For the small number of transnational families, family reunion policies are one major factor determining whether or not they reunite in the country.
How many immigrants are potentially living in transnational couples?
Transnational couples are one of the main potential beneficiaries for family reunion, but they are rarely identified through statistics and assisted to reunite. According to 2011/2 estimates from 17 European countries, 5-7% of non-EU citizen adults were not living with their spouse or partner, a much higher level of "living apart together" than for national citizens. These non-EU citizens are likely living in internationally separated couples and thus potential sponsors for family reunion. >5% of non-EU citizen adults may be potential sponsors in DE, GR, IT, ES, especially in BE and SI (>10%), rising to 1 in 3 non-EU adults in CY separated from their spouse or partner. The numbers were comparatively lower in EE, LU, NL and UK and slightly lower for all non-EU-born (including naturalised citizens).
How easily can immigrants reunite with family?
Most separated families have a legal right to family reunion that is just slightly favourable for their and their families’ integration. Newcomers can secure their family life as the starting point for their integration under the procedures in traditional countries of immigration, most Northern European countries and new countries of labour migration (e.g. IT, PT, ES). In most countries, reunited families acquire both a secure residence and basic equal rights. However, policymakers across countries and parties disagree most on how to define the family and what are the conditions necessary for them to reunite. On the one end, those with inclusive definitions of the family often keep the conditions to a minimum, out of respect for family life. They then set the conditions to the minimum levels needed and required for all families living in the country (e.g. income at social assistance level, general housing requirements). On the other end, many established countries of immigration are restricting eligibility to the modern nuclear family and expecting transnational families to live up to standards that many national families could not: higher ages to marry, high incomes, no need for social benefits and tests about their language skills and social knowledge, all with disproportionately high fees to pay and little support to succeed (e.g. AT, CY, DK, FR, DE, GR, IE, MT, NL, CH, UK). Increasingly, countries make exceptions to the legal conditions for those most able to meet them (highly-skilled workers and the wealthy), but only rarely for those most vulnerable (usually for minors and beneficiaries of international protection).
Given the current political climate and influence of populist parties, transnational families face an uncertain future in many EU countries and now also in traditional countries of immigration. Since 2010, policies have been left largely untouched in 14 MIPEX countries (mostly new and small countries of immigration), improved in 12 (+4 on average) and restricted in 10 (-5 on average), including AU (-3), CA (-3) and NZ (-4). Family reunion is increasingly politicised, with policies changed based on electoral promises, not robust evaluations. Policies are mostly restricted based on statistics about the number of applications, not on evidence of their impact on integration. Improvements are often based on European law and the results of court cases by transnational families.
- Temporary permits of ≤1 year: Most types of temporary residents (27 countries) can sponsor their family, either immediately (14) or after 1 year (10)
- Immigration laws recognise same-sex partners in most countries (26, recently AT, FR, IE, LU, MT, SI, US) and other long-term relationships in a near-majority (17)
- Age of majority for couples: Equal treatment remains the international standard, with 30 of the 38 treating all couples over 18/19 like adults. A higher age may be disproportionate for separated couples and ineffective for their integration
- Limited entitlements for dependents outside the modern nuclear family: These family members are somehow entitled to join their sponsor in 25 of the 38 countries, with full entitlements for parents or grandparents in 10 and for adult children in 6 (full for both in CZ, PT, SI, SE, recent restrictions in AU, CA, NZ, UK)
- Only basic legal income and standard housing required: Sponsors in 22 countries can use any legal source to prove a 'stable and sufficient' income, though the level is often vague and higher (16 countries) than what national families need to live on social assistance (6). The other 16 countries have dropped equal treatment as their benchmark and raised the level to exclude low-income workers or expect reunited families to get by without the same social benefits as other families
- No language or integration requirements necessary: To learn the language, free courses are regularly available for families in most countries (27), but not guaranteed for all in 4 of the 10 with obligatory requirements (AT, FR, NL, CH)
- No pre-entry test: Only 8 countries impose a language requirement abroad. None have designed successful conditions for all separated families scattered around the world to learn the language and significantly improve their integration prospects (see slightly favourable attempts in FR & KR). Pre-entry tests are rare in the EU and foreign to traditional countries of immigration (see only NZ's pre-purchase requirement for family of labour migrants)
- Fees (often over 200€) are disproportionately burdensome for reuniting families in most countries (21) when compared to the normal administrative fees and average income in the country, especially in Southern and Central Europe, FI, FR, IE, NL, NO, UK and traditional countries of immigration
Security of status
- Discretionary procedure: Families meeting the legal requirements can still be rejected on relatively vague grounds and suspicions in most countries (28, esp. Central Europe)
- Some—if not all—of an applicant's effective links to the country must be weighted in their favour, including evidence of physical or emotional violence (all factors in 16, mostly Western European countries, AU, CA)
- Residence as secure as sponsor's: Permits for family are as long and renewable as their sponsor's in 19 countries (mostly Western Europe & traditional countries of immigration)
- Right to written decision and review: Rejected applicants in 29 countries learn why and can appeal to an independent body or court
- Immediate equal right to work for families (25 MIPEX countries, not in several Central European countries, BE, IE, CY, JP, KR, MT, TU)
- Same access as sponsor to social benefits, such as education/training social security, housing (23 countries, recently DK, not in several Central European countries, AU, IE, NZ, TU, UK, US)
- Long and complicated path to autonomous residence: Family members often face serious delays (5 years) and obstacles (facilitated in only 11 countries: AU, BE, CA, IT, NO, NZ, PT, SI, ES, TU, SE)
- Not all vulnerable groups are automatically entitled, for example in cases of widowhood, divorce, separation, death, and emotional or physical violence (see instead AU, CA, NO, NZ, PT, ES)
Best Case & Worst Case
This is a composition of national policies found in 2014 in at least one of the 38 countries
Families who are successfully reunited together have the socio-cultural stability to fully participate in society. In Europe, a non-EU family has the same rights and responsibilities as an EU family moving from one country to another. Upon arrival, any legal resident has the right to live with her spouse/partner, dependent children, and dependent parents and grandparents. They have the right to reunite in the country if they have a basic legal income and meet the legal requirements. Authorities have no reason to reject her application if it’s not fraudulent and poses no security threat. The procedure is free and short. The state promotes the family’s integration by facilitating autonomous residence and guaranteeing equal access as their sponsor to schools, jobs and social programmes.
