A family reunification dilemma for the EU

By on 23/03/2016 | Updated on 19/01/2017
Refugees are taking risky boat trips to Europe

Many of the asylum seekers heading for Europe hope to bring their families over later – so governments are squeezing refugees’ rights to family reunification. But Yermi Brenner finds that this may hamper the integration of those who’ve already found asylum in the EU

When the EU enacted the Family Reunification Directive in September 2003, it was praised for turning a fundamental human right – the right to respect for people’s family lives – into an international law. Under the directive, the 25 subscribing European nations are meant to facilitate legal immigration for the wives and children of anybody with a valid residence permit for their country. As the European Commission says, in the absence of such routes for legal migration, “family life is impossible for some immigrants. Reunification also helps to create socio-cultural stability, facilitating the integration of non-EU nationals within EU States, thus promoting economic and social cohesion – a fundamental EU objective.”

However, Europe’s current migration crisis has prompted some signatories to beat a rapid retreat – imposing new restrictions on the rights of refugees to bring their families over. Denmark implemented a new law delaying family reunification for refugees; Germany approved changes to its asylum law, including a two-year ban on family reunifications for people who have subsidiary protection status; and the Austrian government legislated a bill that increases the waiting period for refugees to apply for family reunification.

Sweden too has moved to limit family reunification for refugees, with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven arguing that the prospect of bringing over wives and children is one of the driving factors behind spiralling migration: “The current situation is unsustainable, so we must drastically reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to Sweden,” he said. The German interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, has said that the family reunification rights of Syrians should be limited because Germany cannot cope with a doubling of its already record refugee numbers: “No one knows how many people in Syria and its bordering states are waiting for their family reunification applications to be approved,” de Maiziere told Agence France Presse. “We cannot double or triple our already high refugee numbers through family reunification.”

Do the maths

De Maisiere’s concern is understandable. About 35% of all the asylum seekers arriving in the EU last year registered in Germany: over a million people embarked on the process of seeking asylum there last year, and the 440,000 who got to the stage of putting in a formal application represent a 155% increase on the numbers in 2014.

The number of applications for family reunification is rising almost as quickly. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of family reunification visas issued to Syrians by the German authorities doubled to 21,376, according to data provided by the German Federal Foreign Office. As of 4 January, the German authorities in Beirut, Irbil, Amman and Cairo were holding a further 60,000 current applications from Syrians and Iraqis, according to the German Federal Ministry of Interior. All together in 2015, nearly 160,000 more Syrians arrived in Germany.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the number of family reunification visas granted to refugees also doubled between 2014 and 2015. And in Sweden, which granted about 8,000 family reunification visas to refugees in 2012, the number of visas issued has climbed every year since – reaching 13,400 in 2015. Relative to the size of its population, Sweden has one of the largest refugee groups in Europe: at 16,016 per million residents, the proportion is second only to the 17,699 in Hungary.

Thomas Liebig, an economist working in the International Migration division of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), believes that the restrictions placed by European governments on family reunifications are a justifiable effort to decrease the incentives for asylum seekers to come to Europe. Countries like Sweden, he says, are unable to integrate refugees when they’re arriving so fast and in such numbers.

“It’s understandable that in the current context some countries want to make [family reunification] harder, and want to send out a signal that it’s going to be more difficult,” Liebig notes. “On the other hand, there’s a potential cost in terms of integration.” Refugees who see little prospect of having their families come to join them are much less likely to seek a job, become financially independent and settle into their new community, Liebig argues.

Seeking closure

The demand amongst refugees for family reunification visas is likely to continue to grow, according to Massimo Livi Bacci, a professor of demography at the University of Florence in Italy and a specialist in immigration issues. Professor Livi Bacci points out that the recent influx of asylum seekers to Europe has been male-dominated – about 72% of the asylum applicants in the EU during 2012-15 were men. But in his view, the increase of family reunification visas being granted to relatives of refugees is a good thing for European governments and indigenous populations.

“I think this is an inevitable and also a positive development,” says Livi Bacci, “because it’s one thing to have hundreds of thousands of single men living detached from the family, and another thing to have hundreds of thousands of men who have their own family with them.” Allowing and encouraging family reunifications of refugees is a preventive measure, Livi Bacci concludes: “In the long run, you cannot isolate young men. They need to live in a normal surrounding.”

The reports of attacks on young women by groups of immigrant men in Germany and Sweden give weight to Livi Bacci’s warnings – but they have also hardened public attitudes to all asylum-seekers, and many national governments seem determined to restrict family reunification rights in a bid to reduce the incentives driving this wave of immigration. They have the right to do so: although the Family Reunification Directive is built on human rights law, Professor Philippe de Bruycker – an expert on European asylum law at the European University Institutes Migration Policy Centre – says that it leaves individual nations plenty of room to decide their own policies. It’s a “fake instrument” which “leaves the member states almost free to do what they want,” he says – so appeals to the European Court of Human Rights are unlikely to force governments to change their policies.

The United Nations High Commission in Refugees has repeatedly advocated the introduction of more fast and efficient family reunification procedures for refugees in Europe. But European governments – and particularly the countries that have become a prime destination for asylum seekers – are heading in the opposite direction. This may reduce Europe’s attraction as a destination for asylum seekers, but it runs the risk of leaving those who’ve already arrived and been allowed to remain isolated, frustrated, and only half-committed to settling in and building new lives in the EU. The move to lock out the families of refugees may help to address one immediate challenge, but it risks creating a new set of problems for those working to integrate and support Europe’s millions of new arrivals.


Yermi Brenner is a journalist and videographer specialising in migration and integration issues  He has studied communications and journalism in Tel Aviv and at New York’s Columbia University School of Journalism, and spent five years reporting from China, Israel, Palestine and Qatar; he’s now based in Berlin.


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About Yermi Brenner

Yermi Brenner is a journalist and videographer specialising in migration and integration issues: https://yermibrenner.contently.com. He has studied communications and journalism in Tel Aviv and at New York’s Columbia University School of Journalism, and spent five years reporting from China, Israel, Palestine and Qatar; he’s now based in Berlin.

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