The Migrants’ Law Project, Islington Law Centre — Written evidence (FAM0038)   



  1. These submissions focus on the impact of the UK’s family migration policies on unaccompanied refugee children (and young-adult care-leaver refugees) seeking to reunite with their family members. The submissions address, inter alia, the differential treatment of refugees fleeing recent armed conflicts and seeking to reunite with family in the UK, as well as the impact that family separation and the requirement for reunification applications to be made ‘outside of the immigration rules’, has on refugee children (and young-adult care-leaver refugees) in the UK.


About us


  1. The Migrants’ Law Project is a legal and public legal education project, hosted by Islington Law Centre.[1] We work to enforce, advance and defend the legal rights of asylum seekers and refugees and other vulnerable migrants through securing substantive changes in policy and practice. We do this by providing advice, support and training to organisations working with vulnerable groups, and where necessary, using our legal expertise to assist or lead on legal challenges.


  1. The MLP has worked, since 2015, on issues arising from the European ‘refugee crisis’. This work has focused primarily on issues relating to family reunion for unaccompanied children and adults stranded in Europe, seeking to join family members in the UK by utilising the family reunion provisions of the Dublin III Regulation. In ZAT and others v SSHD [2016] UKUT 00061; ZT(Syria) v SSHD [2016] 1 WLR 4894, together with Bhatt Murphy solicitors, we acted for 3 children and 1 vulnerable adult trapped in “the Jungle” camp in Calais. Following this case, in which the Upper Tribunal (IAC) ordered the Home Office to admit all four individuals to the UK, the government put in place more effective family reunion processes under the Dublin III Regulation.[2] In 2021 we represented Safe Passage International in a successful legal challenge to Home Office policy on deciding family reunion applications under the Regulation.[3] MLP continued working on reuniting families using the Dublin III regulation until the UK was no longer a signatory to the Regulation following the country’s exit from the EU.


  1. The MLP has also worked on issues pertaining to the wider entry clearance regime. In 2016, the MLP represented Britcrits in a strategic legal challenge to the Adult Dependent Relatives (ADR) visa rules.[4] Since 2017 a significant focus of the MLP’s casework has been attempts to expand the current legal routes for refugee family reunion through the entry clearance process. A key area of this work has been in supporting unaccompanied refugee children (and young-adult care-leaver refugees), to sponsor entry-clearance visas for their family members, currently a process that remains largely outside of the immigration rules. We prioritise complex cases where there are significant evidential or practical barriers to making the applications, e.g. we have acted for many Kuwaiti Bidoons, who due to their de facto statelessness lack identity documents and documentary at evidence of family relationships. In most of our cases the applicants are themselves refugees (or would be if they left their country of origin) and are often living in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances in a third country. We have represented family reunion applicants who are unlawfully detained and living in conflict zones. At present we are acting for a number of children and young people trapped in extremely dangerous conditions in Libya who are unable to enrol the biometric information required as part of the UK entry clearance process because there is no UK Visa Centre in Libya.[5]  We have significant experience of making complex outside the rules applications for entry clearance and a high rate of success in obtaining entry clearance at all stages.


Design of family


  1. UK immigration law currently allows adult refugees to sponsor their immediate pre-flight family members to join them.[6] However there is no corresponding provision for unaccompanied refugee children to be joined by their parents or other close family members such as siblings. Paragraph 319X provides for a child to be granted leave to enter under the Immigration Rules as the child of a refugee relative, however there is a high threshold of “serious and compelling” considerations to meet[7] and requirements to evidence an ability to maintain and accommodate the child without recourse to public funds.[8] The application is also fee paying.[9] Rule 319X does not assist a child or young adult refugee seeking to reunite with a parent or adult sibling.


