Under the spotlight: Family reunification for refugees in Europe

Round table on family reunification for refugees
Organised by the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

The family reunification process of refugees can be lengthy and difficult, due to strong bureaucratic hurdles and limitations, which diminish refugees’ chances of integrating in their adoptive countries.

At the Round table jointly organised by ENNHRI and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, on 18 October in Brussels, European NHRIs discussed concrete ways to jointly promote changes in laws and policies, to protect and maintain the right to family reunification for refugees.

“Family reunification is the first step towards refugee integration and one of the few regular and safe ways for migrants to reach Europe” declared Muižnieks, urging NHRIs to reinforce the right to family reunification through litigation and through national engagement. “While European instances, such as the Commissioner for Human Rights can highlight these issues to governments, political engagement at the national level is necessary. One way is by bringing evidence and data to state authorities. The numbers are lower than what politicians claim them to be.”

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Els Keytsmann, director of UNIA, the Belgian Equality Centre, added that “Policy makers are not willing to invest in refugees, in their integration in society”. She also explained that from her institution’s experience, female refugees often experience more challenges in integrating, by being both a woman and a refugee.
“We need to fight politics with the right laws” concluded ENNHRI Chair Lora Vidović.

Presentations from Myria, the Belgian federal centre for migration, and from the German Institute for Human Rights underlined some concrete projects and strategies in this specific field. Myria is facilitating family reunification through specialized legal advice, reinforcing actors that support “first line” family reunification (such as mediators), policy work and strategic litigation. GIHR has published political recommendations as well as arguments for lawyers, to use them before the courts.

Participants also highlighted the need for a strategic, common approach and a reinforced dialogue with their natural partners such as Council of Europe or the OHCHR. Such cooperation is key at a time where the environment for the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the execution of the Strasbourg Court’s judgments has become more challenging, due to increasingly hostile views on human rights and the ECHR system, the shrinking of democratic space and rule of law in many states, and repeated cases of very long or non- execution of judgements.

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All NHRIs recent Declarations and common positions relating to the migration system crisis in Europe highlighted the importance of protecting and maintaining the right to family reunification and have recalled the State’s international obligations in this regard: Belgrade Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Refugees and Migrants (2016), ENNHRI General Assembly statement on Migration and human rights (2016 and 2017) as well as GANHRI Statement on the occasion of the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants (2016).

At national level, within their broad mandate to protect and to promote human rights, NHRIs across Europe are dealing daily with multifaceted aspects of migrants’ rights. ENNHRI has recently launched it report on of key findings and recommendations on migrants’ access to information on their rights. Issues related to family reunification remain high on the agendas as well.