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Explainer: How does family reunification work in Ireland? And what are the problems with it?

The rules have been brought into sharp focus since the wave of migration from Afghanistan began last month.

KASHA MUMIE WAS separated from her children and trafficked from Uganda to Ireland in 2016. She arrived in Ireland by boat in a van with a group of other women. When she got here, Kasha managed to escape her traffickers.  

“The first night, I didn’t know I was in Ireland. I didn’t even know where I was. I didn’t know Ireland, I didn’t know anything about it,” Kasha tells The Journal.

She was rescued by gardaí near Drogheda and taken to the hospital, as she “wasn’t a bit well”.

“I was in shock and depression, so they took me to hospital,” she says.

With support from the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Kasha was granted permission to remain in the country, first for 60 days, and then for an extended period. Because of her personal situation in Uganda, Kasha was eventually given long-term leave to remain in Ireland. 

However, her three small children were in Uganda, and Kasha began a five-year process to be reunited with them. After court battles in Uganda for custody, and with support from the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Kasha was reunited with her children earlier this year.

“It was a very difficult time, but I’m glad I have them with me now. I couldn’t wait to have my kids with me,” she says. 

For Asmeret Kidane, who arrived in Ireland from Eritrea in 2004 while pregnant with her daughter, it would be 18 years before she was reunited with her son in Ireland in March this year, due to serious difficulties with the Eritrean government.   

“Even though I’m talking about it now, it just exhausted me. Physically, emotionally, financially it is very hard to even think about it now,” she says.

The family are now happily reunited and living and working in Dublin.

“This year we will all celebrate Christmas as a family. And that’s what I wanted my whole life, to have my family with me. [My son] has a good future now that he’s here with me in Ireland. It’s a huge step in his life and for us.”

Both women were able to be reunited with their children under Ireland’s family reunification laws.

90389882 Source: Sasko Lazarov

Family reunification 

Family reunification is the name given to the process by which Irish citizens, EEA (European Economic Area) citizens, or those with International Protection status or permission to remain in Ireland, can apply to have family members abroad join them in the country.

Irish citizens have no statutory rights to be joined by their non-Irish families in Ireland.

Instead, a 2016 policy document issued by the Irish Naturalisation Immigration Service (INIS) – which is part of the Department of Justice – sets out the criteria needed to bring a family member from outside of Europe to live here.

If you are an Irish citizen and wish to be joined by a child or spouse, for example, you must have earned not less than €40,000 over the previous three years combined. This increases significantly for elderly dependent parents. You must also not have availed of state benefits for two years before your application.

Generally, adult siblings or children, or any extended family members, will not qualify to be able to come to Ireland. Though in theory the Minister for Justice can apply discretion to a particular case that does not meet the requirements, this is done rarely. 

For those who have come to Ireland as asylum seekers and have been granted refugee status, international protection status, or leave to remain, the rules around family reunification differ, and are governed by the International Protection Act (2015).

Under the Act, people granted refugee status or subsidiary protection in Ireland have a right to be reunified with their close family (spouse or civil partner, child under the age of 18).

Figures on how many family reunification applications are made and granted each year are only available for this cohort of people. 

The latest figures from 2019 show that 307 family reunification applications concerning 737 individuals were made in 2019. A total 254 applications were approved in 2019, though some were made in previous years.

Problems with family reunification

Migrants’ rights groups and humanitarian aid organisations have criticised many aspects of existing laws and regulations around family reunification. 

For example, in relation to those with refugee or protected status, applications must be made for a family member to join them within twelve months of being granted status, which migrants’ rights groups criticise as being too short a time frame.

“We do come across a lot of incidents where just because of the very nature of forced displacement and the way in which you might have to flee your own country, you might not hear from your family for a while,” says Jody Clarke, Ireland spokesperson for UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency. 

“There are definitely incidents where family members turn up a couple of years later. In that respect [the 2015 Act] brought in a lot of restrictions and made it a lot more difficult for people to apply,” says Clarke.

