Imagine that you have to flee your country and, for whatever reason, you cannot take your family with you. After a long and perilous journey, you finally reach a safe country and successfully apply for asylum there. What will be your next and most urgent priority? For the vast majority of us, it will be to ensure the safety of the family we left behind and to be reunited with them as soon as possible.
The same is true for most refugees arriving in Europe. According to EU legislation, they have a right to be reunited with their closest family members - usually their spouse and children under the age of 18 – but realizing that right is another matter. Just as the number of refugees arriving in Europe is rising, member states are making it more difficult for their families to join them.
According to Anne Bathily, a senior policy officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), an umbrella group for refugee organisations in Europe, this is no coincidence. She points out that family reunification is one of the few legal channels available for refugees to come to Europe and suggests that states are keen to reduce such channels.
ECRE’s members report that the trend is towards more restrictive eligibility criteria, more onerous requirements for supporting documentation and less availability of state-funded legal aid to help refugees navigate the increasingly complex application process.
Bathily told IRIN that national legislation on family reunification is changing so rapidly that even some lawyers and NGOs providing legal advice report having difficulty understanding the procedures, let alone refugees who may not even speak the language.
A 2003 EU Directive on the right to family reunification exempts refugees from some of the more difficult conditions that other categories of migrants have to comply with when applying, such as proof of sufficient income and accommodation. But refugees only benefit from these exemptions if they submit their applications within a certain timeframe after being granted refugee status. In some member states, they have as little as three months to make applications and those with subsidiary protection rather than full refugee status don’t benefit from the exemptions at all. This is despite the fact that in countries such as Hungary, subsidiary protection is the main form of international protection given.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, as well as refugee rights groups have pointed out that three months is not a realistic timeframe to submit family reunion applications. It can take several months to trace the whereabouts of missing family members and several more to track down the necessary documentation to support applications such as birth and marriage certificates.
Limited definition of family
Under the EU Directive, member states are only required to recognize the nuclear family as eligible for family reunification – spouses, minor children and parents of unaccompanied minors. Most member states have stuck to this limited definition which, according to Bathily, does not recognize the way that forced migration can change the makeup of a family and their dependency on extended family.
Vanessa Cowan, who manages the British Red Cross’s family reunion assistance programme, noted that orphaned children are often raised by aunts and uncles but are not eligible for refugee family reunion in the UK unless they have been formally adopted. Elderly parents and children over the age of 18 also don’t qualify. This can lead to parents having to leave behind a child who may have just turned 18, but still be dependent.
According to a report published jointly by ECRE and the Red Cross EU office in November 2014, family reunification procedures for refugees “are extremely lengthy, often lasting several years”. In just one example, a refugee in France waited four years for a decision relating to reunification with his wife and three children.
Araya, an Eritrean living in Birmingham, has been granted refugee status but her husband has been refused a family reunion visa to join her and their daughter.
Refugees, who have already been through gruelling journeys and lengthy asylum procedures, are often unprepared for the length of time it can take to reunite with their families, said Cowan. “It’s difficult for them to cope with the knowledge that their families are vulnerable in another country -they may be in danger, the children not going to school, not having enough to eat.”
Being separated from their families also affects refugees’ ability to integrate in their host countries, according to Bathily. “The impacts of separation are huge. People can’t really settle and invest in their new country when their first concern is what is happening back there?”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to family reunion for refugees is the fact that applications have to be made by family members in their country of origin, or where ever the nearest embassy may be. Typically, the “sponsor” - who is the refugee already in the EU - begins the application, if they’re lucky with some help from a lawyer or NGO, and then forwards it to the family member who must complete it and bring it to the embassy where they will be interviewed.
In conflict-affected countries like Syria, embassies are no longer functioning and family members have to make costly and dangerous journeys to neighbouring countries to reach an embassy, where they may have to remain for several months while awaiting an outcome.
“In the cases that we’ve helped, it’s not rare that a family has left the place where they live to reach an embassy and has been subjected to violence on the way,” said Cowan.
The ECRE/Red Cross report gives the example of a Syrian woman and her child who were trying to reach the Belgian embassy in Ankara to make an application, but were arrested at the Turkish border. The woman’s brother and brother-in-law, who were travelling with them, were killed - the report did not explain how - and the woman and her child were detained for several days before having to return to Syria.
The final obstacle is often one of cost. If and when a reunification visa is finally granted, the cost of flying family members to Europe may be unaffordable. The British Red Cross provides travel assistance for refugee families to reunite, but such assistance isn’t available in all member states.
“Sometimes it doesn’t happen because people don’t have sufficient money to pay travel costs,” said Bathily.
Figures for how many refugees in Europe successfully reunite with family members aren’t available because their applications are not tracked separately from those made by other categories of migrants, but UNHCR has noted that the numbers are low and make up a very small percentage of overall migration to Europe.
UNHCR has advocated for swifter, more efficient family reunification procedures for refugees in Europe, particularly for Syrians, but there is little indication that member states are prepared to make the process any easier.
“When you’re uprooted, your family becomes your country; it represents everything you left behind,” said Bathily.
“But this is where you see the tension between state interests and individual interests. [States are] saying that being generous in family reunification is a pull factor.”