Family reunification and COVID-19: reflections on the situation of refugees

By Louisa Brain|March 30, 2020|Uncategorized|0 comments

By Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli, PhD in Political Science at Universidade de São Paulo (USP),

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, states have adopted many restrictive measures to protect the population from the virus. These include travel bans, social distancing, and isolation as attempts to flatten the contamination curve giving a chance to national health systems to cope with this disease. While this blog post does not challenge the importance of those measures to collective health, I present some reflections on family reunification procedures for refugees worldwide who are living this difficult moment. After that, I show some more specific concerns involving refugees in Brazil. Finally, I suggest some recommendations on how to deal with family reunification for refugees once the coronavirus crisis subsides.

Many people who are forcibly displaced due to armed conflicts, persecution, and severe violations of human rights end up separated from their family members. This family separation happens during flight, as a strategy to save one or more family members or as a consequence of restrictive admission policies that directly separate families. Once a person is recognized as a refugee, she cannot go back to her country of origin to live with her family without forfeiting her legal refugee status. The only possibility for this family to be united is through family reunification procedures that will allow the family to live together in the asylum country. While most family reunification procedures involve granting family reunification visas and documentation, many refugees stay separated from their families for many years, including while they are asylum-seekers waiting for a decision and during the time of the family reunification procedure (that can take years depending on the country). At the same time, refugees have to save money to send abroad to their families and to pay the costs of the family reunification procedures. In recent years, states have been adopting ever-more restrictive family reunification policies, including narrower definitions of family and increased bureaucratic requirements like pre-departure integration tests, DNA tests, minimum waiting times, or maximum deadlines.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard for all of us to be physically separated from our families. We are worried if our loved ones (especially those who are more vulnerable like the elderly) are safe and sound. This concern makes us anxious and fearful. Now imagine the situation for a refugee that is separated from her family for years and was in the middle of the family reunification procedure? With the travel bans and the social distancing requirements, consular authorities abroad are not normally granting visas. Refugees have no information on their family reunification procedures nor when they will be able to bring their families to join them in their asylum countries.

Moreover, many refugees come from countries where they faced armed conflicts and persecution, mostly in developing and poor countries. Those are the same countries that are less equipped to deal with a pandemic. Many refugees (including their family members) live in refugee camps, places where isolation and social distancing are not an option. Hence, besides being physically separated from their relatives for years, refugees will have an extra concern that their family members may not be alive after the crisis is controlled.

Refugees in Brazil are in the same situation. With the most refugees coming from Venezuela, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, refugees are worried because they know that their home countries have fewer resources to deal with the virus and the illness has already arrived there. Besides that, many refugees in Brazil (just like the Brazilian population) are not part of the formal job market. That is, they work informally in sectors that are being economically harmed by the recommendations of isolation and social distancing like selling food and other products on the streets. Differently from other welfare states, Brazil has not yet announced any measures to protect this significant part of the Brazilian population that will have no salary to face the coronavirus crisis.

Many refugees also send money abroad to their families. If the sending of remittances was already difficult due to the devaluation of the Brazilian real, the COVID-19 will have an even greater negative impact for refugees who lack local networks to support them and their families abroad.

Considering this scenario, some recommendations for decision-makers are:

  • Support migrants and refugees during social distancing and isolation, and guarantee them access to income.
  • Continue family reunification procedures, including the granting family reunification visas for refugee families.
  • Provide precise and accurate information for refugees considering how COVID-19 may affect their family reunification procedures (including delays and how the government is dealing with that).

Some recommendations for decision-makers once the coronavirus crisis subsides:

  • Guarantee the right to family life and family reunification for all migrants and refugees.
  • Do not use health concerns to continue with travel bans affecting refugees and their families or restrict family reunification policies.
  • Give priority to family reunification for refugees and avoid delays when the bureaucratic routines are back after the crisis.
  • Provide precise and accurate information to refugees and their families.
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