At a time of year when many people throughout Europe will be gathering with loved ones, it seems fitting to acknowledge some of the ways that Greece and other EU countries have jeopardized the rights of families and individuals seeking asylum. While family means different things to different people, national and European interpretations of refugee law tend to apply rigid definitions that focus heavily on a Western notion of the family unit. Refugee law and policy in the European context is shaped around the ‘nuclear’ family, with a particular emphasis on indicators such as guardianship and demonstrable dependency. In practice, this not only makes it difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to be reunited, but it also directly threatens their ability to maintain family unity throughout the asylum process.
Over the past four years, Fenix has repeatedly witnessed how the asylum system in Greece and the EU works against families. The following list of cases is non-exhaustive, but it clearly illustrates some of the barriers to family unity and family reunification that people face:
- On arrival in Greece, anyone 18 and over who has not arrived with a spouse is registered as an individual and must lodge a separate asylum application from other members of their family, even if they have arrived alongside adult siblings or parents. This has resulted in cases where certain family members are granted refugee status while others’ claims are denied. Beyond the obvious stress and distress that this type of situation would cause, it also leaves some families with very difficult decisions around next steps, including the possibility of leaving someone behind knowing they will have to manage the burdens of lengthy (and costly) appeals.
- Couples who married outside their country of origin are at risk of not being recognised under Greek and asylum law, facing the possibility of a similar fate where one person’s asylum application is unsuccessful but their spouse receives a positive decision.
- In a recent report, we highlighted how children have been incorrectly registered as adults. While this can have direct consequences for family reunification, it also threatens children’s ability to remain with their existing guardian. In some instances, children have arrived with a guardian and, upon being registered as an adult, are consequently separated from their guardian from a legal perspective as a direct result of procedural violations and insufficient child protection measures at the national and regional level;
- In 2020, Fenix also published a report on the challenges of family reunification within the framework of the Dublin III Regulation and little change has been observed since that time. Like many other asylum-related processes, family reunification in Europe is also subject to strict timeframes which can easily complicate a person’s ability to be reunited with a family member, especially in a reasonable period of time. This has been particularly true for cases such as those unaccompanied minors who are wrongfully registered as adults without a presumption of minority, leaving them susceptible to missing out on the window for reunification and complicating efforts to rectify the situation in the future. In general, procedures under the Dublin III Regulation have been anything but straightforward.
- A reliance on DNA to prove familial relations can be challenging in instances where guardianship or family ties may not be with blood relatives. For example, access to formal documentation around adoption or other administrative processes in the country of origin may not be readily available, or when people are cared for by in-laws such as an aunt or uncle by marriage.
In this second instalment exploring the challenges of translating refugee law into robust and adaptable national asylum systems, it is clear that the system is not working in favour of families in their various forms. Our hope for the future is that the Greek government and the EU take steps to actively remove barriers to family unity and actively demonstrate respect for family life in policy and in practice.