Baroness Primarolo: So there was no positive response at all from the Home Office in terms of providing you with the information that you would need to submit. It was all done by your solicitor finding the information.

Witness 1: Yes. I was always seeking information from my solicitor about what was happening.

Baroness Primarolo: Okay. Thank you very much.

Witness 2: Unfortunately, the help from the government organisations in the UK was zero in the case of my wife’s siblings. Last year, the whole of Afghanistan collapsed and it was complete chaos. When my wife and her siblings were fleeing, prior to them being abducted, she called me on a mobile phone hysterically explaining everything that had happened. Her parents had just been shot dead.

I then involved the local MP, who was kind enough to get in touch with the Home Office. Unfortunately, I did not receive any help from them. The only thing they gave was a phone number, which was relayed to me, or shared with me, through my MP. I called it—it was a Home Office number based in Coventry—and it said that it was available 24/7, but it was not. On three different occasions, I held the line for more than three or four hours. The guidance that was given to me—like I said, it was misleading—said that I could get the children registered on that phone number and then the Home Office would get back to me. I did that on three different occasions, but nothing happened.

Later on, when the Afghan Pro Bono Initiative got involved and got the representation for the case, it said that the phone number that was given to me was not for that purpose. So we did not get any help, to be honest.

Baroness Primarolo: When they told you that the phone number was not for that purpose, did they direct you somewhere else or suggest another route for you to apply for your wife’s siblings, or did they just say,Well, it’s not us. The end”?

Witness 2: The phone number was manned by someone, one of their operators or Home Office staff, who was taking the details of the person who was either inside Afghanistan or in the surrounds of Afghanistantheir date of birth, their name and their parents’ names. At the end of the call, they would say, We will pass this information on and somebody will get in touch with you”. That was it. To date, as I appear in front of you guys, I have not heard anything from them at all.

Baroness Primarolo: I am really sorry to hear that. You are both saying that the Home Office did not provide accurate information that enabled either of you to progress legitimate applications. Therefore, you are now relying on solicitors to get through that system, and you are still not getting a response.

The Chair: We are using the word “sorry” a lot.

A Noble Lord: It is a poor word in these circumstances.

The Chair: Yes, it feels quite inadequate.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: When you contacted the Home Office, did they refer you to any organisation such as Migrant Help, or any other organisation that the Home Office uses and pays lots of money, supposedly to give support to migrants needing help?

Witness 2: They did not, no. Nobody contacted me. It was me contacting them. I contacted them three times on the number provided and that was the end of it. No one contacted me back.

Q73             Baroness Sanderson of Welton: Thank you both for coming. I am actually slightly embarrassed to ask you this question given the terrible journeys and experiences that you and your family have suffered. But one of the considerations when we are forming the family reunion policies here and one of the reasons given is that families may send their children on their own on these journeys. They can then apply and get into the system this way.

Please only say as much as you are comfortable with, but I just wondered what you thought about that as a reason. It certainly does not tally with your own experiences. If you are happy to, could you explain how it is not like that and say why children may make these terrible journeys?

Witness 1: A mum would not send her child to be tortured or to be killed crossing the Sahara. A mum would not allow her child to be separated from her. The decision to take a child, especially from Eritrea, means a dangerous journey without your family. They fear for themselves, because it is indefinitely militarised over there. You cannot express yourself, you cannot speak. It is always scary. A mum would not allow her child to die. Many young people are dead in the desert, many have been tortured in Libya. A mum would not allow her child to be sent to Libya to be killed; not at all.

Baroness Sanderson of Welton: No. These are very difficult and extreme circumstances—and very upsetting, I agree. Witness 2?

Witness 2: Sorry, I missed the question. Is it about sending them on a dangerous journey to the UK?

Baroness Sanderson of Welton: Yes. One of the reasons that is given when we are forming these policies is that some parents and families will send the children purposely ahead. Then, when children are here, you can apply for family reunion.

Obviously, as you have just explained, that is not your experience of why these journeys are made, but we wondered what you thought about that and whether you have ever come across that as a reason. Certainly, it does not seem to tally with your own experience.

Witness 2: Honestly speaking, the whole process is quite confusing, and it takes for ever. Everything is in limbo. You do not get any contact from them; you do not hear back from the government institutions. My wife and I thought seriously about it a couple of times, and I even contacted the bank to get some money in order to get all the children out of the country, even calculating all the dangers ahead of it. We wanted them to come out of the situation and make the perilous journey with the hope of getting to the UK, because I want to get somewhere.

In the job I am doing—you people are more aware of this than me—there are certain targets that you need to achieve on a daily basis. If you do not, regardless of your health condition they can give you some leeway but not for ever, so the longer the situation lingers the greater the chance that I will lose my full-time job, which means that I, as well as my wife, will be destitute. If I am supporting my children financially, wherever they are, that will also be a question mark.

So we thought about it. At one point I tried to materialise it by calling my bank and asking for a loan. They agreed to give it to me—plus interest charges, obviously—but my wife thought about it later and said, “Let’s wait for a couple more months to see if there is any outcome”. So yes, we have thought about it, but we never dared to ask the children to come from where they were.

Baroness Sanderson of Welton: Yes, and you thought about it as a reaction to the terrible situation that you are in. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. We really appreciate it.

Q74             The Chair: Witness 1, when you got out of Eritrea, were you aiming to get to the UK? Did you know that this was where you wanted to settle?

Witness 1: No, I was not aiming to get here. I was captured and forced to join the military, but I escaped, so I was not aiming to come here at all. I did not know where I was going. I was only scared for my life. They were shooting at us, but I was not an enemy. I was not aiming to get here. I was just going with the people I knew at that time who were with me, so I was following them and I made the journey. I was not expecting it to happen like this. I would not wish anyone to take that journey.

Q75             The Chair: I am sure. Can I ask the two of you whether there is anything more that you would like to tell us about?

Witness 1: Family reunion saved my life. When my siblings arrived here, I was happy. I just felt that I got my life back, because I was stressing a lot. I always had in my mind the torture that I had to go through. That is how I feel: there is no choice and it is almost hopeless. I am afraid that if they take a similar journey to mine, the same will happen to them. The family reunion just saved my life.

Witness 2: My wife and I have put ourselves through the brunt of difficulties in going ahead. I have never actually thought of doing something stupid to my life, because I know that the people around me are heavily financially and morally dependent on me, and if I do something stupid they will wither away. That is another reason.

With that, if I may, I will suggest three important points to the committee regarding family reunion applications. First, family reunion applications take too long. Secondly, the family reunion rules are too strict, confusing and complicated; it is so difficult to meet all the criteria. Thirdly, families need to be together so that they can recover, rebuild their lives and integrate into a society that is more just, fairer and based on the fundamental principles of human rights. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you. That is very clear. We thank both of you very much indeed. We know it has not been easy talking to us and telling us about your experiences, and we know that one of the problems with the system is that you have to repeat your stories again and again. I am sorry that we have added to that, but it really is very valuable to us. We can hear the stories, but this is formally evidence to a parliamentary committee, which has a certain status. Thank you so much.

Witness 2: Thank you very much for your time.