Family Reunification as a Complementary Pathway to Protection: Experiences from Latin America

Family migration is one of the most significant ways in which people permanently migrate to developed countries. Family reunification is essential to reunite family members of people forcibly displaced due to armed conflicts and persecutions. Family reunification is the primary way of guaranteeing the right to family life to refugees since they cannot return to places where they may be harmed. Family reunification is a ‘complementary pathway’ for protection. At the same timefamily unity is a core value of international refugee protection. Regions in the world can learn from each other on how to better guarantee the right to family and family unity through family reunification. Latin America has developed innovative jurisprudence and legislation that could inspire European family reunification practices. Expanded definitions of asylum and family could grant protection to more people in Europe, as has happened with Venezuelans in Latin America. 

The family is the most basic protective structure in our society. However, many refugees are separated from their family members during their flight. Family separation can be a strategy when families lack the financial resources to move with their whole family, or when they do not want to expose all their family members to a dangerous journey. However, once a person is granted legal protection, the right to family life ensures that the rest of their family is allowed to enter the country of asylum via family reunification.  The right to family life is codified in international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), among others. International organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) underscore the importance of family unity for the integration of immigrants and refugees. Also, academic research recognizes the importance of family reunification for refugeesespecially for refugee children. For that reason, the Global Compact on Refugees recommends states to ‘facilitate effective procedures and clear referral pathways for Family reunification.’ The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) also recognizes the need to facilitate family reunification procedures for all immigrants as a way to promote the realization of their right to family life and family unity. Family reunification is a complementary pathway to admit people in need of international protection in third countries. According to the UNHCR (2020), ‘complementary pathways are safe and regulated avenues that complement refugee resettlement and by which refugees may be admitted in a country and have their international protection needs met while they are able to support themselves to potentially reach a sustainable and lasting solution.’ One of the main challenges for people to attain international protection is to cross an international border. Currently, many countries adopt strict visa policies and close their borders to potential asylum seekers. In order to apply for asylum, a person must be on the territory of another country (i.e. the asylum country). Hence, refugees end up unprotected because they are not allowed to enter. This concern is reflected in the Global Compact of Refugees (2018)that recognizes ‘complementary pathways for admission to third countries’ and resettlement (among others) as solutions to help refugees or people forcibly displaced due to a well-founded fear of persecutions based on their race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership of a social group. This blog post argues that family reunification programmes are an essential complementary pathway that grants protection to families in need of international protection. Most studies of family reunification focus on the situation in developed countries, such as Canada, Australia, the United States of America (USA), and the European States. This blog post discusses how the topic of family reunification for refugees is perceived in Latin America as a pathway to protection and how this can contribute to a worldwide debate on complementary ways to grant protection to people in need.  In that sense, family reunification is not only a process for guaranteeing the internationally recognized right to family life and family unity; family reunification is also a policy to guarantee protection for people in need of it. The Latin American states are part of regional regime of protection that started with the Cartagena Declaration in 1984. This framework could be useful to inform discussions on asylum topics including Family reunification.

Family reunification as pathway to protection Refugees come from situations of conflict, violence and violations of human rights. For this reason, it is highly probable that their family members left behind will be living in refugee camps or in countries experiencing armed conflict. In cases where individuals are persecuted for specific reasons, the fact that the initial persecuted person was able to flee and receive protection in a third country can put their relatives at risk of suffering persecution as a way to harm the refugee themselves. At the same time, delays and the lack of family reunification procedures can force families to take dangerous routes to be reunited with their loved ones.

Family reunification for refugees in Latin American jurisprudence Latin America is a region with its own development of human rights and asylum laws. The American Convention on Human Rights (1969) guarantees the right to form a family, to family life, to family unity and the right to non-arbitrary interference in the family. The Convention also states that ‘the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.’  States in Latin America have an expanded definition of family in their national laws. This expanded definition is also employed in migration policies. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has an expanded definition of family that goes beyond the nuclear family (married parents and children). In its Advisory Opinion Oc-21/14 Of August 19, 2014, on Rights And Guarantees Of Children In The Context Of Migration And/Or In Need Of International Protection, the Court recognizes that ‘there is no single model for a family. Accordingly, the definition of family should not be restricted by the traditional notion of a couple and their children’. Furthermore, it adds that ‘in the migratory context, “family ties” may have been established between individuals who are not necessarily family members in a legal sense, especially when, as regards children, they have not been accompanied by their parents in these processes.’ Although most countries in the region do not accept this broad idea of emotional dependence to classify a family in the context of family reunification for refugees, they accept economic dependency to show family ties; Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador mention ‘affectivity’ in their national law to recognize non-married couples. Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile identify cultural and social values and customs of refugees’ origin countries as ways to recognize family. Many countries in the region adopt an expanded definition of family in family reunification procedures. Brazil, for example, accepts descendants, ascendants, partners, and other family members involved in a relationship of economic dependency. This expanded definition of family in Latin America means that more people are able to receive protection under the notion of Family reunification as a complementary pathway to protection.  Moreover, most countries in Latin America, including Brazil, adopted expanded definitions of asylum following the definition of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (1984). This document recommends recognizing as refugees ‘persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.’  Since those countries have an expanded definition of refugees, they grant protection to more people who are in need of it. In theory, those people can bring their family members through family reunification procedures. Consequently, an expanded definition of asylum may grant protection to more people considering family reunification as a pathway to protection. In that spirit, Brazil has recognized more than 21,000 Venezuelans as refugees because of the serious human rights violations in their country. Their family members can also receive protection through family reunification procedures. Venezuelans would hardly be recognized as refugees in many European countries. 