Clarke also points out that the 2015 Act limits which members could join someone here, further restricting people’s rights to be united with their family.

Earlier this year, the UNHCR launched a report, Realising Family Reunification, which looked at the practical difficulties families had being reunified with each other, even when visas were granted. 

These concerned significant challenges for people to get the correct documentation and pay for flights and other associated costs for them to get to Ireland.

In relation to the INIS regulations around family reunification, Mary Henderson, a solicitor with the Immigrant Council who deals with family reunifications, says that in addition to statutory restrictions, the additional barriers for people in realising their rights are practical, financial and have to do with delays in processing applications.

“A combination of the uncertainties involved, the concerns around the financial criteria, and then the serious delays in processing are some of the main barriers that would be identified,” she says.

“When [individuals] are resident in warzones, when they’re resident in places that don’t have good documentary systems, or good bureaucracy operating.

“And [in cases] where people fled, they don’t necessarily have access to the documentary evidence that will either prove a familial link or facilitate them to actually go about making an application.

“If a person is in a warzone where there is no access to international NGOs (non-governmental organisations), or even being able to make regular contact with individual family members, logistically it’s very difficult for visas to be processed.”

90389887 Source: Sasko Lazarov

Afghanistan

The rules and regulations around family reunification have been brought into sharp focus after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last month, following the withdrawal of US and coalition forces.

The takeover has prompted a wave of mass migration, as hundreds of thousands seek to flee the country fearing for their lives and safety under Taliban rule. 

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In Ireland, the Afghan community has expressed serious concerns for family members and friends living in the country.

“What’s happening now to women is only the tip of the iceberg,” Shabnam Azad, an Afghan woman living in Ireland told The Journal last month.

“It’s going to get 10 times worse, in my opinion, for women there. Right now they are just trying to occupy, once they settle in then they’ll really start working and make life a living hell for women as it was the last time.”

Speaking this week, Nasruddin Saljuqi, chairperson of the Afghan Community and Cultural Association of Ireland, said that many Afghans living in Ireland – most of whom are Irish citizens – cannot bring their family members here as they do not qualify under current rules.

“They must make an application for a visa but they do not qualify. Organisations have asked the government to give a new stream so that people can apply for their families to join them,” he says.

According to Jody Clarke, the situation in Afghanistan has “really highlighted the issues that already existed” with family reunification laws.

“Even when you do get permission it can be very difficult, in terms of bureaucracy and the financial side and everything else, to actually bring people here in the first place,” he says.

Last month, the UNHCR reiterated its call for the government to reopen the International Humanitarian Admission Programme (IHAP). This programme was introduced in 2018 and allowed citizens and refugees to apply to be joined by family members in Ireland.

The programme was more flexible than the International Protection Act rules, and was operated under the discretion of the Minister for Justice. 

What the government is doing

In response to a number of queries from The Journal, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice – which deals with immigration issues – said that the department was currently focused on processing family reunification applications “for Afghan family members of Irish citizens and Afghan nationals living in Ireland”.

The spokesperson said that 108 Afghan family members have been granted family reunification so far this year and applications for 62 others are currently being processed. 

They said that only eligible people can apply for eligible family members under the International Protection Act, but that others may be able to apply for a visa to join their family.

“Visa applications for Afghan family members of Irish citizens and Afghan nationals living in Ireland are being assessed speedily and sympathetically,” the spokesperson said.

From January to 22 August this year, 128 visas have been granted to Afghan nationals seeking to join their families in Ireland. Finally, under IHAP, which is now closed to new applicants, 76 Afghans were issued with immigration status letters this year. 

The spokesperson said that the introduction of a new scheme similar to IHAP was being examined by the government and would require a government decision before being introduced.

“The Minister intends to bring proposals to Government in relation to this matter in the near future,” the spokesperson said.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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