Waltham Forest Council is hosting an information event on 6th April for Ukrainian residents, those affected by the crisis, and those considering putting themselves forward as sponsors for the Homes for Ukraine Scheme. RAMFEL and other services will be present to provide advice and support.
You can read more and register for the event here.
The government’s announcement yesterday of a new hosting scheme to allow Ukrainian refugees to enter the UK should be cautiously welcomed, but certainly not celebrated considering the horrors unfolding in Ukraine.
For starters, it is unclear why visas remain necessary at all for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. The UK, unlike the remaining 27 members of the EU, is the only country still insisting on Ukrainians having visas before entering the UK. This bureaucratic hurdle may literally be a matter of life and death when seeking to leave a country besieged by war.
The scheme, which in essence allows UK based hosts to “sponsor” a family, also contains a bizarre requirement that would-be hosts must know the name of the person/people they are sponsoring. If the purpose of this is to only allow those with existing connections with Ukraine and Ukrainians to sponsor people, then it will reduce massively the numbers of eligible hosts, in turn reducing the number of Ukrainian refugees who can benefit. If it is solely a tick box exercise, easily met by a simple introduction through a social media platform, then it seems to serve no purpose.
If though this scheme, despite its flaws and the unnecessary delays in its creation, sees more Ukrainian refugees granted the right to enter and reside in the UK, then it is a positive development. A big question remains though as to why the government has not created such schemes for refugees fleeing other recent conflicts.
RAMFEL’s work involves supporting UK based refugees in applying for their family members to join them. This work is challenging, with burdensome procedural requirements – such as attending visa centres that may require crossing dangerous borders – and restrictive rules that limit who qualifies as a “family member”.
Prior to the introduction of its new scheme, the government’s initial response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine was to expand its definition of a family member so that British nationals could bring parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings from Ukraine to the UK. The thought of your nearest and dearest being trapped in such terrifying conditions does not bear thinking about, but for all other refugees in the UK, such a broad definition of “family member” simply does not exist, and they are limited to sponsoring spouses and minor children.
Any hope of bringing siblings, parents or even children now over the age of 18 is extremely difficult, and reliant entirely on the government exercising discretion and showing compassion. Anyone familiar with the UK’s immigration system will know that it is not known for its compassion.
RAMFEL client, Yasmin, for example has her four younger siblings stuck in Ethiopia. She has applied for them to join her in the UK, but been told in no uncertain terms by the government that there is “no provision within our immigration rules for someone to be allowed to travel to the UK to seek status or temporary sanctuary.”
Yasmin is far from our only client who has been prevented from bringing vulnerable family members to the UK due to the government’s restrictive and inflexible family reunion rules. Another client, Hamed*, is desperately seeking to bring his 15-year-old sister to the UK. She is already a refugee, living in a war zone having fled persecution in her home country, and an independent social worker has confirmed her vulnerability and risk of exploitation to meet her essential physical needs.
Hamed’s sister applied to join him in the UK in October 2021. Five months later, the government has still yet to reach a decision on this application. Hamed is understandably exasperated at the delays, and spends each passing minute terrified about his sister’s welfare.
Others have written extensively about the different tone and approach adopted by the UK and other western governments towards refugees now fleeing Ukraine, and contrasted this warm and sympathetic level of support with when the Taliban retook Afghanistan last summer, when Syrians fled their homes in the mid-2010s or the ongoing war in Yemen. The UK government’s decisions to broaden its family reunion rules to permit more Ukrainians to come here and now introduce their much trumpeted hosting scheme seems like yet another aspect of this preferential treatment for so-called “good migrants”.
RAMFEL supports any government decision that makes it easier for Ukrainians to seek sanctuary here. However, this more flexible and compassionate approach should be applied whenever conflicts break out and men, women and children through no fault of their own are forced to leave their homes and their loved ones in order to survive.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
RAMFEL and many others celebrated fresh hope yesterday, when Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s Nationality And Borders Bill took a battering in the House of Lords. Of the four clauses voted down, one of those with most urgent significance for RAMFEL’s clients is Clause 11, which would have divided refugees into two tiers depending on whether they arrived in the UK through a designated resettlement scheme or through clandestine means. Those who arrived via a route not sanctioned by the government (for example on a small boat) would be criminalised and denied even more rights and protections. Not only would they face imprisonment for so-called ‘illegal entry’ – despite it being acknowledged under international law that refugees often have no choice but to flee their home without a passport, far less secure a visa to a third country – but they would also be subject to the harsh ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition, and be prevented from bringing their family members to the UK under family reunion provisions.
