Finland studies neighbours’ policies to limit family reunions

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

After national elections almost brought the True Finns to power, the new Interior Minister is looking to reform the country’s family reunion policy by looking to its Nordic neighbours. She claims that Finland’s policy is ‘more relaxed’ and raising the number of asylum-seekers, backlogs, and reception costs. Is ‘relaxed’ the right word for Finland’s policy? What do most countries expect of immigrants who want to sponsor their families? Should Finland follow its neighbours? Are these changes necessary? And how could Finland improve its family reunion procedure?

The New Finnish Interior Minister, Päivi Räsänen (Christian Democrat), claims that Finland’s family reunion policy is one factor attracting asylum-seekers to the country and raising the costs of refugee reception facilities. She asserts that Finland’s policy is ‘more relaxed’ than other countries. Based on this interpretation, she commissioned a study of the family reunion conditions in other Nordic countries to be published in February 2012.

The study is expected to justify her proposals for new restrictions. According to Helsingin Sanomat, the Minister is already floating the idea that sponsors should have sufficient incomes and housing for their entire family and that foster children should not be part of the nuclear family. The Minister expects that these restrictions will reduce the number of family reunions and current backlog of applications, the number of asylum-seekers, and the cost of reception facilities.

The former Migration Minister, Astrid Thors (Swedish People’s Party), had pledged to use MIPEX as a benchmark to improve Finland’s policies and look to Sweden and Canada. Indeed, her government’s recent Integration Act draws inspiration from Sweden and its 2009 Labour Market Introduction Act. After the 2011 elections saw the True Finns become the country’s largest party and entered the opposition, the new government abolished the post of Migration Minister and transferred her competences to the Interior Minister.


Is Finland ‘more relaxed’ than other countries?

On family reunion, Finland is not that different from Norway, Sweden, or most of Europe’s established countries of immigration. The 2011 MIPEX rated the country’s policies as only slightly favourable for promoting family reunion and integration:

Scoring 70 points and ranking 7th,  similar to Norway (68), well below Sweden (84), and not very far from the average for all EU Member States (60). Denmark ranks as having the 2nd least favourable policies for family well-being. The restrictions obtained by the Danish People’s Party are even outside the minimum standards of EU law 2003/86/EC.

Finland does have slightly fewer conditions for family reunion sponsors than most European countries and, in recent years, its neighbours. MIPEX finds that Finland’s conditions are favourable for the integration of reuniting families because they are based on what is expected of all residents in Finnish society. The basic income level is calculated according to what residents need and use to live in Finland.

Like Finland, Australia, Canada, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and the United States apply their countries’ generally inclusive definitions of the family and basic conditions out of respect for family life. Moreover, most countries that try and attract labour migration do not put many obstacles in the way of family reunion. Immigrant families can better reunite and participate in countries that help all newcomers find the right jobs.

Decision-makers mostly disagree on how to apply conditions to family reunion. Countries with favourable policies like BelgiumPortugal, and Sweden try to set income or housing requirements according to common national benchmarks. But increasingly, several countries where immigration is politicised, increasingly by the far right, are asking reuniting families to fulfil conditions that many nationals could not: higher marriage ages, higher incomes, mandatory tests, also for spouses abroad, mostly with higher fees but little support. Conditions that are not promoting family reunion and facilitating integration in practice could be unjustified under EU law.


What do most countries expect of immigrants who want to sponsor their families?

