UNHCR calls on government to expand family reunification opportunities for refugees

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency has reiterated its call on the government to expand family reunification opportunities for refugees and urged it, as a short term measure, to consider reopening the International Refugee Protection Programme Humanitarian Admission Programme (IHAP) to new applicants.

Introduced in 2018, the IHAP has already provided a safe and legal pathway for 514 people, over 50% of whom are nationals of Syria or Afghanistan, to join family members in Ireland.

“As recent events in Afghanistan have underlined, many refugees experience regular distress and anxiety over the plight of their relatives abroad”, said Enda O’Neill, Head of Office with UNHCR Ireland. “The IHAP is a legal pathway that has offered a lifeline to hundreds of family members of refugees to come to Ireland that would not otherwise be able to under family reunification laws as they stand.”

Announced in May 2018 and operated under the discretion of the Minister for Justice, the IHAP gave Irish residents, including refugees and citizens, the opportunity to apply for members of their family to join them in Ireland. The programme allowed refugees to avail of more flexible procedures than those provided for under the International Protection Act 2015, which has narrowed the categories of refugee family members who can apply to come to Ireland.

UNHCR has welcomed last week’s commitment by the Department to process open family reunification applications for Afghan nationals as quickly as possible. As a recent report by UNHCR has outlined however, many refugees granted reunification face considerable hurdles in bringing family members to Ireland. Protracted waiting times, administrative requirements and barriers to accessing travel documents and visas as well as prohibitive costs can all result in extended periods of separation and stress for families. UNHCR is calling on the Irish government to apply a flexible approach to Afghan cases which takes into account the exceptional, complex and challenging situation on the ground at present.

“The right to family unity and private and family life are fundamental rights protected by international and national law, but current procedures are restricting the ability of refugees to be reunited with their loved ones. Reopening the IHAP would provide an immediate opportunity to reunite families separated by war and conflict that would otherwise remain vulnerable and separated.”

UNHCR reports that more than half a million civilians have been displaced in Afghanistan this year due to increasing violence and insecurity amid what is now a humanitarian emergency. UNHCR, as part of the broader UN country team, will stay and deliver for the Afghan people, including through partners, for as long as there continues to be access to populations in need and safety for colleagues and partners. Additional international support will be required as these needs continue to grow. The continued support of key donors, such as Irish Aid, who last week pledged an addition €1 million, is critical to these efforts and the ongoing delivery of life-saving essentials such as tents and blankets.

While the number of people who have fled to countries neighbouring Afghanistan has been small to date, the situation continues to evolve rapidly. Any major influx would require the international community to step up immediate and sustained support to both Afghanistan and its neighbours, in a spirit of responsibility and burden sharing.