Family reunification: adjusting EU procedures is crucial
“My family reunification process was long, risky and expensive. I felt powerless, and blamed myself for exposing my loved ones. Unfortunately, many people are separated indefinitely.”
Zeraslasie Shiker, from Eritrea, now in the United Kingdom
Family reunification is a priority and vital concern for people on the move. Bringing together migrants, protection seekers and their relatives left behind often turns into a lengthy, cumbersome and unsafe process, though, with the COVID-19 pandemic aggravating that situation. European governments' measures such as border closures and visa suspensions have significantly prolonged separations, exposing people to heightened risks – including dangerous journeys through the Mediterranean. Immediate action is needed to uphold the right to family life and prevent further human suffering.
On 5 February, the Red Cross EU Office organised a public webinar on ‘Family reunification in Europe: from practice to policy’. The event offered a platform for experts to hold meaningful discussions on common difficulties and what next steps both the EU and national authorities should undertake to ensure that administrative and practical obstacles get adequately tackled. More than 100 people participated, including representatives from the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU, NGOs, the United Nations (UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM) and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (National Societies, IFRC and ICRC).
A more conducive environment?
With the Pact on Migration and Asylum released by the European Commission on 23 September 2020, new challenges and opportunities lie ahead. Anaïs Faure Atger, Head of the Migration Unit at the Red Cross EU Office, opened the panel mentioning that legislative package and underlining that the negotiations around the 2021-2027 EU budget instruments set out a new framework and accompanying mechanisms that could lead to swifter family reunification processes during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, provided current barriers at different levels are addressed.
Zeraslasie Shiker, from the VOICES Network in the United Kingdom, launched the debate by sharing a first-hand account of the multiple obstacles most refugees face in their family reunification journeys. Originally from Eritrea, he was serving as a diplomat when life circumstances forced him to leave everything behind and seek refuge in the UK. Bringing his wife and children with him took five years of intricate procedures, recurrent administrative delays, poor communication with embassies… Their security and wellbeing were threatened, and that took an emotional toll: “I worried I would never see them again. I experienced what it is not being trusted, not knowing what is going to happen to you, being forced to rely on others,” he stressed, noting that they were nevertheless among the ‘lucky ones’: “Many don’t even have documentation and fall victims of human trafficking.”
Crossing borders to apply for family reunification in embassies of European countries and travelling with children are often particularly risky. In addition, people sometimes have to go into debt to start their application processes, because of the related fees. Some also fear the violence or exploitation they may encounter along their journeys. Sohini Tanna, Refugee Family Reunion Policy and Advocacy Officer of the British Red Cross, cited those as some of the findings of The Long Road to Reunion report. She explained that nearly half of families they interviewed had endured substantial barriers and protection concerns due to the current procedural requirements, and pointed out that straightforward changes can let people rebuild their lives together again in safety, speeding up family reunification while increasing legal avenues for those in need.
Daniel Bernhart, Family Reunion Senior Advisor at the Austrian Red Cross, echoed that approach, emphasising the wide range of legal and practical obstacles that put refugees, other beneficiaries of international protection and their relatives left behind in harm’s way: from the strict definition of the eligibility criteria and income, housing and insurance requirements to the 3-year waiting period for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection and high costs at different stages of the process, among others. He underscored that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened existing problems and impacted service provision, calling for stronger political will and cooperation among embassies and consulates. “Family reunifications should be possible without deadlines; processes should be free of charge, made as easy as possible so people can reunite as fast as they can,” he said.
Legal pathways vs policy objectives
Addressing individual needs while upholding an inclusive, multi-stakeholder approach that pays specific attention to refugees’ testimonies and experience is crucial, according to Resettlement Officer Nathalie Springuel, from the UNHCR Representation for EU Affairs. She stated that the EU should use the momentum generated by the adoption of the Global Refugee Compact to ensure that favourable conditions for the family reunification of refugees and other beneficiaries of international protection are enabled, stepping up policy recommendations and financial resources for family reunification programmes and measures. Member States also have a key role to play, she said, indicating it is of utmost importance for national authorities to guarantee effective procedures especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated vulnerabilities worldwide.
“For people on the move, including those who flee persecution or other situations of violence, family reunification in the countries of destination is usually the only way to ensure that their right to family life is respected,” highlighted Evita Armouti, Migration Officer at the Red Cross EU Office. She added that following the increased arrival of asylum seekers in the EU in 2015-2017 many governments have tightened restrictions in family reunification to control immigration to their territories, and warned that last month’s evolution offers a bleak picture. Recent policy developments may provide a glimpse of hope, though, if adequately implemented: “Member States must keep in mind that family reunification must remain a legal pathway, not a policy objective limited to quotas.”
Family reunification is a holistic, protection-oriented process that begins with the tracing of relatives, continues with restoring and maintaining contact between them, and ends after their reunion. It is critical for hundreds of thousands of people inside and outside the EU, and further efforts are needed to make sure legal frameworks translate into smoother and more humane processes on the ground. Improved understanding of the challenges and solutions is necessary for national authorities to adjust practices so all people in need can truly enjoy their right to family life. The good news is that, despite recent setbacks, the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought about good practices and lessons learned that can pave the way for efficient and adapted family reunification procedures.
- Project feature by the Red Cross EU Office on ‘Bringing families together’ (here)
- Report by the Red Cross EU Office, the British Red Cross, the Swedish Red Cross and ICRC on ‘Reuniting families across borders’ (here)
- Report by the Red Cross EU Office and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) on ‘Disrupted flight - The realities of separated refugee families in the EU’ (here)
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