Refugees separated from family suffer ‘depression and loneliness’

Law should be changed to allow refugees bring adult children to Ireland, says report

President Michael D Higgins and  Sabina Higgins visit a refugee camp in Athens, Greece, in February. The Irish Refugee Council, Nasc and Oxfam Ireland are calling on the Government to expand the definition of family within the International Protection Act 2015. Photograph: Simela Pantzartzi/EPA

President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins visit a refugee camp in Athens, Greece, in February. The Irish Refugee Council, Nasc and Oxfam Ireland are calling on the Government to expand the definition of family within the International Protection Act 2015. Photograph: Simela Pantzartzi/EPA

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Refugees separated from their families are more likely to experience anxiety and depression in their new home and less likely to be able to learn English, secure work and integrate into society, Irish charities have warned.

Research carried out the Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre (Nasc) and Oxfam Ireland states refugees who have been separated from loved ones, often in traumatic circumstances, tend to experience “enormous distress, depression and loneliness”.

It says extended separation from relatives can become a “continuing link to an unbearable past”, while many refugees feel guilt about those they left behind and fear reprisals and threats against their family.

Up until the end of 2016, under the Refugee Act 1996, refugees in Ireland were entitled to apply for family reunification with grandparents, parents, siblings, children, wards or guardians.

However, under the International Protection Act 2015, which was introduced to streamline the asylum process, reunification is limited to spouses, children under 18 and parents, if the applicant is aged under 18.

Significant impact

Irish refugee support groups say a “minor legislative change” in family reunification legislation would have a “significant impact” on the lives of many vulnerable people and boost their integration into society.

The groups last year welcomed the Government’s humanitarian admissions programme, which is set to welcome 530 family members of refugees already in Ireland, but warned the scheme would not place the rights of refugee families on a statutory footing.

The current family reunification provisions in the International Protection Act force people to make impossible, unimaginable choices between some family members and others

The Irish Refugee Council, Nasc and Oxfam Ireland are now calling on the Government to expand the definition of family within the International Protection Act 2015 so that refugees can reunite with parents, siblings and adult children.

They join the Civil Engagement group of Senators who last year introduced the International Protection (Family Reunification)(Amendment) Bill which will go through its fourth stage in the Seanad on Wednesday.

The A Family Belongs Together report notes that under the Irish Constitution the family unit is recognised as the “necessary basis of social order” and is “indispensable to the welfare of the nation and the State”.

Rebuild lives

The report warns that separation from family “significantly impacts” refugees’ ability to rebuild their lives in Ireland and features the voices of people from Syria, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and West Africa who have been separated from family and now live in Ireland.

Chief executive of Nasc Fiona Finn says anxiety, fear and guilt can become overwhelming for refugees.

“The current family reunification provisions in the International Protection Act force people to make impossible, unimaginable choices between some family members and others,” said Ms Finn. “We can fix this by restoring the family reunification laws that have served both us and our refugee communities well for almost two decades.”

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