NGOs meet the European Commission to discuss family reunification
The very first event of the European Platform on Asylum and Migration (EPAM) dedicated to family reunification was organised in May 2014. It brought together EPAM Members, national practitioners and the European Commission for a training and brainstorming meeting.
The author attended the meeting as a representative of one of the EPAM Members and Caritas Europa network. She has also been involved in advocacy work around this issue at the EU level during the past few years. The article will present an insight into the EPAM meeting, which will include some of the main issues discussed, a few examples of the Directive implementation in practice and possible next steps.
In March 2014 the Commission had issued Interpretative guidelines  to the Directive on family reunification. EPAM decided to disseminate this information among its national member organisations and use the opportunity of the meeting between the Commission and national experts for flagging the difficulties of migrants to reunite with their families in many EU Member States.
After a Green paper on Family reunification had been issued in 2011, NGOs mobilized themselves and sent out a common message to the EU concerning the main obstacles to family reunification in different countries. NGOs called the European Commission to start infringement procedures against those countries whose legislation or practice are not in line with the Directive and asked the Commission to issue interpretative guidelines. These were in the end adopted by the EC earlier this year.
The EPAM decided to organize a two day training and brainstorming meeting, where the Commission presented the guidelines and encouraged national NGOs and lawyers to use them when helping migrants and refugees to reunite with their families. The Commission representative, Lieven Browers, presented the guidelines to the participants during the first day of the meeting and answered some questions of practitioners, mainly when it came to Commission competences in various matters. He also took notes on what are the issues at stake in Member States.
The EPAM hopes that this exchange will lead to a faster reaction of the Commission in order to initiate infringement proceedings. On the second day of the training, national and European NGOs met to discuss possible future actions and strategies to make sure that the right to family life is respected throughout the European Union. There was a very direct exchange of information between the Commission, EPAM members (Caritas Europa, ECRE, Red Cross, CCME, European Network for Migrant Women, MPG), national NGOs (members of the Platform, members from a number of countries (such as Finnish Red Cross, Caritas Espanola, Hungarian Refugee Council, etc) and lawyers (e.g. from Italy, Germany or the Czech Republic).
What are the main obstacles to family reunification in the EU? During the meeting we learned that the difficulties in Member states are often very similar. One cross-cutting issue is that state authorities fail to individually assess the applications for family reunification. Some countries introduce a requirement of minimum income for the sponsor who wants to bring his/her family to Europe. The authority examining the applications automatically refuses anyone whose income is even a little bit lower than required. The Interpretative guidelines, and also ECHR case law, make it clear that this cannot be the way how to implement such restriction. Each application is a particular case and needs to be examined regardless of whether the required income threshold is met.
The practice of family reunification differs from country to country and the guidelines can be used to different extent. Some countries today do not comply with the Directive while others do.
As pointed out by Marie-Luise Möller from Caritas Austria, some legal provisions of Austrian law go directly against the EU Directive. Mathieu Beys from Caritas Belgium, on the contrary, admitted that most of Belgian laws comply with the EU Directive with one single exception being the lack of full judicial review
The meeting provided room for additional questions and remarks from practitioners from Member states towards the Commission. For example, Pavel Čižinský, a Czech lawyer, raised the issue of the obligatory requirement in the Czech Republic for private health insurance for third country nationals that needs to be pre-paid for sometimes one or two years and does not necessarily contain all the coverage as the public insurance. Mr Čižinský also asked the Commission whether a system for visa issuance that uses an on-line system to request an appointment with the Czech embassy and has limited capacity for each day (thus, actually presenting a quota on the number of visa applications to be lodged per day) is in line with EU law.
It must be noted that even if the Directive is well implemented in law, it is, as such, not perfect and still causes a lot of problems in practice. Basically, it is lenghty and costly to reunite with one´s family in all Member States. As we all know the family unity is a core prerequisite for successful integration. It is alarming to see how many obstacles Member States put in front of migrants and refugees.
I have recently met Ahmed, a 17-year old Afghani boy, who wants to bring his mother and siblings to Belgium. All his family has to travel from their home village to Kabul to obtain identity documents and passports. It is very expensive and dangerous for them to undertake this trip. Once they have the documents, they have to legalize them by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs again in Kabul and as a next step ask for a visa at the Belgian embassy. As there is no such embassy in Afghanistan, the whole family will have to travel to Islamabad in Pakistan only to lodge their visa application. Luckily, Belgium does not ask family members to comply with integration measures and complete language tests, which is the case in Austria, Germany or the Netherlands and which complicates the situation even more.
Third country nationals willing to join their family members face such obstacles in literally all EU countries. This clearly is a policy aiming at discrimination of poor and illiterate. Despite the fact, that there is a right to family reunification, the EU rules seem to rather understand family reunification as a tool of immigration management.
As a follow-up to the meeting, it seems necessary that the Commission collects up-to-date information from Member States on how the Directive is being implemented in law and in practice (the latest Report by the Commission comes from 2008). We also need to have a fact-based debate and not base our policies on myths without any supporting data, such as whether a higher age for spouses to reunite (21 instead of 18 years) can actually really help in fighting forced marriages as claimed by the Member States.
Such a dialogue on specific issues seems to be very useful and beneficial for both the national actors – NGOs and lawyers – as well as for the European Commission and it will hopefully be repeated in the future in order to improve the situation for third country nationals that need to live separated from their loved ones for long periods of time, not exceptionally, for years.
This article has been funded from the project "Integration of Labour Migrants in the Czech Republic: Reinforcing the role of the Czech towns", CZ.1.04/5.1.01/77.00030, supported by the European Social Fund in the Czech Republic via the OP LZZ program
 The European Platform on Asylum and Migration (EPAM) is an informal space where for Brussels-based network organisations meet to exchange information, inform each other of their work and develop common advocacy strategies. For the last twenty years, organisations such as European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Amnesty International EU Office, Red Cross EU Office, Jesuit Refugee Service or Caritas Europa meet on a regular basis. The Platform is chaired by UNHCR and Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME), and it meets either as full platform or in smaller gatherings as the Migration Sub-group (chaired by Migration Policy Group, MPG) and the Asylum Sub-group (chaired by ECRE). Platform Members cooperate in different ways for many years now but it is only now that a Platform website will be created and some specific Platform actions are being developed.
 The Family reunification Directive recognises the right to family reunification and determines the conditions for the exercise of this right. On the one hand, the CJEU confirmed that it ‘imposes precise positive obligations, with corresponding clearly defined individual rights, on the MSs, since it requires them, in certain cases, to authorise family reunification of certain members of the sponsor’s family, without being left a margin of appreciation’. On the other hand, MSs are recognised as having a certain margin of appreciation. For example, they may decide to extend the right to family reunification to family members other than the spouse and minor children. The new Interpretative guidelines try to give guidance on proper implementation of the Directive in national laws. They also present a unique opportunity to ramp up enforcement at national level of the rights of reuniting families guaranteed under EU law.
 The European Commission issued in November 2011, a broad consultation on family reunification (Green Paper) on the Family Reunification Directive. Based on the results, the European Commission planned to decide whether any policy follow-up is necessary and in which direction to go. See the responses by different stakeholders here.
 For example, the age limit of 21 years old for spouses to reunite with the sponsor that is applied as no-go limit.
 The EC Interpretative guidelines clarify that the Directive obliges states to revise each case in second instance also to the merit.
Karolína Babická works as migration and asylum policy and advocacy officer in European Brussels-based NGO. She holds a PhD in international law from Charles University in Prague and Odysseus Network Certificate in EU Migration and Asylum Law.