Families must be granted protection together

Norway, Denmark and Sweden have in recent years tightened the rules and practices for family reunification. This means that families do not get protection together.

The right to family life is a minimum human rights standard, which the Scandinavian countries are obliged to follow. On 27 November, UNHCR in Northern Europe and NOAS released a report comparing Norwegian, Swedish and Danish policies and practices for family reunification for refugees.

Norway has, compared with Sweden and Denmark, the most expensive and most demanding process for refugees who want to safely be reunified with their family in Norway. All refugees in Norway meet the same, strict deadlines and application conditions, regardless of their protection status. But if you are a refugee in Denmark, it is very important what protection status you have been given. Are you a Syrian who have received subsidiary protection in Denmark in 2015 or later due to the general situation in Syria, you are refused to apply for family reunification until after three years.

Sweden also has a short deadline for the refugee to apply for family reunification after granted protection. But refugee families in Sweden are exempt from fees, and the Swedish authorities do not set the same strict deadlines and application conditions for the remaining family as the Norwegian authorities.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has previously stated that there are “insurmountable obstacles and barriers that a refugee encounters in an application process for family reunification in Norway”.

High application fee

In Sweden and Denmark, refugees are exempted from claims for application fees at family reunification. In Norway, the application fee, also for refugees, is NOK 10,500. It is often difficult – if not impossible – to afford for refugees who have just arrived in the country. Only children under the age of 18 are exempt from the fee. Many refugees have to resort to undeclared work or very expensive loans in order to pay the fee. Norway should do as Sweden and Denmark, and exempt refugees from fee requirements. 

Short deadlines and dangerous journeys

In order to be exempt from income requirements, Norway requires that a family reunification application must be registered online within six months of being granted refugee status. The family in the home country must submit the necessary documentation at the appropriate foreign service station/application site within one year. In Sweden, applications must be submitted within three months, but there is no set deadline for submitting documents. Denmark does not operate with deadlines. Deadlines in Norway and Sweden should be removed.

Refugees who have come to Norway/Sweden should be allowed to apply on behalf of family members in their home country. This is especially important in cases where the family members are at risk if they have to travel to a Norwegian foreign service station/application site to submit documents, or where the journey causes children to be separated from their parents.

Refugees in Denmark are allowed in some contexts to seek reunification on behalf of family members, if the family members are in a conflict area.

Affiliation requirements

In Norway, refugee families can be refused reunification under the Immigration Act “if family life can be pursued in a safe country with which the family as a whole has a stronger connection”. Norway can refuse the application even if an application for family reunification will not be granted in the country it is referred to.

Such an affiliation requirement is not in itself a basis for refusing an application for family reunification in Sweden and Denmark. Norway should remove the requirement.

Should be free to choose a partner

Refugees should, like others, be free to choose a life partner, without restrictions based on the time when the relationship was established. Denmark grants the same rights to family reunification, regardless of when family life started. Requirements such as four years of work or education in Norway to get the family here, which applies if the family is established after the escape, should be removed. Norway and Sweden should exempt refugees from the income requirement, even when family life has been established after the escape.

Lack of legal aid

Neither in Norway, Sweden or Denmark are refugees entitled to free legal aid in family reunification cases. Countries should recognize the complexity of these cases and provide legal assistance to safeguard legal certainty.

Norway, Denmark and Sweden have a way to go for refugee families to receive protection together. In several areas, Norway should adapt to Danish regulations and practices for better safeguarding refugee families’ right to family life.

This article was first published on noas.no on November 27, 2019.