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Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Putting the family first

Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Putting the family first
Issue 95, I - 1994

1 March 1994
UNHCR has promoted the preservation and reunification of refugee families for decades, but much more needs to be done.

UNHCR has promoted the preservation and reunification of refugee families for decades, but much more needs to be done.

By Kanyhama Dixon-Fyle

When conflicts and massive abuses of human rights erupt in a blaze of drama and publicity, governments and the general public in asylum countries usually respond positively to the first wave of refugees driven from their homes. But once that pristine humanitarian moment has passed and the spotlight has moved elsewhere, the host country may feel it has satisfactorily accomplished its duty. The initial welcome can cool surprisingly quickly - particularly when a newly arrived refugee declares: "I belong to a family. They need me and I need them. Please help me bring them here to safety."

International laws and agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights call on states to protect the unity of existing families. Unfortunately for refugees, who are often forcibly separated from those they love, the restoration of the family unit destroyed by outside forces does not have the same degree of formal international support.

Even the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol fall prey to this "family-blindness." In the international code of rights the Convention establishes for refugees, it does not address the right of the refugee to family reunification - though it does address such issues as employment and education. Whether or not a refugee family can be reunited is therefore determined by national asylum and admission criteria or immigration policies, which may or may not allow inclusion of UNHCR's recommendations and guidelines.

Though the 1951 Convention does not include the principle of family unity, preservation and reunion of refugee families have been promoted and carried out by UNHCR since its inception. The conference which adopted the 1951 Convention, and successive conclusions of UNHCR's Executive Committee (which indicate support by member states of particular protection policies and practices), have endorsed basic standards for family reunification which UNHCR has since put into practice. The basic recommendation of these texts is that states should facilitate the reunion of refugee families by giving the spouse and minor children the same status as the head of family granted asylum.

UNHCR guidelines augment this basic recommendation with others concerning different types of family reunification and different separation situations. The position of UNHCR is that the principle of family unity warrants, for instance, the reunion of polygamous families, and of dependent, unmarried children whatever their age. It also supports the reunion of dependents such as elderly parents; and sets out conditions under which the reunion of other relatives, such as members of the extended family, may be considered.

African countries have traditionally operated an open-door policy for refugee families. There, thousands - if not tens or hundreds of thousands - of people tend to seek refuge at the same time; all are treated as refugees.

"If the family was not able to keep together during their escape, then the first to arrive will often be followed by the others caught in successive movements of mass exodus," said George Okoth-Obbo, UNHCR senior legal adviser for Africa. The tracing of missing family members who may be in other camps, in other parts of the country or in different countries, is often the only real obstacle - though not necessarily an insubstantial one - to family reunification in this and many other parts of the developing world.

However, in some developed countries where large segments of the population see economic migrants and refugees alike as a threat, governments feel under increasing pressure to limit all forms of immigration. This has unfortunately become the case in several traditionally generous resettlement countries, particularly in Europe. A Seminar on Family Reunification for Refugees in Europe was hosted by the Danish Refugee Council in Copenhagen in May 1993. Several participants, while welcoming moves to harmonize practices among European countries, expressed alarm that these might take as their basis the lowest common denominator and impose Europe-wide draconian restrictions on family reunification.

In many countries with individual screening for asylum-seekers, family reunification is unlikely to get under way until the asylum applicant has been granted refugee status or temporary protection. And status determination may take years. Reunification is sometimes made conditional on the refugee achieving financial self-sufficiency or securing adequate accommodation for his family: more time may pass while these conditions are being fulfilled. The sheer time it takes for the two procedures to be completed can render subsequent family reunion impossible, for example when family members die or children pass the age limit in the meantime.

Refugees will be caused a great deal of additional misery if, for whatever reason, the trend is toward more inflexible family reunification policies in the traditional resettlement countries. Consider these cases, for example:

  • A 65-year-old grandmother who looked after her grandchildren in the absence of their refugee parents, and who remains alone after their departure, may not qualify for early reunification with her children and grandchildren.
  • A 16-year-old boy who tries to join his refugee brother who brought him up is returned to the safe third country where he was in transit, and where he knows no one.
  • A man whose three children died during the family's flight from war is told that his remaining five children, just as sick and destitute, will have to wait the outcome of his status determination in two years time. Only then can family reunification be envisaged.