Finally, the topic of family reunification has received attention in discussions on forced migration in Latin America. Since 1984, the Latin American states have met every ten years to discuss the challenges brought by forced displacement in the region. This process has led to the creation of four declarations which guide how the region responds to forced migration. Family reunification appears in three of those four documents; family reunification is therefore on the political agenda regarding asylum in Latin America. 

In this respect, Latin American countries have more generous family reunification policies than developed countries. They adopt an expanded definition of asylum; they use an expanded definition of family in family reunification procedures; they do not employ DNA tests, nor do they have integration requirements such as minimum waiting periods or maximum deadlines for family reunification. 

What can Europe learn from Latin America? Discussions on complementary pathways to admission and protection will increase in the coming years. Learning from experiences from other regions in the world, particularly Africa and Latin America, could inspire new insights and perspectives for decision-makers, researchers and activists in Europe and North America. Initially, considering an expanded definition of asylum can grant protection to more people in need of it, like the Venezuelans. The displacement in Venezuela will be the most significant displacement crisis in the world. Although Europe has not been so affected by this crisis, European states like Spain are already receiving Venezuelans as asylum seekers. This trend will probably increase in the next years, especially with the hard political and economic situation in many Latin American countries which was aggravated by the pandemic.   Considering family reunification as a complementary pathway to admission can grant humanitarian protection for those in need of it. Since the family is crucial for the integration of refugees and for them to have their right to family life, European countries could learn from Latin America and expand their definition of family. More people who are at risk because of their family ties to refugees could then receive protection in asylum countries avoiding dangerous routes. Even in the context of more restrictive asylum regimes, expanded definitions of family can help refugees that are already in asylum countries to integrate. Moreover, family members will have the support of the refugees that are already in the asylum countries, which will mean that they use fewer public resources. This is because they will not depend on public shelters, as they have already a family member who will act as their integration agent. This helps to decrease the cost of sheltering and case management. At the same time, the possibility to consider affectivity, cultural and social customs and values should also be considered in asylum policies in Europe to define refugee families.  This blog post has argued that family reunification should be analysed as an essential complementary pathway to grant humanitarian protection for family members of refugees. The Latin American approach is useful to illustrate this. The region has adopted an expanded definition of asylum and an expanded definition of family that allows granting protection for more people in need of it. Besides this, there is a tendency perceived in the regional documents on forced migration to recognize family reunification as a right for refugees.  The Latin American experience and jurisprudence on family reunification is useful not only for this discussion on family reunification as a complementary pathway to protection but also to other dialogues. Latin America is a region with pathways to admission, like resettlement and humanitarian visas for different nationalities, including Haitians and people affected by the Syrian armed conflict. Involving other experiences and regions in this debate will be useful to provide humanitarian protection for those in need. The family reunification experience of Latin America can help Europe and other parts of the world to come up with innovative solutions to the dilemma of forcibly displaced people. Complementary pathways to protection like family reunification are a fundamental part of those approaches to grant protection for those in need. 

Patricia holds a Ph.D. in Political Science - University of São Paulo (USP). She was a ZUKOnnect Fellow at the Zukunftskolleg at the University of Konstanz between June and October 2019. She has a BA and an MA in International Relations at the University of Brasília (UnB). Between December 2018 and June 2019, Patrícia stayed as Visiting Scholar at the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development (UZH). She was also a Visiting Scholar at the Carolina Population Center (UNC-Chapel Hill, 2017-2018) and the Rutgers’ Childhood Studies Department (2018). Her research interests are family migration, child migration, migration, and asylum in Latin America and children involved in armed conflicts.