ANALYSIS Reunification of families still a thorny issue


Balance must be struck between control of numbers and rights of families to be reunited, writes Rúadhán Mac Cormaic.

THE FAMILY reunification process is one of the most delicate - and contentious - elements of immigration policy.

Last year the question of bringing family members to Ireland was the most common query dealt with by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, while according to a major report sponsored earlier this year by the Dutch employment agency Randstad, it is family reunion, not the search for a job, that is the main cause of inward migration in most European countries.

For that reason, governments must find a balance between two imperatives - on the one hand a need to control the numbers that might benefit from reunification schemes, and on the other not unfairly denying immigrants the right to be joined by family members, hindering their chances of successful integration.

In the Republic, anyone recognised as a refugee is entitled to apply to the Department of Justice to have direct family members join them here. This includes the spouse, unmarried children under 18 and, if the refugee is a minor, his or her parents. The Minister may, at his discretion, permit reunion of refugees with "dependent" family members - possibly a grandparent, parent, sibling, child or grandchild.

Two bodies are involved in the process: the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) and the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (Orac), although these units are to be amalgamated under the Immigration Bill currently passing through the Oireachtas.

Applicants submit their papers to the relevant section of INIS, which then forwards the application to Orac for investigation. When that is completed, the folder is then returned to INIS for a final decision.

An internal report on the department's asylum and immigration procedures produced by PA Consulting in September 2006 found that the family reunification process can take too long from the perspective of "the customer" and external support groups, and advised that additional resources were required in order to shorten the processing time.

Today, although applications for refugee status are at a 10-year low, and applications for family reunification fell by almost 23 per cent last year, it can take up to 24 months for a case to be processed. There are more than 2,000 cases yet to be decided in the family reunification unit of INIS, where five individuals - including two part-time staff - are employed.

The department argues processing times are largely determined by the level of investigation required. "In a large percentage of cases the processing time would be reduced if the correct documentation was submitted by the applicants in the first instance," a spokeswoman said yesterday. In addition, the authenticity of the documentation provided in a large number of cases needs to be verified by An Garda Síochána before a decision can be made, she added.

However, Catherine Kenny, head of policy and research at the Refugee Information Service, claimed yesterday that processing times for reunification were now "in excess of 30 months on average".

"These delays would appear to be as a result of lack of staff within INIS. Lengthy delays cause enormous distress and anxiety to applicants and their families," she said.

Ireland is the only EU state that doesn't have any primary legislation stipulating rules for all types of migrants who want to bring family members to live with them.