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Home Office Failures on Family Reunion

Last month the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published a report criticising the Home Office for its handling of family reunion applications. Family reunion applications are sponsored by those granted asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK and eligible family members are their spouses, unmarried partners and minor children, provided that this family unit existed before the sponsor left. These applications have increased from 4,917 in 2012 to 8,403 in 2015, an increase of around 70%. However, refusal rates have also increased during the same period.

The inspection considered a sample of 181 applications at visa sections in Amman, Istanbul and Pretoria; which received the highest number of applications in 2015. The overall finding was that the Home Office needed to make a number of improvements to address the particular challenges for applicants for family reunion, and ensure that applications were managed efficiently and effectively as well as with thought and compassion.

Evidential failures

Applicants are required to prove their identity and their relationship with the UK sponsor. There are no specified documents but guidance to applicants suggested that they submit birth certificates, marriage certificates, photographs and letters. Given the context of conflict and displacement, many applicants, who may still be living in dangerous situations or in refugee camps, face significant difficulties in providing these documents.

The inspection found that cases where documents were missing, unverifiable or non-contemporaneous were more likely to be refused and that the Home Office were ‘too ready to refuse’ applications based on insufficient evidence. In some sampled cases applicants were refused due to failing to provide documentary evidence that they could not be expected to provide as it was not mentioned in the published guidance. The fairer and more efficient approach proposed is to defer decisions to allow applicants the opportunity to provide additional evidence.

In addition, the cessation of Home Office commissioned and funded DNA tests in 2014 correlated with a significant rise in refusal rates, indicating that this is a major cause. Due to unclear guidance, applicants were not aware of the potential importance of this evidence in establishing family relationships until a refusal, leading to avoidable delays in families being reunited.

The inspector recommended that the Home Office make better use of its own interview records of sponsors, which may corroborate details of family relationships claimed by applicants; the greater use of interviews for applicants and sponsors; and a review of its approach to DNA evidence.

A lack of compassion

Home Office policy enables applications for family reunion to be granted outside the Immigration Rules where there are exceptional circumstances or compassionate factors. This could allow family members that do not meet the narrow criteria of the Rules to be granted entry clearance, such as adult children or extended family members.

None of the sampled cases were considered on this basis although some cases raised compassionate factors or implicitly contained reasons which should have led to further consideration. The Inspector finds that ECOs did not take into account the likely impact of refusal, such as family separation, which in some cases raised issues relating to the safeguarding or welfare of vulnerable individuals.


The Home Office has accepted all ten recommendations in its response to the report. The results of its review into its policy on DNA evidence is expected by the end of the year. It has also updated its policy guidance on Family Reunion as a result of the report, available here.

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