Published: 17 Nov 2021  |  Category: Integration  |  Stage: We have welcomed a family

Family reunion

Read our advice on answering questions on family reunion

It is extremely likely that the family you support will ask you about the possibility of bringing members of their family to the UK.  Whilst it is  possible in some cases to do so, it is extremely rare and very complex. This resource aims to give you some ideas on how you can address this as a group.  Do be mindful that you should not be giving immigration advice to anyone, unless you are regulated to do so. 

Family reunification is, understandably, a huge priority and concern for the family members who arrive in the UK.  This resource aims to prepare you to answer questions around this, however, it does not give you the influence to change family reunification decisions, replace advice from a regulated Immigration Advisor or provide a solution to the family. Groups have shared with us that it’s essential for all Group members to be consistent in the way in which they respond to questions from the family you support.

When you are asked about family reunion, we recommend that you direct the person asking you to the UNHCR materials on this, available in English and Arabic.

Up until October 2020, there was a Family Links Information Sharing Form (FLIS) that resettled families could complete and send to UNHCR.  This has now been withdrawn and there are no actions a family in the UK can take.  

Family Reunification and Family Links

Family Reunion is a specific programme – separate to resettlement.  The UK government’s current guidelines around family reunification allow those with refugee or humanitarian protection status to apply to reunite with a spouse, partner or child under 18. These regulations are often disappointing for refugees hoping to bring their extended family, including brothers and sisters, to the UK.

A family link refers to when two or more parts of the same extended family are both resettled to another country.  Wherever possible, the UK Government will try to resettle them close to one another should they wish to do so and it is possible.  All refugees interviewed for resettlement will have been asked if they have links with family or friends in the UK. 

It’s important to note that being recognised as a refugee and being considered for resettlement are two separate processes which take place in countries of asylum.  Being identified as a refugee does not mean that a family will be considered for resettlement. 

Understanding resettlement practice

It’s really important when discussing family reunion that you set the resettlement process in context.  Whilst the family will have been through this process, they might not be aware of the full picture of this.

There is a vast global need for resettlement.  In 2020, UNHCR estimate there to be over 26 million refugees in the world, 1.4 million were identified as being in need of resettlement.  In the same year, just 22,800 refugees were resettled.  Resettlement is an opportunity for very few and there is a vast global need with less than 1% of the world’s refugees being offered resettlement opportunity. 

When refugee families are approved for resettlement to the UK by UNHCR and the UK Government, their family unit is referred to as a ‘case’, which is a term we will use in this resource.  The case will be made up of a particular composition of a family, perhaps a Grandma, Mum, Dad and children who have been interviewed as a single unit.  This will mean that other members of the family may still be in a host country or their country of origin.  When UNHCR interview families, they start with a nuclear family, but are mindful of family unity, they consider dependency of other family members and relationships between family members are assessed during interview.  You can access more information on how UNHCR assess family dependency in the Resettlement Handbook.

What will the family have been told about Family Reunification?

The family you support might arrive in the UK with unrealistic expectations about the possibility of being reunited with family members not on their case. Whilst in a host country and going through the resettlement process, caseworkers, who resettle refugees to a range of different countries, may have referenced the UK’s family reunification laws without knowledge of how this system works or the limited number of families who will be eligible for this programme, or they may have heard rumours or stories of where this has happened from those resettled elsewhere in the world. However, this is a complicated legal process, based on individual circumstances and government policies, and, in most cases, it is unlikely to be possible.

Families who are resettled in the UK are provided with guidance in their Welcome to the UK booklet about the reunification process, but you should not assume that they have digested this information.

Leaving behind a support network

Although refugee families are referred for resettlement by UNHCR in a specific family composition, often parent(s) and children on the same case, most refugees have been living with extended family in the host country and in their country of origin before fleeing. In many cultures, the line between nuclear and extended family is more blurred than it is typically in the UK, so resettling away from adult siblings and elderly parents could mean a significant breakdown of the support network they’ve relied on their whole lives, which makes moving to a new country even more difficult. Given that the relatives they’ve left behind could be living in conflict areas or in poor conditions in their host country, the refugees you support will naturally be trying to do everything they can to bring their family members to the UK.

Managing expectations

Many Groups have found that questions about family reunification can make it difficult for refugees to engage in different aspects of your support, especially if they believe that you have any influence over this situation.

Practical steps you can take to manage expectations:

  • Be clear that you cannot give legal advice on family reunification
  • Be clear that it is simply not within your power to bring family members to the UK yourself or to influence decisions around this.
  • Be consistent as a Group in answering questions, and make sure any conversations around this are shared between you. It will jeopardise the families’ trust in your support if you make false promises. Groups find it helpful to set clear boundaries that are communicated to all Group members and the refugees to outline what they can and cannot help with.
  • Be open about the limitations of your role, and focus on the tasks you can assist with, such as adjusting to life in the UK and helping the family to access different services. Naturally, you will empathise with their circumstances, and it is important that you take the request seriously and provide the appropriate support.      
  • This UNHCR page provides answers to some of the frequently asked questions

Finding appropriate legal support

As soon as family reunification comes up, we recommend seeking professional help. Advice on immigration matters can only be provided by an Office of Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) regulated immigration adviser, who you can find through gov.uk. Some immigration advisors charge a fee, others provide advice for free.  

The British Red Cross also provide advice in some areas of the UK to refugees on Family Reunification: https://www.redcross.org.uk/get-help/get-help-as-a-refugee

Family reunification will most likely come up with the family at some point. If you are able to communicate your inability to influence the matter while taking their request seriously and seeking appropriate help, it will be easier to manage their expectations about family reunification and your support in general.

What you can do

When the family you support asks about helping the family they left behind to resettle to the UK, remember that the process is rigorous, opaque and lengthy.

If the family members left in their host country have concerns about their protection and need for resettlement, they should be referred to UNHCR or their partners in that country, these can be found here: help.unhcr.org/

If the family in the UK have protection concerns relating to their families in another country, they can email gbrlo@unhcr.org who may be able to assist with the case.  Again, it’s important to manage expectations in relation to what might be possible.