Refugees seeking reunification with the rest of their family already suffer from not being able to see each other, from not knowing when they will be together again, and from fearing that the answer might be "never." Their relief at having reached safety may be so overshadowed by distress, guilt and worry about those who remain behind that the chances of their settling down and becoming fully integrated in their host country may be seriously reduced. Negotiating with the authorities and ensuring the upkeep of those back home can absorb large amounts of time, money and emotional energy. It also keeps refugees' minds riveted to the past and to trauma, instead of allowing them and their families to start thinking of the future and rebuilding their lives.

Family reunification is often the most practical, as well as the most humane, solution for the refugee, for the rest of the family, and for the society which they join. "I would like governments to know that reunited families are the key to a durable solution for the individual refugee," states Claire Hamlisch, head of UNHCR's Resettlement Section. "A reunited family is in a better position to consider its options, including voluntary repatriation, than a family that is dispersed."

UNHCR approaches family reunification on two levels. The first, an advocacy role, is based on the premise that the diversity of family situations precludes any attempt to come up with rigid, all-embracing criteria. Thus, at the national level, UNHCR encourages countries to:

  • Adopt more liberal practices, including greater flexibility in deciding which family members can be considered dependents;
  • Show more flexibility in requiring documentary evidence of family ties when the country of origin has limited birth or marriage registration practices;
  • Reduce the time it takes to process applications;
  • Impose fewer conditions such as financial guarantees and health insurance.

"Fraudulent claims have to be detected. This is necessary to protect the institution of family reunification itself," said Hamlisch. "But valid claims should never have to go unheard and remain unattended to." Hamlisch would like to see closer cooperation between governments, other agencies involved in family reunification cases, and UNHCR. "Let's share information," she said. "Information-sharing would enable us to give credit where credit is due, to those countries that have a humanitarian approach to family reunion."

The second line of approach is direct, practical assistance to refugees seeking reunion with their families. In fact, family reunion is the final stage of what is often a very long process. Before reunification can be envisaged, it may be necessary to trace the missing members of the refugee's family. Refugees often flee under chaotic, violent and traumatic circumstances, leaving all or part of their families behind. Children get lost; people stay behind to look after elderly parents or sick relatives; others may have been thrown into prison, have gone into hiding, or be lying in a mass grave. Or they may simply be in a different refugee camp a few kilometres away.

Not knowing what has happened to a loved one can be one of the hardest things to bear. The Central Tracing Agency of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) often gets letters from people thanking it for telling them of the death of a relative - information that at least puts an end to their excruciating uncertainty.

Once a refugee's missing family members have been located, often with ICRC's help, authorization has to be obtained from his or her country of asylum before the family can be reunited. This can take months. Only when such authorization has been given, can the practicalities of travel be organized. The country of origin may have to authorize the departure of those concerned. This may take more months. Identity and travel documents, including visas, may have to be arranged. If the family cannot afford the cost of travel, then financing has to be found. Assistance may be needed on arrival to help the family integrate into a strange new culture, if the whole venture is not to be invalidated at the very end by difficulties in adapting to life in the asylum country.

Assistance in completing all these procedures is provided by UNHCR branch offices throughout the world, often working in collaboration with other humanitarian organizations as well as governments. For instance, the reunification of a family, part of which is trapped in an area where fighting is taking place, might need the help of the ICRC to trace the family members and bring them out of the conflict zone; UNHCR to obtain their acceptance by the country of asylum; and the International Organization for Migration to organize the trip.

More fortunate refugees do not need all this assistance in order to meet up with their relatives. Instead, they sometimes succeed in locating the rest of their family rapidly and directly through the extended family network or through contacts with local authorities. Their families join them in safety for a while, and - in the happiest of scenarios - eventually return home one day.

In less fortunate cases, either the tracing or the asylum country's acceptance procedures may take such a long time that some of the children may no longer be minors and will therefore have become ineligible for resettlement; parents may have died; or husbands or wives, believing their spouse to be dead, may have remarried. Time works against the separated family, unravelling once close-knit bonds and adding new wounds to existing scars that may never heal without the support of loved ones.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (1994)