Call to establish safe routes for people fleeing Gaza: letter to UK Government

Letter from the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees Emma Roddick to the UK Government Minister for Legal Migration Tom Pursglove urging the UK Government to allow more people from Gaza to come to the UK.

From: Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees Emma Roddick

To: UK Government Minister for Legal Migration Tom Pursglove

Thank you for your letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice on 3 January in which you confirmed that the UK had no current plans to establish a new Resettlement Scheme for Gazans or to evacuate people from Gaza with no connection to the UK.

It was clear from your letter that this decision would not be reviewed unless the situation changed significantly. Several months on, with over 33,000 Palestinians killed, large-scale devastation of infrastructure rendering much of Gaza inhabitable and the United Nations reporting that famine is imminent in North Gaza, I am compelled to urge in the strongest terms that the UK Government reconsiders its position, particularly with regard to Gazans who have family in the UK and Palestinian human rights defenders.

In your letter you rightly said that it is important that all possible measures are taken to protect civilians and ensure safe humanitarian access and that this is what democratic governments operating within international law do.

I recently met with representatives of the Gaza Families Reunited campaign. They are a group of over 350 Palestinian families across the UK who are seeking to bring their close family members to a place of safety. It is hard to conceive of the extreme trauma they continue to experience on a daily basis knowing that their family members could be killed at any moment.

The group I met with stressed that they do not wish to bring their relatives to the UK permanently. Gaza remains their homeland. Instead, they are calling on the UK Government to establish a Gaza Family Scheme similar to the Ukraine Family Scheme which has seen over 57,000 people join their family members in the UK between March 2022 and the scheme’s closure in February 2024 (data as of 25 March 2024).

The UK’s existing Refugee Family Reunion scheme allows an adult refugee (or person with humanitarian protection) to be joined by their spouse or partner, and any dependent children under 18 years old, if they formed a part of the family unit before the refugee fled their country. Despite being a narrow definition of family, which excludes other close relatives, such as parents and siblings, this is a channel that some Palestinians in the UK wish to make use of. Additionally, the existing Family Visa route which others are seeking to access also has limitations on dependents and includes the Immigration Health Surcharge.

The current UK rules however stipulate that people must apply in person at a Visa Application Centre where they can submit biometric data. While it is possible to apply to waive/defer biometric requirements, in practice the vast majority of these applications have been rejected. A recognised Palestinian refugee from Gaza recently won his case challenging the Home Office's refusal to decide the entry clearance applications of his wife and children under the refugee family reunion rules, on account of their inability to enrol their biometrics in Gaza. The Upper Tribunal (UT) found that the Home Office’s refusal to decide these family members’ entry clearance applications was a breach of their Article 8 ECHR right to respect for private and family life.

This is a major barrier that is preventing those with a legitimate connection to the UK from being allowed to travel here. It was reported this week that two people have been killed while waiting for a decision on their family reunion visa under existing routes. To help address this, I would urge that the UK government either adopts an application process that can be conducted from within Gaza, waiving the need to provide biometric data until arrival in the UK (as was undertaken for Ukrainians who were allowed to provide biometric data within six months of arrival in the UK) and subsequently facilitating individuals’ transfer to a place of safety prior to onward travel to the UK; or that the UK Government facilitates the safe transfer of individuals who meet the eligibility criteria to the nearest Visa Application Centre removing the need for them to make this unsafe journey through unofficial routes.

Given the gravity of the situation however, correcting this discrepancy to enable those who are currently eligible to join their family members in the UK, will not go far enough. The Scottish Government and the Scottish Refugee Council fully support the aims of the Gaza Families Reunited campaign alongside more than 74,000 people who have signed a public petition as well as more than 75 migrants’ rights organisations and law firms across the UK. The campaign calls for a scheme to be opened for relatives of all Palestinians in the UK, not just those with refugee status. This should be open to a wider cohort of immediate and extended family, including parents, children over 18, siblings and their children.

Before replying to this letter, I would like to request that you meet with members of the campaign who would be happy to share some of their harrowing experiences with you. These include Doaa who spent six weeks unable to make contact with her mother, sister and her children as they made the perilous journey from the North of Gaza to Rafah on foot. Or Ramy who has already lost 200 members of his extended family and has paid huge sums of money to an unofficial Egyptian agency to evacuate twelve family members from Gaza.

Since October of last year, I have received several hundred letters from people in Gaza pleading to be granted asylum in Scotland. Many of these individuals have family in Scotland and an existing connection to the UK. It has been heartbreaking to reply to these individuals saying that only the UK Government can grant visas and there are no current plans to open a scheme. When my officials have replied they have done so, not knowing if the individual will be alive to receive the response. One father wrote to me six times requesting help for his 11-year old daughter Zaina who subsequently died due to a lack of specialist food and medical support.

Acting now to provide a temporary place of sanctuary for Gazans with family in the UK will not only save lives but is fully aligned with the UK’s responsibility to protect civilians and provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.

I would like also to take this opportunity to highlight the situation of Palestinian human rights defenders. Human rights defenders in general face high levels of risk as a result of their work. As you know, such risks have now become particularly acute for those working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I would therefore urge you to take particular account of the need to provide protection to these and other groups, including where necessary by facilitating their relocation to the UK, as part of the UK’s overall response to the current crisis.

I recently met with a number of human rights defenders who highlighted the appalling human rights violations taking place in Gaza. As you know, the entire civilian population in Gaza is exposed to an extreme threat to life as a result of military action, starvation and disease. Human rights defenders, in common with first responders, aid workers and others undertaking humanitarian work are at even greater risk, and their ability to continue their crucial work is severely inhibited. Whilst the situation in other parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories has had less coverage, it too gives rise to acute risks for anyone seeking to ensure that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Creating temporary humanitarian entry channels for human rights defenders is therefore vital in securing the continued defence and promotion of human rights throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories, not just in the current crisis but for the long-term. Indeed, it is essential that future reconstruction and reconciliation is very directly founded on securing the human rights of everyone in the region. Putting in place immediate additional protection mechanisms to support and assist human rights defenders would ensure that these individuals are able to continue their critical work and can support their communities in taking up the challenge of securing post-conflict restorative justice and a future grounded in the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

I am copying this letter to Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for the Middle East at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

I look forward to hearing from you and would be happy to meet to discuss these issues.

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