  1. Children and young adult care leaver refugees can therefore usually only sponsor an application for family reunion outside of the immigration rules on the basis of their rights under Article 8 ECHR or on the basis of compelling compassionate circumstances.[10] The UK government has regularly made clear their view that "allowing refugee children to sponsor family risks creating incentives for more children to be encouraged, or even forced, to leave their family and attempt hazardous journeys to the UK".[11] There are many reasons why children initially become separated from their family whilst fleeing persecution but in our experience it is rarely, if ever, a matter of choice. In contrast, we are aware of numerous instances where the lack of information about the possibility of applying for family reunion outside of the rules has compelled the family members of child refugees (many of whom are themselves unaccompanied children) to undertake dangerous journeys to try and reunite with them in the UK.


  1. The very narrow definition of family member in the context of refugee family reunion, can be contrasted with the much wider definition in the Ukraine Family Scheme. This scheme allows applicants to join both their immediate family members and extended family members (defined as parents, adult children, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, cousins, mother-in-law or father-in-law, grandparent-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law).[12] In our view this wider definition of family member properly reflects the fact that family life in many societies extends far beyond the nuclear family and that conflict situations often lead to increased reliance and dependency on so called ‘extended’ family members.


  1. This favorable treatment of Ukrainians is in stark contrast to the treatment of other populations fleeing recent armed conflicts.[13] While bespoke schemes have been introduced by the UK government in response to the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan, no special scheme exists for Afghans seeking to join family members in the UK. Similarly, no bespoke scheme exists to help the estimated 3.5 million people who have been displaced by the ongoing conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia and indeed the director-general of the World Health Organisation has questioned why this conflict has garnered only a “fraction” of the international concern that Ukraine has.[14] The majority of MLP's clients currently are Eritreans who are trying to reunite with family members who have been impacted by the protracted conflict in Tigray. Before the outbreak of war in Tigray, there were 96,000 registered Eritrean refugees living in refugee camps in the Tigray region. When UNHCR visited the camps in late March, they found two camps destroyed and empty of refugees.[15] As a consequence of the conflict, Eritrean refugees in exile have been further displaced within Ethiopia or into Sudan, where they face further, serious risk of harm.[16] The UK government’s failure to provide a bespoke scheme or other assistance to those displaced by the conflict in Tigray attempting to reunite with family members in the UK, has been felt acutely by many young Eritrean refugees living in the UK, including MLP clients.


  1. As exemplified above, the narrow definition of family member within the immigration rules has a disproportionate impact on certain nationalities. At the MLP our clients are predominantly Eritrean nationals (approximately 70%), followed by Afghan and Syrian nationals. These countries have all seen children specifically targeted for persecution (in particular forced military recruitment and recruitment by insurgent groups) and as a result many children have become separated from their family whilst fleeing. They have also all seen protracted conflicts resulting in further fragmentation of the family unit and family members themselves becoming displaced and living in difficult and dangerous circumstances (e.g. the MLP often sees cases involving unaccompanied child siblings who have fled the same persecution as their sponsor).


  1. The preferential treatment of Ukrainians seeking to join UK family members is also seen in waiting times for decisions. On 11 May 2022, Home Office guidance was updated to state that "UKVI is prioritising Ukraine Family Scheme applications in response to the invasion of Ukraine” and that it may take “up to 24 weeks to receive a decision for those applying to join family in the UK.”[17] In practice, we are frequently seeing wait times for decisions in refugee family reunion cases in excess of 10 months. Currently the Home Office does not have a policy in place to prioritise family reunion applications by unaccompanied minors, those in conflict zones (other than Ukraine) or other vulnerable and at-risk individuals seeking to join UK family members. Delays in achieving family reunion can have devastating consequences. One of MLP’s clients, a 17-year-old girl from Eritrea gave up hope of being reunited with her brother through legal means after waiting more than 7 months for her application to be decided and a further 18 months for her appeal against the refusal to be heard. Whilst attempting to reach her brother through irregular means, she fell into the hands of people traffickers who took her to Libya, where she was detained in appalling conditions and held for ransom. Despite her appeal against the refusal of entry clearance succeeding and her brother paying thousands of pounds to traffickers for her release, she currently remains under the control of traffickers in Libya.


