The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
Family unity is a universal right. When forced to flee their home country, refugee families are sometimes torn apart and remain separated for long periods of time. States have a responsibility to protect and restore family life for refugees through family reunification procedures. UNHCR helps safeguard refugees’ fundamental right to family unity; we work to support separated refugee families and enhance access to family reunification procedures.
Families belong together
When forced to flee their home country, refugees are often forced to remain separated from their family members and may go for years without seeing their loved ones or never be reunited again.
Family reunification procedures are based on the legal right to family unity. In contrast to all other third-country solutions such as resettlement, education and labour, States have a legal responsibility to put in place legal frameworks that enable family reunification.
Family is the fundamental unit of society, and its integrity is protected under international law and in binding regional legal instruments. This legal obligation to protect the universal right to family unity infers a responsibility on States to facilitate family reunification. Most countries have family reunification procedures for refugees deriving from these international obligations.
Well-designed refugee family reunification procedures can also help establish the safe and legal routes necessary to prevent refugees from resorting to dangerous and irregular journeys and risking their lives to reunite with their loved ones. Effective family reunification procedures can deter smuggling networks abusing the refugees’ need to join their families.
Reuniting separated families helps refugees heal from the trauma of conflict and boosts their integration prospects. United families adapt better in their new communities, and family members can provide a sense of safety, especially for vulnerable groups like women and children, and support economic self-reliance.
What we do
UNHCR supports the reunification of refugee families. It is important to recognise that, to be eligible for dedicated family reunification procedures, while the sponsor or the instigator of the family reunification procedure must be officially recognized as a refugee or complementary protection holder by a state, the family members of such a recognized individual are also persons of concern to UNHCR either on their own merit as refugees or by derivative.
Family reunification is a State-managed procedure existing under the national legal framework of a country. The reunification of refugee families is first and foremost the responsibility of States. UNHCR monitors State compliance with refugee family reunification obligations and continuously advocates with States for the adoption of flexible, protection-focused procedures in line with the limitations of their refugee situation. Additionally, UNHCR supports families to access information and legal and administrative assistance provided by relevant partners and coordinates key partners to establish systems of support for refugees.
In practice, several practical, legal, and financial barriers continue to prevent refugee families from being reunited. These include:
- Family reunification procedures can be complex, and refugee families often lack access to reliable information in their first language.
- Some countries impose application fees, while others ask refugees to demonstrate their ability to support their families by setting strict income requirements.
- Some countries apply short application deadlines, which are missed by many who would otherwise be eligible. For example, they were unaware of the deadline or struggled to obtain all the required documents within time. Other countries have a wait time before holders of complementary forms of protection are allowed to lodge applications.
- The definition of family varies between cultures and countries. Often family reunification procedures define a limited number of eligible relationships, excluding other relatives who may also be socially, emotionally, and/or economically dependent.
- Refugees often have difficulties accessing evidence of their identity or relationships, such as passports, birth certificates or marriage certificates and other documents.
- Where there is limited embassy presence in a host country, family members may be asked to travel to neighbouring countries or regions for different stages of the application process. This can be dangerous and expensive, if not impossible, for them.
- Often family members are refugees themselves. This means that when requested to approach the authorities of their country of origin to obtain documents, those families may be exposed to further risk of harm.
- Often countries have long waiting times, some exceeding years, resulting in extended separation of desperate families.
The Family Reunification Network
Launched in 2020, the Family Reunification Network (FRUN) is the first global platform devoted to family reunification for refugees and other beneficiaries of international protection. The FRUN draws together key stakeholders, experts and academics in the realm of family reunification with the collective purpose of promoting and facilitating greater access to family reunification procedures.
UNHCR acts as the Secretariat of the FRUN. The FRUN is a closed network and prospective members would need to be approved upon consultation with the FRUN Advisory Group and UNHCR country operations in the relevant country. If interested to know more, please contact [email protected].