  •  Only basic legal income required: Equal treatment is the standard benchmark in most European countries, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Applicants can use any legal source to prove that they have a basic ‘stable and sufficient’ income for themselves. The income level required is around the poverty line in 6 other European countries. However this level is often vague and higher than what people need to live on social assistance in 14 other European countries. MIPEX suggests that anything more is unnecessary for promoting equal outcomes for immigrants and nationals. The legal income sources are basically restricted to employment in 7 European countries. Many countries make exemptions for refugees and other beneficiaries of international protection.
  • Only basic housing required: Equal treatment is also the benchmark in most countries. 20 European countries and Australia allow applicants to use any legal means to prove that their housing meets the normal health and safety standards that all homeowners or tenants must meet in the country, without additional bureaucratic procedures. These restrictions arise in only 5 European countries (Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, Slovakia). Sponsors in Canada and the United States as well as 3 other European countries (Ireland, Netherlands, Slovenia) do not have to prove housing because the basic income requirement is seen as a sufficient starting point.
  • No language or integration conditions: Few countries impose language or integration conditions on either sponsors or reuniting families. As more do, several are extending these to spouses as a condition for a visa, often with high fees and little support to effectively learn the language. These pre-departure measures may be judged as contrary to EU law.


Should Finland follow its neighbours? 

Finnish policymakers should take the time to evaluate the long-term effects of the very new and untested conditions for family reunion in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Under MIPEX III, Norway and Sweden were two of the four countries to ‘backtrack’ on their leading integration policies. Debates on asylum and migrant unemployment statistics led to new family reunion conditions, which may delay or discourage legal residents from applying for their families. Every extra year abroad may negatively impact their waiting children or partner’s eventual language learning and integration process.


On family reunion, Denmark’s residence requirements are longer and more exclusionary than in any MIPEX country, while its conditions are exceptionally restrictive, as in only countries like Austria, France, and Switzerland, where the far right has made family reunion policies more politicised, complex, and volatile. Family reunion sponsors must first pass the slightly unfavourable test for permanent residence, with language levels so explicitly high (B1 like only 2 other European countries) that it may be unrealistic for many willing newcomers to pass, even with the tree introduction courses. A proposed immigration test for the sponsor’s spouse would be slightly unfavourable for learning Danish, with high fees and little support abroad. Denmark even introduced a points-based system for family reunion, unlike any other country. The Danish family reunion conditions were taken as a “Model” in the “Nuiva Manifest” proposals within the True Finn party.

Many of Denmark’s family reunion conditions go against not only against EU law, but also the interests of the country’s new government. The new majority in parliament wants a new centrist consensus on integration policy, which invokes Sweden’s 3 March 2011 cross-party migration agreement to undermine the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats. Denmark’s family reunion conditions will changed in the short-term and perhaps again after a second term.


Norway’s required introduction programme sets ‘slightly’ favourable conditions and flexible benchmarks for people reuniting together as families. Newly arrived immigrant adults must participate in 300 lessons on Norwegian and social studies. Most receive the support they need to learn more about society and to progress in Norwegian according to their individual abilities. More might successfully participate if courses were free for all, including the families of migrant workers.

The 2010 Immigration Act was seriously altered over its six years of discussion, with many amendments focusing on limiting the number of newcomers. Now Norway has the 5th most restrictive conditions in Europe, with only Austria, Denmark, France, and Switzerland further below. Families can be kept apart until the sponsor has worked for 4 years and they must have secured adequate housing. For many asylum seekers, this requirement may mean 7 years (year for a decision, plus 2 years for an introduction programme). For new marriages, sponsors must have worked or studied for 2 years.

The Immigration Act’s conditions, with the aim of decreasing the number of family reunions and asylum seekers, may be a conflict of interest with goals to promote integration. Several conditions of these go beyond the objectives and articles of the EU family reunion directive.


Similar discussions of asylum and integration statistics as in Norway led to different policy changes in Sweden. Government promised not to implement conditions that would lower the number of family reunions or asylum-seekers, contrary to the debates in Norway or currently in Finland.

Citing asylum increases and unemployment and overcrowding statistics, Law 2009/10:77 required non-EU sponsors to prove basic personal income and family housing. A few years ago, previous governments had stated that it was unthinkable for Sweden to impose income or housing requirements. However the current government introduced both with the argument that Sweden was the ‘only’ EU country preserving these more favourable conditions under EU law.

