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Access to Family Reunification, The 'Real' Crisis (Feature in ILPA Newsletter)

This month RLS was featured in the Immigration Law Practitioner's Association's January 2019 newsletter. Following is the text, as published by ILPA.

The media has recently reported on refugees increasingly risking the dangerous journey across the English Channel in small boats to reach the UK, with the Home Secretary describing this increase as a ‘major incident’ and a ‘crisis’. In 2018, 539 refugees arrived to the UK by crossing the Channel but the ‘crisis’ the Home Secretary has informed the county of refers to a period since November where around 220 people have attempted to make the journey.

These numbers, when contrasted with the 32,497 people who arrived on the Greek islands in 2018[1] and the 2,242 migrants who are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean last year[2] prompts the question: why is the arrival of 220 people by boats being described as a major incident? Those arriving by small boats to the UK are a tiny proportion of those seeking asylum in the UK and an even smaller percentage of those claiming asylum in the EU.

It is clear, writing this in Athens, and from working on family reunification cases with Refugee Legal Support for the past year, that the increase of people taking this treacherous journey is a symptom of a wider crisis that the Home Secretary and the media generally do not appear to have touched upon. There is a crisis in people’s access to legal avenues for entry to the UK and other countries in Europe, specifically with effective access to safe and legal family reunification.

Research shows that the prospect of reunification with family members is one of the most important factors influencing refugee’s “destination preferences”.[3] Therefore, if refugees have family connections to a country and there are no legal or safe options for reunification, individuals are likely to take desperate and dangerous measures to reach their families. In other words, when faced with the reality of permanent separation from family and loved ones, it is understandable why one may determine that a risky onwards journey is worthwhile.

Legal routes and short comings

The right for family reunification is enshrined in law and integral to European acquis on asylum and human rights. Family reunification is governed by the Council Directive 2003/86/EC and in practice individual applications are often made under the European Dublin III Regulations and/or through Embassies under national refugee family reunion laws. For example, under the Dublin III Regulations in 2017, Greece addressed 9,784 requests to other Member states, 909 being to the UK, second to Germany with 5,902[4].

Despite the existence of a legal framework, in practice there is limited access to the law as an effective and realistic possibility for the reunification of families. There are hurdles which appear to have been designed to restrict access to family reunification both within the framing of the law and through its implementation. Under the Dublin III Regulations only certain family members are eligible for reunification and there is a three-month time limit for applications (runs from the date of the asylum claim) which is strictly enforced.

Receiving member states heavily rely on this three-month limit as a reason to refuse their responsibility to allow legal and safe family reunification, even if a case would have been accepted had it not been for the delay. At the RLS clinic in Athens we support numerous clients and their families who have had their right to family reunification refused simply because their applications were submitted after the three-month deadline. The strict enforcement of this rule leaves families without a legal route to being reunited often resulting in their permanent separation with devastating affects to the whole families’ wellbeing and health.

Reluctance from member states and underfunded Dublin Units and Embassies have resulted in family reunification procedures being overly lengthily which creates a further barrier. Even the most straightforward Dublin cases are rarely decided within under a year. For applications that fall under the humanitarian clause of the Dublin regulations, it already takes around a year for the application to be sent to the receiving member state. Some embassy applications have up to a 15-month time frame for a decision to be made. These delays exhaust applicants and create a further barrier to legal family reunification.

A further profound barrier to legal family reunification is the requirement to produce certain documents in support of both Dublin III and embassy applications, which can be difficult to obtain especially for those who were forced to suddenly flee their homes.

The concern that these hurdles – the strict interpretation of technical and evidential requirements and cumbersome and lengthy processes – render legal routes ineffective was recently raised by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe who published a report following a visit to Greece. [5] The report also highlights the concerning lack of information on the possibility of and requirements for family reunification and an even greater shortage of legal support and representation which “result in families trying to reunite through dangerous illegal routes[6]”

An alternative solution to the ‘crisis’?

Despite the Home Secretary stating “we need to feel comfortable that we are doing everything we can to protect human life”, he has chosen to pursue a policy of policing, surveillance and framing the migration of people in defensive terms and as a threat to the nation. The recent engagement of the Royal Navy to the Channel is only another example of this sentiment.

An alternative perspective is to understand the ‘crisis’ of individuals risking their lives when trying to cross the Channel as a symptom of a lack of access to legal and safe processes. An alternative response to this ‘crisis’ is to promote access to the law, to asylum and safe routes to family reunification.

RLS continues to promote the rights of refugees in Greece by assisting them with their family reunification claims. We challenge procedural delays and unlawful refusals and help refugees to remain safe from exploitation. We are always looking for donations and people power to run our legal clinic in Athens. If you are interested to get involved either in the UK or in Athens, please get in touch – details on

Article by Ella Dodd

[1] Unhcrorg. 2019. [Online]. [7 January 2019]. Available from:

[2] IOM. 2019. [Online]. [7 January 2019]. Available from:

[3] Crawley, H & Hagen‐Zanker, J. 2018. Deciding Where to go: Policies, People and Perceptions Shaping Destination Preferences. International Migration. 56(7), pp. 9-10

[4] Asylum in Europe. 2019. [Online]. [7 January 2019]. Available from:

[5] Dunja Mijatović (2018) Report of the Commissioner for Human Rights Of the Council of Europe Dunja Mijatović Following her Visit to Greece From 25 to 29 June 2018, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, para 68 at page 12.

[6] Ibid

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