How migration policies affect families


  1. The procedural requirements imposed by the Home Office as part of the family reunion process, for example, only commencing the process of consideration of the substantive application once biometrics have been enrolled, are inflexible even where practically people cannot travel to a visa application centre in order to enrol their biometrics. This is the case for our clients trapped in Libya, where there is no UK Visa application centre, who have no identity documents to enable them to travel outside of the country. The lack of flexibility in procedural requirements mean that many people are unable to access the entry clearance process at all and so are unable to exercise their Article 8 rights.


  1. The fact that children and young adult care leaver refugees are only able to sponsor an application for family reunion outside the immigration rules invariably results in an extended (if not indefinite) period of family separation. The Home Office has large discretion to grant family reunion outside of the immigration rules but in practice, the discretion is exercised rarely. To have a realistic chance of success applications must be thoroughly prepared and supported by overwhelming evidence of ‘exceptional circumstances’, including detailed statements from the separated child or young person in the UK and their family member(s) overseas and those supporting them, such as teachers, social workers and medical professionals as well as in most cases expert evidence such as DNA tests, social work and psychiatric assessments, which can be intrusive. The need to prepare such detailed evidence further prolongs separation, including due to the limited availability and capacity of experienced experts willing to work at legal aid rates. 'Outside of the rules' applications can only be made by experienced legal practitioners with expertise in this area, however the limited availability of legal aid for family reunion claims, poor remuneration rates, the complexity and time-consuming nature of the work as well as lack of capacity in the sector in general[18] means that accessing legal representation is one of the biggest hurdles for unaccompanied young people seeking to reunite with family members. But even before this, young people are often dissuaded from seeking family reunion after receiving bad advice from people they know. MLP clients have frequently been told that there is no opportunity for them to apply for family reunion by their asylum lawyers, immigration lawyers they have approached specifically for advice about reunification, social workers, personal advisors, youth workers and others, all because such an application is not included within the immigration rules. Many only our clients only discover years later that it is possible to apply outside of the rules and very often this is down to happenstance (e.g. hearing about a classmate or a friend of a friend who reunited with their sibling).


  1. The fact that ‘outside the rules’ applications are decided at the discretion of the Home Office, leads to inconsistencies in decision making. It also means applications are considered ‘complex’ and take longer for the Home Office to decide. Many applications are refused without adequate reasons being given and without important evidence being considered. This further prolongs family separation. Even where applications are successful, applicants granted entry clearance outside of the rules will be on a 10-year route to settlement, instead of being granted leave in line with their Sponsor and will not be eligible to apply for settlement at the same time as them.[19] 


  1. Research by Amnesty International, Refugee Council and Save the Children found the consequences of the UK Government’s policy on refugee family reunion is damaging to the lives of children, and that some children separated from their families experienced "constant anxiety, fear for their families’ safety, and in some cases serious mental health consequences”.[20] The vast majority of the MLP’s clients have experienced multiple traumas both in their home country and during their journey to the UK and will meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Where family members are in precarious situations, this often has a traumatic and re-traumatising effect on the child / young person in the UK. The psychiatric assessments commissioned by the MLP often reveal family separation to be the main perpetuating factor for a child / young person’s PTSD or other mental health diagnosis. In our experience the majority of our client’s also experience profound feelings of anxiety and circular worries about their family members as well as feelings of loneliness, displacement, guilt and self-doubt at their perceived failure to help their family members. Many young people are placed under considerable financial stress trying to support family members overseas and maintain contact with them.[21] MLP clients have ended up thousands of pounds in debt supporting family members abroad, one client worked nightshifts in a warehouse before going to college the next day, in order to support his 12-year-old sister in Ethiopia. The protracted nature of the family reunion process means that the young person in the UK is often in a state of high anxiety and stress for a long period of time which creates a risk of worsening mental ill health, serious mental health conditions, substance abuse and suicide[22] and has consequences for the young person’s long-term recovery.