A person kept apart from his family has few prospects to settle in the community where he lives. He has to wait years just to be eligible to apply. Even then, the law only recognises the traditional nuclear family of a spouse and minor children. Sponsors must pass difficult conditions without government support. Only those with high incomes, stable jobs and high scores on language/integration tests can live with their family. Procedures are long, expensive and discretionary. The law forces reunited family members to be dependent on him since they cannot work or use public benefits. They are not entitled to an autonomous residence permit, even if he dies, divorces, or abuses them.
Are families reuniting?
Popular stereotypes about family reunion are far from the realities of the new families making Europe their home. Around half a million non-EU family members were able to reunite with their non-EU sponsor in 2013 in one of 27 EU Member States (443,766), NO (9,906) or CH (16,351). The numbers of newly arrived non-EU families have remained rather stable in the EU from 2008-2012, except for a major 2010 peak in IT. In that period, the numbers dropped the most in ES and UK (from around 105,000 to around 70,000) as well as FR, GR, HU, PL and PT.
Most newly arrived immigrants are not non-EU families (only 19% of new permits across the EU in 2013), not even in the country with the highest share (SE, 42%). Non-EU families account for only around 1 in 3 newcomers in LV, IT, NL, SI, ES; 1 in 4 in BE, EE, FI, GR, LU, PT; and hardly any in CY, IE and PL. Newcomer families are very diverse, coming from all over the globe.
Rarely do the majority in a given country come from the same origin country or region. In nearly all countries, the majority of arriving family members are women. In most, non-EU family reunion is mostly made up of children, not spouses/partners (esp. BE, CZ, EE, FI and Southern European countries). Usually only the nuclear family are able to reunite, with hardly any elderly people (65+) joining a non-EU sponsor (lowest in AT, BE, DK, SE, CH).
What other factors explain whether immigrants reunite with family?
- Many newcomers recently settling down with family in Nordics and Southern Europe
- Sizeable share of humanitarian migrants likely to stay and need family reunion in Nordics, AT, BE, DE, GR, MT, NL, US
- Few with the eligible or permanent permits to sponsor in BG, CY, IE, MT
- Many from developed/neighbouring countries and thus less likely to reunite in Baltics, HR, SI
How often do immigrants reunite with family?
Non-EU family reunion is relatively rare in the EU. Out of every 100 non-EU residents in the average EU country, only 2.2 are newly arrived non-EU family members. Since 2008, rates have slightly risen in DK, LT, LU, NL, SK and dropped in BE, BG, UK and Southern Europe. With very few exceptions, non-EU families have been more likely to reunite in countries with inclusive family reunion policies, such as the Nordic, Benelux and Southern European countries. Non-EU family reunion is very rare in countries with restrictive policies, such as CY, EE, IE, MT and, to some extent, AT, DE, GR and LV. For example, non-EU family reunion has become less common following reforms in BE and UK and more common in DK. Restrictive policies are slightly more likely to be selective based on immigrants' backgrounds, with only certain nationalities able to reunite (e.g. DK, IE, CH). On the other hand, inclusive policies are slightly more likely to be equitable, with all nationalities affected equally and reuniting families representative of the makeup of the country's non-EU population (e.g. BE, FI, IT, PT). While a family's choice to reunite is also driven by other individual and contextual factors, making policies more restrictive, selective or discretionary can significantly delay or deter both family's reunion and their integration in the country. Policies can quickly function as obstacles to the right to family reunion, with disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable groups (see below).
What do we learn from robust studies?
Available studies and evaluations suggest that pre-entry tests, high age limits for spouses or high income requirements do not actually promote integration in practice (see Strik et al. 2013, Huddleston and Pedersen 2011). On the contrary, they are more effective for limiting the number of reuniting families. These policies have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable groups: the elderly, young adults, the less educated, people in certain – often unstable—countries, and—to some extent—women. These people are less likely to apply for family reunion, pass a pre-entry test or use alternative options like resettling in another EU country. With few families able to resettle somewhere else, some delay their application, while others give up altogether as they cannot meet the new requirements, no matter their amount of motivation and preparation.