Even before last night’s dramatic vote, Johnson was facing opposition to Clause 11 from many of his own MPs, who wrote a letter condemning the ‘dangerous’ bill and calling it ‘fundamentally at odds’ with the historic Refugee Convention: an international treaty created in response to the Holocaust.
The clause claims to encourage migrants towards so-called ‘safe and legal routes’ into the UK. But as many of our clients know, these supposed routes are often complete fictions. Our client Yasmin recently shared her upsetting story. Yasmin fled from political persecution and abuse in Ethiopia and sought refuge in London. Her young siblings remain behind, now orphaned, living with domestic servitude, violence and abuse, and at risk of FGM and forced marriage. Yasmin is the only family member left to care for her siblings: but when she amassed evidence and applied to the Home Office for them to join her in London through family reunion provision, she was denied. In other words, this family in danger tried to use a ‘safe route’ – only to find that such a route did not exist.
Yasmin’s case is not unique. RAMFEL has scores of clients who have successfully built a life in the UK after seeking sanctuary here. These clients’ stories would have been very different if Clause 11 had been in operation. One such client is Tom*, who cooperated with the British Army in Afghanistan as an interpreter, and was wanted by the Taliban when the British troops withdrew. Tom managed to escape and came to the UK without a visa. Tom has now been granted refugee status and wants to apply for family reunion for his children and wife. Under Clause 11, however, Tom would have been classed as a criminal, purely because of the route that he was forced to take to the UK. His family would be prevented from joining here. Having worked with the British armed forces in extremely dangerous conditions, he would have found the UK not just willing to imprison him but also keep him permanently separated from his wife and children.
Michael* entered the UK as a child in 2015, fleeing compulsory indefinite military service in Eritrea, and was granted humanitarian protection. Since then he has studied in college and now speaks fluent English. He attained qualifications in plumbing, and is in every sense positively contributing to society. Under Clause 11, Michael would not have been able to undertake this training, as he would have been prevented from accessing public funds and student finance. His ability to contribute to society in the UK would have been greatly diminished. It is difficult to see how anyone would benefit from this, even disregarding the fact that Michael’s own hopes and dreams would have been shattered.
Aaron* fled Iran after being imprisoned and tortured. After coming to the UK clandestinely, he was granted refugee status in 2020, and RAMFEL subsequently helped him apply for family reunion: his wife and children joined him in 2021. Aaron struggles with his mental health, and this was exacerbated while he was separated from his family. Under Clause 11, he would still be suffering this painful separation, probably unable to work and receiving far more support from local mental health teams.
Noah* arrived in the UK in early 2015 after making the dangerous journey from Eastern Africa via the Mediterranean sea into Europe. Noah immediately sought asylum and after waiting one year he was granted refugee status. Noah enrolled himself in English classes and sponsored his wife and four children to join him in the UK. In 2019, with a desire to enhance his employment prospects, Noah enrolled at his local college for a two-year diploma course in Business Studies. Noah has now successfully graduated and gained employment in the Security sector.
Noah’s successful integration in the UK would not have been possible with Clause 11. When asked about his feelings on Clause 11, Noah expressed concerns for the mental health of those separated from their loved ones trapped in dangerous situations: ‘Refugees also deserve to have their families be together in a safe place. If you can’t bring your family to join you, you will be thinking about them all the time and what’s happening to them.’ He also feared for those refugees who would have to try and live without access to public funds, stating: 'People need time to establish themselves in a new country, learn the language, build a network. Look at me now, I am working and contributing, but without some help when I arrived here, I don’t know how I would have been able to begin building my life in my new home.'
It has been heartening for us at RAMFEL to see such stringent challenges to the NABB: a bill that would not only damage and endanger human beings like those we encounter every day among our clients, but would also set an even more chilling precedent for the way in which the UK treats some of its most vulnerable residents. It has been pointed out by many that the standards the UK sets are also followed by other countries. If we begin criminalising refugees for simply seeking sanctuary, other countries with less of an established asylum framework and tradition of welcoming refugees, can be expected to follow suit.
After these three days of debate in the bill’s report stage, changes made in the Lords will return to the Commons. The government can then accept the changes imposed by the Lords or challenge them. But the strong message from the Lords, in combination with mounting public pressure and official opposition from the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, gives us hope that the bill can be defeated. The damage to the UK’s reputation and to the lives of so many people like Yasmin, Michael, Aaron and Noah will be severe if NABB instead becomes UK law.
*Names have been changed in order to protect identities.