  1. The emotional difficulties experienced by separated children and young people has a knock-on impact on their ability to access education, which is intrinsic to their ability to integrate into the UK and achieve their full potential. MLP clients have found it difficult to concentrate in class and have struggled to sleep at night due to their anxiety about their family members, many have felt compelled to drop out of college due to exhaustion or in order to find paid work to support their family members living in precarious environments. Many of our clients’ teachers, social workers and support workers have confirmed the negative impact of family separation on the child or young persons’ education. Dr. Sam Parrett, principal of London South East Colleges, which has eight campuses in south east London, previously said in an interview that "the pastoral care and support required for these very vulnerable [unaccompanied] young people is immense and this is a growing concern for us. Many will have been through traumatic events and been separated from their families.”[23] She said that that London colleges needed extra financial support to meet the needs of this group.


  1. For MLP’s client group, the use of modern means of communication is no substitute for reunion in the UK. MLP clients’ family members are usually located in countries where they are in danger and the internet connection is unreliable (e.g. Sudan, Syria, Libya, Ethiopia). Our clients struggle to pay for phone cards out of their Local Authority/benefits allowances. Remote contact does nothing to alleviate our clients’ fears about family members who are in danger, and indeed often increases their anxiety: contact is not constant so there is no assurance of their family’s safety; the UK based relative witnesses their family member’s distress/dangerous circumstances while being able to do very little to help them. In a number of cases, family members abroad have been detained or trafficked and as a result, contact abruptly ceases, which causes extreme distress to the UK family member. In the case of children/young people, physical touch/affection from family members has been shown to have strong developmental benefits.[24]


How family migration policies affect society


  1. We have outlined at paragraph 14-15 above the impact that family separation has on the mental health, education and potential of refugee children / young adults. We would highlight that this has concomitant implications for mental health and educational support services, the benefits system and local authority resources (all of which are already overstretched), as well as on the UK economy as young people are underachieving and prevented from realising their potential. The greater reliance on the support of local authorities for unaccompanied children separated from their parents and who are, as a result, in the care of children’s services is self-evident.


  1. We have observed the incredible positive transformation that young people go through after being reunited with family and this has also been confirmed by our client’s social workers and other professionals supporting them. Following reunification clients invariably report feeling intensely relieved and overjoyed at being reunited with their family members and experience a dramatic upturn in their mental health. For many, reunification means that they are finally able to focus on their future and so leads to an increased commitment to life in the UK, putting energy into pursuing their education or finding work. They will also increasingly rely on their family members to act as a support network and to help each other overcome difficulties, thereby reducing pressure on public services.[25] 


  1. Whilst unaccompanied children arriving in the UK to join a child or young adult sibling / other relative will likely require support initially from Children’s Services, multiple social workers have commented to the MLP that children who have travelled to the UK to be reunited with their sibling are ‘completely different’ to the UASCs they usually support, they are more confident and settle into life in the UK much quicker and they generally need less support from their social worker because their sibling(s) will help them with many things.





        1. Widen the definition of family member under Part 11, to include applications by adult children who are dependent on their parents and to allow for child and young adult refugees to sponsor their parents and siblings.
        2. Remove the requirement to pay an application fee (currently £388) for refugee family reunion under Part 8 of the Immigration Rules and Appendix FM.
        3. Provide for all applicants granted refugee family reunion (including those granted outside of the rules and under Part 8) to be given leave in line with their Sponsor and to be eligible to apply for settlement at the same time as them.
        4. Allow for applicants of all nationalities fleeing persecution and/or armed conflict to access an equivalent scheme to the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine Scheme.
        5. Reinstate legal aid for all applications based on Article 8 ECHR.
        6. Accelerate the refugee family reunion application process and issuance of visas and introduce a system to prioritise applications by children and at-risk individuals.
        7. Introduce more flexible biometrics requirements including allowing approved organisations like UNHCR or consular partners to collect biometrics on behalf of the Home Office.



September 2022

[1] For further information please see our website (

[2] See  In In 2021 we represented Safe Passage International in a successful legal challenge to Home Office policy on deciding family reunion applications under the EU’s rules

[3] See

[4] See


[5] See the recent decision in R (on the application of SGW) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Biometrics , family reunion policy) [2022] UKUT 00015 available at

[6] See Part 11 of the Immigration Rules; Rule 352A, 352FA, 352D and 352FG, applications under Part 11 are free and there are no accommodation and maintenance requirements to meet.

