Family reunification law ‘undermines’ rights of refugees

IHREC chief says law introduced four years ago relies on outdated concept of the family

Ireland’s family reunification legislation relies on an ‘outdated’ concept of family, Ireland’s human rights and equality commissioner Sinéad Gibney has said. File photograph: Aidan Crawley.

Ireland’s family reunification legislation relies on an “outdated” and “traditional” concept of family which fails to recognise the lived experiences of millions of people, Ireland’s human rights and equality commissioner has said.

Speaking at a webinar on family reunification in the State, Sinéad Gibney said legislation introduced four years ago “fundamentally undermines” the rights of refugees to be reunited with their loved ones and “fails to reflect the reality of family ties, relationships and support networks that exist in practice”.

The 2015 International Protection Act, which replaced the 1996 Irish Refugee Act in December 2016, narrowed the definition of family and resulted in only certain family members being permitted to be reunited.

Adults may apply for a spouse or civil partner or children, as long as they are aged under 18 and unmarried, to join them in Ireland, while children aged under 18 and unmarried may bring their parents here. Elderly parents and siblings aged over 18 are not included in the definition.


Refugees who have become naturalised Irish citizens cannot apply to be reunited with family under the scheme while those who do apply must do so within 12 months of receiving refugee status or subsidiary protection.

This cut-off is “cruelly narrow” and makes it “practically impossible” for many refugees to find family who may have gone missing during civil unrest, Ms Gibney said.

“Here in Ireland we value family as a fundamental component of society,” she said. “It provides for happiness, societal coherence and economic well-being.”

‘Hope for a better life’

Safa Kharita, a first year science student at UCD who came to Ireland with her family from Syria, said the move had given her "hope for a better life and a better future". Ms Kharita's older brother travelled alone to Ireland, via Greece, in 2016 and applied for his family to join him. The family, who had already fled Syria, spent three years in Lebanon before moving to Ireland.

“We had no choice but to leave everything behind us. My parents were very sad and depressed after my brother left. They live for their children. How could they live when a part of their heart was away from them?

Ms Kharita urged the Government to show more support for separated Syrian families. “Refugees are humans like me and you. It doesn’t matter their nationalities. Please don’t let them feel they are a heavy burden on you or worthless.”

Vivian Agwe applied last December for her two children and niece to join her in Ireland after she secured refugee status. She left the three children with their elderly grandmother three years ago and planned to bring them to Ireland once she had settled.

Ms Agwe has cared for her niece Ethel since her sister-in-law died 12 years ago during childbirth. She received a letter this week stating her application for her teenage children was progressing but that her request to bring Ethel to Ireland from Cameroon had been rejected.


The letter stated that her niece did not fall under “the definition of member of the family” and suggested she try a “different immigration permission”.

Ms Agwe has since been advised she may need to formally adopt her niece in order to bring her to Ireland. “She’s like my daughter, I breastfed her from day one. I don’t know how to separate her from my children. They love her so much. We’re appealing the decision, I’m just praying to God they can help me.”

Enda O’Neil;, head of the Irish office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that a refusal of family reunification “impacts massively on a person’s ability to integrate into society”.

He acknowledged that some of those not eligible for family reunification had successfully brought their family here through Irish Refugee Protection Humanitarian Admission Programme but said there were no plans for the scheme to be extended.

UNHCR assistant protection officer Maria Hennessy warned that even those who succeed in bringing their family to Ireland through reunification face the complicated logistics and onerous costs of getting people out of war zones and remote areas.

Individuals can end up spending thousands of euro getting their family to Ireland, leaving themselves in considerable debt, said Ms Hennessy.

UNHCR is calling on the Government to support refugees wishing to be reunited with their families by waiving administrative fees, issuing single-use travel documents and establishing a low-cost loan scheme rather than leaving applicants open to risk of exploitation by unscrupulous money lenders.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast