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A chance to reunite families torn apart by war

Wednesday, 23rd May, 2018 5:12pm

When Syrian man Hasan was offered a chance to come to Ireland as a programme refugee, he and his wife Sara and their two young children had been living in a tent in a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) camp in Lebanon for over two years.

When they arrived in Ireland, they were offered medical care, English language training, a house – seemingly all the supports they would need to build a new life in safety.

But Hasan had left behind a brother and two elderly parents in Syria. One of his parents had been diagnosed with cancer, but there was no treatment available, as their town had been destroyed by bombing. And despite there being laws in Ireland which allow for refugees to bring family members to join them, extended family members like parents and adult siblings are not eligible.

Hasan’s is one of many stories we hear every day in our legal advice and information service in Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre. Families torn apart by conflict; people who cannot help their family members who have been left behind in the midst of war.

When the International Protection Act commenced at the end of 2016, refugee families were left with no pathways to bring loved ones to safety beyond their ‘nuclear family’ – spouse and minor children. No parents, no adult children or siblings, no orphaned nieces or nephews.

People who have made it here to Ireland struggle with a sense of guilt in just being safe, trying to maintain contact with family left behind on a regular basis, sending money to support loved ones when they can, worrying about their family’s safety constantly.

There is nothing more heartbreaking than having to tell someone that they cannot apply for their child who just turned 18 or their elderly mother whose home is being bombed every night. Would you be able to start building a new life for yourself in the midst of all of that?

Humanitarian admission

Last week, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced that he was taking applications for a new Humanitarian Admission Programme (IHAP). Anyone living in Ireland (including refugees and Irish citizens) with family members in identified ‘conflict zones’ – such as Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Myanmar, and Eritrea – can now submit an application to be reunited with family members who would not be eligible under the current law.

Even though the total number of people who can be accepted under this programme is capped at 530, it is nothing short of life-saving for family members left behind in war zones throughout the world.

Since the programme opened for applications last week, we have had numerous calls and people coming in, to see if they and their family members are eligible to apply. We are providing advice and support to people in gathering the necessary documentation and making their applications.

This is a chance for families to be reunited with loved ones left behind, sometimes for years, so that they can finally start to rebuild their lives here in Ireland.

Safe passage

A family linked humanitarian admission programme is something Nasc called for in our Safe Passage campaign last year, as a way for Ireland to help, even in a small way, alleviate some of the pressures of an escalating humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders.

It provides a safe, complementary pathway for refugees to seek safety, to rejoin family members without having to pay traffickers and people smugglers to get on rickety boats that will not last a sea crossing or walk thousands of miles without food or shelter.

We campaigned for Safe Passage as a solution because Ireland had already successfully operated a humanitarian admission programme for a brief period in 2014 – the Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme. Under it, 111 Syrian men, women and children were able to join family members here in Ireland in 2015.

Our Safe Passage campaign also called for the development of community sponsorship, to allow communities throughout Ireland to support refugee families. Community sponsorship is another complementary pathway for refugees, where communities come together to sponsor a refugee family, providing financial as well as social support to enable refugees to better integrate into their host country.

Canada has been operating a highly successful community sponsorship programme for decades, and last year, in response to the growing numbers of displaced people globally, the Canadian government called on other nations to develop similar programmes – Ireland answered that call.

Nasc have been working closely with Department of Justice officials, officials from the Canadian government, UNHCR Ireland and other civil society organisations to develop an Irish community sponsorship programme, which will hopefully launch this summer.

The need for legislative reform

Humanitarian admission – while critical for people seeking to provide safety for their families – is not a cure for the damage caused by the restrictive family reunification rules in the International Protection Act. Indeed, it is those restrictive rules which make humanitarian admission so critical.

We still have an opportunity to amend the International Protection Act and bring the family reunification rights back into line with the 1996 Refugee Act – to widen the definition of ‘family’, and to allow the Minister discretion to decide on cases like elderly parents and adult children. The Family Reunification Amendment Bill, introduced by the Civil Engagement Group of Senators, has passed through the Seanad and is now waiting to be debated in the Dáil.

No one asks to be a refugee

No one asks to be a refugee. It is not something that is ever wanted or desired. No one wants to have to flee their home and leave loved ones behind. People do it because they must. People do it because they hope one day to help the rest of their family be safe.

And you or I would do exactly the same if we had to.

The Irish people have shown, time and again, that we are willing and able to support refugees in times of crisis. Humanitarian admission, community sponsorship and family reunification are safe channels for families to find safety in the midst of violence and chaos, in ways that offer better opportunities for connecting and integrating with local communities, and a chance to rebuild their lives.

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