Refugees seeking family reunification face a new obstacle
Minister’s discretion to grant permission for extended family to come here to be removed
Samir Youzbashi Aljafari and his wife Wafaa, Syrian refugees living in Killarney, Co Kerry, are reunited with their daughter Nadine and grandson Yousef, in Dublin Airport. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Social media has played an important role in the Syrian conflict, providing a platform for those normally silenced by war to share with the world the impact of the conflict on their everyday lives.
As a result, it has been possible to watch the war unfold in real time.
There is no relief from the tragedies we see on our phones, in our newspapers and on television – but we cannot look away.
In the face of so much suffering, it is hard to feel anything but helpless. Imagine what Syrians living in Ireland must feel when they think of their families left behind.
No one could do justice to the horror, the fear and even sometimes the guilt that Syrians living in Ireland can experience.
But there are things that we, in Ireland, can do.
At Nasc, the Irish immigrant support centre, we provide legal information and advocacy to migrants and refugees seeking to reunite with their families.
We share some of these experiences with our Syrian clients when they come to us for help.
We hear first-hand the stories of people who face the very real possibility that each phone call with their family might be the last.
We have seen many grown men and women cry in our office, showing us photographs of a brother lying dead on the street, a teenage nephew whose body had been torn apart, or a laughing young niece with cancer who will die because she cannot get the treatment she needs in Syria – all victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In many cases, we can make an application to bring a family member to Ireland. However, under the current visa policy, many times there is nothing that can be done.
Current visa policy forces families to have to choose among their family members who can and cannot be applied for. We are witnessing people make unbearable real-life Sophie’s Choice decisions.
There are moments of joy, however; for example, on the days when a visa or a family reunification application is granted.
Lives change in the moment we make that phone call to break the good news. We see families who doubted that they would ever see each other again holding each other in our office as if they don’t quite believe it.
As of December 31st, these moments of joy will become even fewer and farther between.
The commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 will significantly reduce the rights of refugees to be joined by family members, limiting it to immediate family members (spouse and children under 18 in the case of an adult refugee).
The Minister for Justice’s discretion to grant family reunification for other extended family members will be removed.
Limiting family reunification rights in the midst of the largest humanitarian crisis the world has witnessed since the Holocaust is unconscionable and diminishes us as a nation.
Playing a numbers game with 4,000 lives does nothing to alleviate the suffering of millions who are now displaced as a result of war.
Many of the families we have reunited this year, the grandparents, siblings or 18- or 19-year-old children of refugees living in Ireland, could well be facing their final moments in Aleppo today if family reunification had not been available to them.
In a few weeks’ time, it won’t be.
We must bridge this gap and give these families hope for the future. What we need is a humanitarian visa programme, which would offer a safe and legal way to reunite families.
Nasc’s Safe Passage campaign proposes that people living in Ireland with family members in conflict zones, and the Irish communities they live in, would be able to sponsor applications and bring family members to safety in Ireland.
We have been approached by so many Irish people who want to make a concrete difference and support these families.
Safe Passage calls on the Minister for Justice to allow all of us the opportunity to make that difference – to help friends, to help neighbours, to reunite families.
While you spend time with your family this Christmas please think of people in your community who have family members living in fear and desperation, in places such as Aleppo, or Mosul.
Support Nasc’s campaign to reunite families fleeing conflict.
For more information, visit nascireland.org.
Fiona Hurley is legal services manager of Nasc Ireland