New EU reunification rules could keep refugee families apart, UN agency warns

24 September 2003

A new set of European Union (EU) rules on family reunification may discriminate against certain categories of refugees and could keep families unnecessarily apart, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

The latest directive, adopted two days ago after more than three years of negotiations, sets out conditions under which refugees and migrants in the EU may be reunited with their children and spouses, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

On one level, UNHCR has welcomed the fact that separated refugee families face fewer restrictions than separated migrant families under the directive. Unlike migrants, refugees who request family reunion within three months of being granted refugee status do not have to show that they can provide their own accommodation and health insurance or prove they have a stable source of income. Refugees are also exempted from the requirement to have lived in a country for two years before their family can join them.

However, compared to the European Commission's first draft drawn up in 1999, the basic standards and the degree to which the new directive provides genuine harmonization have been considerably diluted, UNHCR said.

"Family reunion can be denied on the grounds of public policy, public security and public health," said the Director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau, Raymond Hall. "The problem is that 'public policy,' in particular, is a very vague term that could be easily used to keep families apart without any real justification."

The new directive also contains a narrow definition of the family unit. A refugee may be reunited with his or her spouse and minor children, but not necessarily adult children, elderly parents or other close relatives who may depend entirely on the refugee.

Even when reunited, the family members of recognized refugees may be forbidden to work for up to one year for reasons "related to the situation of the labour market."

UNHCR has also expressed disappointment that the new measures offer no family reunion rights to persons who have been granted "subsidiary forms of protection," which offers a status similar to refugee status but is given to people who do not technically fit the strict requirements under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

 

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