Family reunification policies determine if and when separated families can reunite and settle in their new home.
How easily can immigrants reunite with family?
On average, policies are only halfway favourable for promoting family reunification and integration. Policies are more favourable in traditional destination countries, Northern European countries and new countries of labour migration (e.g. Italy, Portugal and Spain). In most countries, reunited families enjoy a secure status and basic equal rights. However, policymakers and parties often disagree when it comes to defining the concept of family and the conditions for reunion. At one end, inclusive definitions keep requirements minimal (e.g. income at or below social assistance level; no specific accommodation requirements). At the other end, many Western European countries restrict eligibility to the nuclear family and expect transnational families to live up to standards that many national families could not: high incomes, no social benefits and the ability to pass language or cultural tests. There is usually a high fee to pay and little support (e.g. Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, UK). Increasingly, countries make exceptions for the highly-skilled and the wealthy, but rarely for the most vulnerable (minors and beneficiaries of international protection).
Given the current political climate and increasing populist influence, transnational families face an uncertain future. Since 2015, policies have remained largely unchanged in 35 MIPEX countries (mostly new and small countries of immigration), and improved in 10 (+7 on average). Restrictions have increased in seven countries, including Belgium (-11), Turkey (-7) and the US (-9). Family reunification is increasingly politicised, and policies are mainly restricted according to numbers of applications, rather than to integration-related evidence. Improvements tend to be made based on European law and the results of court cases by transnational families.
- Temporary residents have the legal right to sponsor their spouse/partner or minor children in the majority of countries (35), either immediately (27) or after one year (8).
- Reuniting with other dependent relatives is severely restricted in half of the MIPEX countries (28). These countries impose restrictive definitions of dependency and specific conditions (e.g. specific health or financial situations). Parents, grandparents and adult children benefit from facilitated rules in only six countries (Brazil, China, Czechia, Portugal, Russia and Slovenia), while only one of these groups benefits from facilitations in six others (Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Japan and Mexico).
- Economic resource requirements: Sponsors in 14 countries can use any legal source to prove a basic income. In contrast, 15 other countries have raised the level of economic resources required as a way of excluding low-income families. 23 others further require that sponsor must work or not receive social assistance.
- Only 11 countries limit family reunification with language or integration requirements: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Korea, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK
- Only seven countries impose pre-entry language requirements: Austria, Denmark, Germany, Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand and the UK. Only the Netherlands imposes a pre-entry integration test.
Security of status
- Discretionary procedures in most countries (39) mean that families who meet the legal requirements can still be rejected on various grounds. Discretion is a major problem in newer destination countries.
- Personal circumstances considered: Some—if not all—of an applicant's links to the country must be weighted in their favour, including evidence of physical or emotional violence (all factors in 20, mostly Western European countries, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Mexico).
- Residence permits for family members are as long and renewable as that of their sponsor in 25 countries (mostly Western Europe and traditional destination countries).
- The path to an autonomous residence permit is discretionary and long, up to five years, in half of the MIPEX countries (24).
- Parents and children wait up to three years for autonomous residence permits in 13 countries (Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Czechia, Estonia, Italia, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey).
Policies and integration outcomes: What do we learn from robust studies?
The many changes to countries’ family reunification policies can matter a lot to the well-being of the limited number of families who have been separated by international borders.The impact of these policies has been studied by a few international researchers in around 20 independent scientific studies linking MIPEX to these families’ integration outcomes, but more targeted research is needed.
These policies have a major impact on immigrants’ right to family life. Under inclusive policies, immigrant families are more likely to reunite, settle down in the country, find jobs and a better place to live and age with dignity. Restrictive policies make all this harder for many types of immigrant families.