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European countries must lift obstacles to reunification of refugee families

Issue Paper
Strasbourg 19/06/2017
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European countries must lift obstacles to reunification of refugee families

“The right to family reunification is a fundamental part of the right to family life, which is protected by international human rights law. This right is particularly important for refugees in Europe. Because of the dangers they face at home, their only option to enjoy their right to family life is to bring their families to Europe. Regrettably, many European countries are limiting refugees’ access to this right through restrictive measures which are unjust, unlawful and cause immense hardship for refugees and their families. This has to change”, says today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while releasing a report which aims at helping Council of Europe member states adopt a more humane and human rights oriented policy on family reunification for refugees and beneficiaries of international protection. 

The paper highlights the European and international standards which govern this field.  It refers to concrete national cases where restrictive measures have been adopted. These include excessively long waiting periods before being allowed to apply for family reunification; discriminatory distinctions between refugees and beneficiaries of international protection; limitations to residence status; an overly narrow definition of family members; routine use of DNA and other biometric assessments; and difficult access to places where family reunification procedures can be initiated.

To remedy this situation, the Commissioner sets forth 36 recommendations to help member states adopt laws and policies which uphold refugees’ right to reunite with their families in host countries. The recommendations focus in particular on ensuring family reunification is swift and effective; the need to remove practical and financial barriers to family reunification procedures; making these procedures more effective and less discriminatory; broadening the definition of family; and increasing children’s protection.

When refugees remain separated from their families because of restrictive policies, this often causes stress, anxiety and depression, which get in the way of the refugee’s efforts to integrate successfully in his or her new country. Also, family members left behind may make dangerous, irregular journeys to Europe, falling into the hands of smugglers and risking their lives at sea, if fair reunification policies are not in place.

“Living without one’s family is often an additional trauma for many refugees. It is imperative that European states avoid contributing to this unnecessary suffering and that they help refugees rebuild their lives in their host country, united with their family members. Ensuring this is not only a matter of law, but of human dignity”, says the Commissioner.