Drastic cuts to legal aid are tearing refugee and migrant families apart

The most vulnerable are being denied access to justice, according to a new Amnesty report


‘We have a moral duty to safeguard the welfare of unaccompanied refugee children,’ Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the Commons yesterday as she announced that the UK government is finally going to relocate some children from Calais — albeit an embarrassingly small number.

However, an Amnesty report published today shows that legal aid cuts are preventing the UK from fulfilling that moral duty, as thousands of migrants and refugees are denied access to justice because they cannot afford the legal fees.

It points out that ‘as a group who already experience a range of distinct problems and inequalities due to their immigration status, the removal of legal aid from immigration and family reunification cases has been profound.’

Although there are hundreds of children in Calais and elsewhere in Europe who are legally entitled to reunification with family members in the UK, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Act (2012) removed the automatic entitlement to free legal aid in reunification cases.

The government’s justification for the cut is that reunification is a ‘straightforward immigration matter’.

It’s a cruel irony, since the result is that that those with the most compelling prima facie cases are the least likely to get legal assistance.

This forces already vulnerable families to negotiate a complex and alien system alone, and has undoubtedly contributed to the crisis in Calais, where children facing endless delays in the legal process give up hope and attempt to jump lorries instead.

As Sarah Sadek, an immigration and asylum solicitor-advocate comments in the report:

“Family reunion cases have a huge impact. These are people who have been torn from their families through no fault of their own, through war conflict and violence. People who have been through so much already and whose families can be left in horribly dangerous and difficult positions. They need help to get through the process. Without that help it will be very hard for them to finally be reunited with families.”

The report also highlights the impact of the 2012 cuts on other migrant groups, detailing cases of parents being deported despite having British children, of children who have spent their whole lives in Britain facing deportation, and of immigrants in detention centres being completely denied legal information, advice or assistance.

As another solicitor, Rosalind Compton, observes, families and children entitled to stay in the UK are instead becoming ‘an underclass trapped in limbo.’

And as though the existing barriers weren’t enough to deter even well-founded cases, it was also recently announced that the fees for asylum and immigration appeals are being increased by up to 500 per cent.

So much for moral duty.

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