UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is urging states to facilitate and expedite family reunification procedures for Afghans whose families are left behind in Afghanistan or who have been displaced across the region.
While recent political developments in Afghanistan have not led to large-scale cross-border displacement, many among pre-existing Afghan refugee and asylum seeker populations remain separated from their families owing to the inaccessibility of family reunification procedures.
Many are approaching UNHCR offices, desperately concerned for the safety and welfare of their family members who remain in Afghanistan or neighbouring countries.
To ensure the preservation of family unity and to help protect lives on account of the exceptionally challenging situation in the country, UNHCR is urging states to prioritize and simplify family reunification admission procedures.
The principle of family unity is protected under international law and in binding regional legal instruments. Domestic legislation in many countries also gives effect to this principle. While many countries have specific legal frameworks that provide for refugee family reunification and offer specific safeguards and waivers, UNHCR is worried that many Afghan refugees could face considerable administrative barriers in realizing this legal right.
The Nordic countries in general provide refugees with the opportunity for family reunification, but in recent years this has become much more difficult. UNHCR is concerned about the increased level of restrictions such as strict time limits for submitting applications, long waiting times, narrow definitions of family, and different rights granted to Convention refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.
In addition, financial and practical obstacles are often preventing families from being reunited, and these barriers include high application fees or income requirements as well as challenges for family members to physically reach an Embassy or consular service as part of the procedure. With many embassies and consulates currently closed in Afghanistan, this will only add to the challenges.
While a few countries have recently committed to fast-tracking applications, including through the adoption of humanitarian visa programmes, and prioritizing reunification procedures for Afghan families, UNHCR is urging states to ease, expand and expedite these arrangements. This adds to UNHCR’s general appeal to countries, including the Nordics, to work to reduce and remove existing obstacles to family reunification.
UNHCR is also encouraging countries to apply liberal and humane criteria in identifying qualifying family members under these schemes, taking into account diverse family compositions and structures, and including extended family members when a relationship of dependency is shown. Additionally, UNHCR proposes countries to take a more flexible approach, including through the use of innovative processing methods and remote interviews.
Effective and prompt family reunification not only provides a safe and legal pathway to protection for people forced to flee and hereby helps discourage refugees from taking on dangerous journeys and resorting to criminal human smuggler network. It is also a vital and important factor for refugees’ ability to successfully integrate and contribute to their host community.