Still, government committed that Sweden would remain the best at taking into account the rights of children and international protection. These groups are exempt, as are permanent residents. Humanitarian actors like the Red Cross, the MIPEX Swedish national partner, helped improved the proposals based on their information about the potential impacts on family well-being.

The government also promised that these new conditions should act as incentives — and not obstacles — in practice. If the new labour market introduction structure works as intended, more newcomers should more quickly find jobs and housing across the country–and thus meet the new family reunion conditions. Each newly arriving adult is legally entitled to choose the type of support that best addresses their specific needs (e.g. labour market training, qualification recognition, new civic orientation programme, Swedish for immigrants). If fewer newcomers are applying or accepted for family reunion, then the new conditions and introduction programme are not effective for integration. The government predicted that the new conditions would affect just 10% of cases. By summer 2010, 2% were affected and 1% rejected. As a result, the conditions for family reunion are a change in direction for Sweden – but so far not a significant one.


Are these family reunion changes necessary?

Finnish policymakers should also consider whether or not changing the family reunion conditions will — or should — change its integration and immigration situation.

For integration, new family reunion conditions such as age limits, income or employment requirements, and language or pre-departure tests may be proven disproportionate in domestic and EU courts and ineffective in evaluations. All couples–not only the targeted groups–are affected. The condition often does not improve their integration prospects, since only some can make the greater effort to meet the harder conditions to apply. Instead, a ‘social selection’ effect occurs. Those who cannot pass or apply are not those who are least integrated, but those who are most vulnerable, for example the very young or very old, the least educated, victims of war and persecution and to some extent women.

For immigration, a change in family reunion conditions may not be the most effective response to backlogs, asylum flows, and reception costs. Restricting family reunion would likely lead to fewer applications. However the Finnish Immigration Service is already clearing the family reunion backlog, despite the Minister’s failure to win extra funds for processing. Greater flexibility in the procedure can speed up the lengthy process to approve Somali applicants and confirm their family’s identity, as promised in the 2011 Swedish cross-party migration agreement. Restricting family reunion may have little-to-no impact on asylum-seeking. Using Finnish Interior Ministry statistics, the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre and Finnish Refugee Council claim that granting international protection has little effect on family reunion flows. The number of family reunions per year are affected by many factors in society beyond these targeted policies. Internationally, quantitative analysts like Hatton and Thielemann that restricting the integration opportunities for refugees did not have a “deterrence effect” on asylum-seekers. Put differently, fewer rights for refugees did not lead to fewer asylum-seekers in the future. They also found little evidence of “asylum-shopping” — the assumption that asylum-seekers are able to choose the country where they seek asylum.


How can Finland quicken integration through family reunion?

Reforming other weaknesses on family reunion like access to an autonomous residence permit, may have a greater positive impact on the integration situation in Finland. Before being eligible for long-term residence, spouses and adult family members do not enjoy the same residence security as their sponsor. Their choices about how they live their lives in Finland may be influenced by the power that their sponsor holds over their right to remain in the country. Whether or not they remain dependent on their sponsor depends on whether authorities deem they have ‘solid ties’ to Finland. In comparison, Austria and The Netherlands provide entitlements in cases of death, divorce, separation and violence. Several countries like Canada, France, Norway, Portugal, Spain Sweden, and US are providing a clearer residence autonomy for all families after a few years.

Using MIPEX, the European Network of Migrant Women came to these conclusions for improving family reunion:

The ENoMW and the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) see ‘dependent status’ is an unnatural family situation in itself, which has detrimental effects on women, in terms of their social inclusion, self-confidence and realisation in life.

The ENoMW and the EWL maintain that family members’ access to autonomous permits is a weakness in most EU countries. This puts many migrant women experiencing domestic violence in a precarious situation. The migrant women in question are inclined to endure domestic abuse longer, as they are threatened with the possibility of becoming undocumented, homeless and without means of support. Therefore, the ENoMW and the EWL call on EU governments to put an end to policies establishing dependency between family members.