[7] We consider that a more appropriate test would be whether family reunification is in the best interests of the child.

[8] On 28 June 2022, para 319X of the Immigration Rules was amended by Statement of Changes HC17, §§8.1-8.4., so that children may be granted leave to enter under the Rules as the child of a refugee relative, where they cannot meet the accommodation and maintenance requirements, but where there are “exceptional circumstances (as defined in para 319XAA)”: para 319X(vi) -(vii) and 319XAA. Para 319XAA (d) explains that relevant factors when considering whether there are exceptional circumstances include that the applicant is dependent on the UK based relative. In our experience, ‘dependent’ is often interpreted narrowly by the Home Office to mean ‘financially dependent’. This disadvantages many child and young adult refugee sponsors, who cannot afford to support family members financially.

[9] The current fee for applications made under 319X is £388 per applicant. Most entry clearance applications (other than those made with reference to Part 11 of the Immigration Rules) command a fee.  It is possible to apply for a fee waiver if the cost of the visa application fees cannot be met. Following a successful legal challenge a much delayed revised overseas fee waiver policy was finally published on 16 June 2022, available here: Affordability fee waiver overseas Human Rights-based applications ( However, no specific service standards apply to the assessment of whether the applicant qualifies for a fee waiver under the policy (see p.19) and MLP is aware of lengthy delays in fee waivers being decided. Applicants cannot apply for entry clearance until either the fee is paid or a fee waiver is granted.

[10] The Home Office’s policy ‘Family reunion: for refugees and those with humanitarian protection’ (version 7.0; as from 29 July 2022) states at page 21 that “Where a family reunion application does not meet the requirements of the Immigration Rules…caseworkers must go on to consider whether there are other circumstances raised in the application which may justify a grant of entry clearance or leave outside the Immigration Rules on the basis of ECHR Article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life) or compelling compassionate factors.

[11] See

[12] See Apply for a Ukraine Family Scheme visa - GOV.UK (

[13] On the lawfulness of differential treatment of refugees see “(Some) refugees welcome: When is differentiating between refugees unlawful discrimination?, Cathryn Costello and Michelle Foster, International Journal of Discrimination and the Law 2022, Vol. 22(3) 244–280. Available at:

[14] See

[15] See

[16] See

[17] See

[18] A detailed 259-page report commissioned by Refugee Action in 2022 documented how the supply of immigration and asylum legal aid in the UK is unable to meet the demand as there is not enough immigration and asylum legal advice available, country-wide, see

[19] This is a very significant disadvantage. Someone entering the UK on a 10 year route would have to make 4 further fee paying applications at a total cost (under current Home Office fees) of £4,622 before qualifying for settlement. The need to make multiple complex and expensive applications increases the likelihood that people will become overstayers, e.g. if they cannot afford the fees and  impedes integration. Research by the Children’s Commissioner has highlighted impact on children of ‘living in a state of limbo’ (see

[20] See

[21] Separation from relatives is significantly associated with refugees’ symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD, as well as their psychological quality of life, even after accounting for individuals’ overall level of trauma exposure see: Miller, A., Hess, J. M., Bybee, D. & Goodkind, J. R. (2018). Understanding the mental health consequences of family separation for refugees: Implications for policy and practice. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 88(1), 26-37.

[22] In a letter to the government in July 2021, 47 charities raised concerns about the number of unaccompanied refugee young people who were dying by suicide. In the UK, at least 12 teenagers have died since 2016, although the true number is unknown, see

[23] See

[24] See e.g. Narvaez et al (2019) “In a third study with adults (n = 607), we found significant mediation processes connecting retrospective reports of childhood touch to adult moral orientation through attachment security, mental health, and moral capacities.”

[25] Our observations are reflected in research, see Wilmsen, B. (2011). Family separation: the policies, procedures, and consequences for refugee background families. Refugee Survey Quarterly 30: 44–64. 10.1093/rsq/hdq045