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Gaza families win legal challenge against Home Office refusal for family reunion requests

Judge deems government department behaviour 'irrational and unreasonable', and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights
Palestinians walk past the ruins of houses destroyed during Israel's military offensive, Gaza City, 20 March 2024 (Reuters)

Palestinian families have won a legal case against the Home Office when an immigration tribunal found that the government department’s refusal to consider their reunion applications was "irrational and unreasonable", and breached the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Judges ruled on Thursday in favour of two Palestinian families who brought charges against the Home Office in February after it refused requests to decide on visa applications before enrolling biometric data.  

'We are relieved for these families who will now have the ability to have their cases properly heard'

Spokesperson, Gaza Families Reunited campaign

Existing visa guidelines require applicants to enrol biometric information at a Visa Application Centre (VAC) before submitting a visa application. As Gaza’s VAC is closed, the nearest is in Cairo, which is impossible for many Palestinians in Gaza to reach.

The families demonstrated that having a positive "in principle" decision would have assisted them in negotiating exit via Rafah and travelling to a VAC in Egypt, via the assistance of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, the Egyptian authorities or via bribes paid to Egyptian state-linked agencies that historically faciliated exits from Gaza. 

Home Office guidelines state that biometric requirements can only be deferred in "exceptional circumstances" and if the applicants can demonstrate their journeys to a visa application centre were "unsafe". 

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One of the families, referred to as "RM and others", are parents with two children applying to join their daughter who is studying in the UK. 

The family are internally displaced in southern Gaza and living in an overcrowded apartment with no access to water, food and medical treatment, after being forced to flee their home by Israeli bombardment. 

They reported "acute mental distress", with one family member feeling "suicidal" and another "unable to speak more than a few words".

The other family, "WM", is a mother with four young children who is applying to join her brother, a British citizen living in the UK. The family had been internally displaced twice, initially from their home in the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of Gaza and then from the al-Maghazi camp in central Gaza. 

In both cases, the Home Office refused the family’s requests for a decision on their application without prior provision of biometrics on the basis that their circumstances were not "materially different to other people in Gaza" or "compelling as to make them exceptional".

The court found these decisions to be a "disproportionate interference" with their "rights to respect for private and family life".

But the families still have a long way to go in their visa application process.

"We must remember that we are six months into current events and what the clients are getting is a decision on their applications. So we had to litigate to a very advanced stage only to get decisions out of the Home Office," Juliane Heider, a solicitor for the Islington Law Centre told MEE. Islington Law Centre acted for one of the families in the recent litigation, along with the Migrants’ Law Project at Asylum Aid who acted for RM & Others.

“From here on, there are additional stages to the process, including appeals if the applications are refused by the Home Office. It’s a long and complex process at a time when what our clients who are in Gaza want and need is to urgently have their request to join their relatives in the UK granted," Heider said.

Inherently dangerous

The court also found that the Home Office’s  guidance was in breach of Article 8 of the ECHR, as the risk of life in Gaza was such, the Home Office's refusal to consider their applications would risk nullifying reunification with their families.

In the case of RM, the Home Office refused a request to reuse biometric data taken for a previous visit to the UK because they had not demonstrated "that they are at personal risk, need to make an urgent journey, or that any such journey would be particularly unsafe for them over and above other persons currently living on the territory". 

WM was not deemed to be at personal risk, despite being a lone mother of small children.

The judges concluded that "the only rational conclusion would be that… they would personally face dangers as a lone woman travelling with four young children over and above others making any journey within Gaza to the border, which is of itself inherently dangerous".

"We do not consider that in the context of the conflict in Gaza … that it is necessary for a person to show that they are specifically targeted to be able to establish that they are at risk due to their personal circumstances," Judge Jackson said.

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"This is an important judgment with wider consequences which recognises that the Home Office has adopted policies in breach of Article 8 ECHR, which it is applying to multiple families seeking to be reunited," Anastasia Solopova, a solicitor at Asylum Aid said.

"The Home Office must now... adopt a lawful approach to the biometric enrolment requirement, so that more families from Gaza and elsewhere are not unlawfully deprived of decisions on their entry clearance applications."

The ruling follows a letter signed by almost 60 charities, law firms and organisations, including the Refugee Council, Care4Calais and the Helen Bamber Foundation, calling for the Home Office to urgently create a Ukraine-style visa scheme for Palestinians in Gaza "to protect human life and the right to family unity until it is safe for Palestinians to return".

"We are relieved for these families who will now have the ability to have their cases properly heard. We hope that their applications will be successful and that they will be able to reunite in the UK soon," a spokesperson for the Gaza Families Reunited campaign, a grassroots collective of Palestinians from Gaza and migrants' rights said.

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