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New EU rules may keep refugee families apart, warns UNHCR

New EU rules may keep refugee families apart, warns UNHCR

The UN refugee agency has said it is dissatisfied with new European Union harmonised rules on refugee family reunification that discriminate against certain categories of refugees.
23 September 2003
Under the new EU rules, these Bosnian refugees in an Austrian accommodation centre could have been denied a family reunion if they had fled their homeland because of generalised violence, not targeted persecution.

GENEVA, Sept 23 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has said it is dissatisfied with a new set of European Union harmonised rules on family reunification, which it says discriminates against certain categories of refugees and could keep families apart unnecessarily.

The latest directive, adopted yesterday 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.

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 that they have a regular and stable source of income. Refugees are also exempted from the requirement for migrants 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 harmonisation have been considerably diluted, said UNHCR.

"Family reunion can be denied on the grounds of public policy, public security and public health," said Raymond Hall, director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau. "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.

Young couples are also penalised, under a provision that EU countries are not automatically obliged to reunite refugees and migrants with their spouses unless both are over 21 years old. This could delay the reunification of refugees who married young and had children before the prescribed age.

Even when they are reunited, the family members of recognised 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 people who have been granted "subsidiary forms of protection".

A subsidiary form of protection 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, especially the idea that refugees must have been in fear of individual persecution, rather than generalised violence or indiscriminate bombardment during a civil war.

Under the new EU directive, for example, someone fleeing targeted persecution in Bosnia in the early 1990s would have been entitled to reunite with his or her family. But the majority who escaped the incessant bombing of Bosnian cities like Sarajevo or Gorazde and were granted subsidiary forms of protection would not have enjoyed the right to family reunion.

"We see no justification in excluding beneficiaries of subsidiary protection from the scope of the directive, since these people often have needs that are every bit as compelling as those of refugees," said Hall, adding that those recognised to be in need of international protection should be entitled to basic standards of treatment, including the right to live with their families, irrespective of whether they are receiving protection under the 1951 Convention or under an alternative protection status.