Theresa May is probably hoping we were too distracted by Russia to notice a massive blow to her government

Refugee Families Debate, Angus McNeil (right)
Stefan Schmid

Theresa May is probably hoping we’ve all been too distracted by Russia to notice the fact that her government received a massive blow on 16 March. But human rights groups are celebrating after a bill supporting reuniting refugee families passed its second reading in the House of Commons.

Opposition MPs and rebel Conservatives joined together to gain a total of 129 votes in favour of the principle of the refugees family reunion bill. 42 MPs voted against the bill.

MPs from across party lines joined in support of the changes put forward by SNP MP Angus MacNeil, who claimed the current system was “inhumane”. But turnout for the debate was considerably higher on the opposition benches.

The passing of the bill, alongside the support from Conservative rebels such as Anna Soubry, will be a blow for the government, who has said it will oppose it at later stages.

Amnesty International UK, British Red Cross, Refugee Council, Oxfam, UNHCR and Student Action for Refugees all announced support for the bill.

What does the bill seek to achieve?

The private member’s bill can be broken down into three key points:

  • Expand the criteria of who qualifies as a family member for the purposes of refugee family reunion.
  • Give unaccompanied refugee children in the United Kingdom the right to sponsor their family members to join them under the refugee family reunion rules.
  • Reintroduce legal aid for refugee family reunion cases.

The Red Cross has detailed restrictions in current legislation that stop children over 18 from joining their parents with refugee status in the UK. And refugee children cannot sponsor their parents to join them in the UK under the current law.

It is estimated that changes in the law would mean an additional 800-1000 people would be eligible for refugee status.

‘Unspectacular changes’

Introducing the debate in parliament, MacNeil thanked MPs from all parties for uniting behind the bill. He said:

This shouldn’t be a bill about party politics…It’s about compassion…. humanity as well.

The Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP added:

If I have any criticisms of what I’m trying to achieve, it is that my bill is so small. My bill is so little and is actually unspectacular. So unspectacular that we should have no problem at all in passing this bill.

“Despicable Falsehoods” and “Filibustering”

Despite some cross-party support, opposition members were critical of some Conservative MP’s behaviour. Labour MP Afzal Khan claimed some Conservative MPs were “denying basic facts about the desperate situation”.

Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron chastised the Tories for trying to “talk down” the bill. While the SNP’s Alison Thewliss accused MPs of “filibustering” and uttering “despicable falsehoods”:

Conservative MP Ranil Jayawardena was one of those arguing against the bill. The MP said the aid contribution of the UK must be praised. But he claimed the bill was simply “virtue signalling“.

Jayawardena argued that the changes could act as a pull factor for refugees. He also suggested the bill could lead to sexual assaults and terror attacks.

The MP faced opposition during his lengthy contribution. And he was met with cries of shame at the end of his speech.

“A good day for humanity”

The government is threatening to whip MPs in order to block the bill at a later stage. But campaigners and human rights groups have celebrated the bill moving forward.

Oxfam and Safe Passage UK were among those championing the result. Laura Padoan, UNCHR’s spokesperson for refugees, claimed it was a “good day for humanity”:

Jeremy Corbyn also backed the bill, calling the current Home Office rules “unfair”:

The strong support for the bill shown by the rebel Conservative MPs today will worry the government. Already fractured on issues such as Brexit, the government will struggle to whip MPs into line. If the opposition maintains a united front, they may be able to push the bill all the way.

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