Restricting Family Reunification Interferes with the Right to Family Life
A draft bill currently being considered in the Finnish parliament would dramatically restrict the right to family reunification for people who have moved here for humanitarian reasons. Parliament will decide on the bill in June 2016.
Moving to Finland to join a family member can be rather difficult. Now the government is planning to make this even harder. A bill for tightening this part of Finland’s Aliens Act was presented to Finnish parliament in spring 2016. The new law would extend the current income requirement to people who have been granted international protection. According to the proposed law, they would have to prove an income above the Finnish median income level in order to bring a spouse and two children to Finland.
In other words, less than half of the Finnish population earns the amount which the new proposal requires from people who have fled to Finland. People who have recently moved to Finland tend to find jobs in low-income professions. Thus, in effect, for many people, the bill would make family reunification impossible.
The bill has provoked a lot of criticism. Amnesty International Finland, the Finnish Refugee Council, the Refugee Advice Centre, the Finnish Red Cross, Finn Church Aid, Save the Children, the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters, Finnish Somali League, as well as numerous researchers and private people, have publicly opposed the proposal.
Statements by these various actors stress that integration becomes difficult when people’s primary worry is being separated from their families.
Two decades of tightening the law
For a long time, financial requirements for bringing family members to Finland did not affect those who had fled war or persecution. When the income requirement for family migration came into force in 1999, it stayed rather unchanged for about 10 years. At first, it only applied to families who moved from outside of the EU, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. Asylum seekers who had been granted some sort of international protection or quota refugees were exempt from the requirement.
This changed in August 2010. In cases where the person who had been granted refugee status or another residence permit on humanitarian grounds, a proven income was required from people who married foreigners after moving to Finland and wanted to bring their spouses to live here.
Under Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, the government tightened the requirements for family reunification in a way that made it impossible for many to even apply for a residence permit. While previously the family member residing in Finland was allowed to lodge an application on behalf of the family member living abroad, this is not possible anymore. Now the family member has to apply personally at the closest Finnish embassy.
Finland has embassies in less than half of all countries in the world. For people from Afghanistan, the closest embassy is in New Delhi, India. If somebody from Afghanistan wants to apply for family reunification, that person needs to have a valid passport and a visa for India. Syrians need to first travel to Lebanon to apply for a visa in order to then personally deliver their application to Turkey.
For many, just compiling the needed papers in countries torn apart by conflict and war can be impossible.
The goal of keeping people outside of Finland
The governmental programme by prime minister Juha Sipilä that was launched in the early summer of 2015 made it clear that family reunification requirements would be tightened.
In the original version of the bill that the Ministry of the Interior published in January 2016, the income requirement was to also affect Finnish citizens and their family members. This caused even politicians from the governmental parties to criticise the proposed changes. Once they threatened to affect Finnish citizens, the planned restrictions to family reunification became unacceptable. In the version of the bill which was finally presented to Finnish parliament in April 2016, this extension of income requirements for Finnish citizens was omitted.
The current bill would give different family reunification rights to people, dependent upon which form of international protection they’ve been granted. On one side are those who have refugee status—they would have three months to reunite with their families without an income threshold. Those under subsidiary protection would always have to prove their income, with the required amount being too high even for many longer term residents of Finland.
It is clear that the aim of the change in the Aliens Act is to exclude as many people as possible from moving to Finland. The preamble of the bill actually states clearly that its aim is to make Finland less “attractive”.
It does not seem to be of interest that in cases of family reunification, obtaining a residence permit (or not) can be a question of life and death. If people are granted international protection, it is legally established that this person cannot reside in their country of origin. Why shouldn’t this apply to their family members as well? To join their families, they often have to stay in war zones or take up dangerous journeys dependent on smugglers.
False justifications for restricting family reunification
The grounds which the government produces to justify the restrictions do not hold up when closely examined. Sipilä’s government argues that the restrictions are made in accordance with the EU Directive on family reunification from 2003. It is worth studying this Directive. Its spirit and meaning is quite different from the government’s misinterpretation.
The goal of the Family Reunification Directive is to protect family life and set the minimum standards that EU member states need to follow. A statement by the EU Commision on the implementation of the Directive from 2014 makes this clear and gives a quite straightforward instruction: member states are not allowed to use their discretion in ways which would be against the aim of the directive of promoting family reunification. The Directive is thus a guideline for countries in which the protection of family ties is weak. Its idea is to improve the possibilities of families having a joint family life, not to weaken them.
Family reunification is falsely seen as an easy way to get to Finland. In the past five years, on average more than half of the family members with a refugee background have received a negative decision. The statistics of course do not reveal the whole truth, because under the current legislation, many cannot even submit an application.
It is also vital to remember that more than 80% of family reunification cases in Finland are not due to people residing in Finland on humanitarian grounds. Almost all applications have been cases of family members of those who have moved here to work, study, or of family members of Finnish citizens. As the number of asylum seekers in Finland has multiplied last year, the share of those who will apply for family reunification with a person who has arrived on humanitarian grounds will grow. The government has managed to use this growth as a reason for these restrictions.
Actually, the restrictions have been planned for years, since 2012 under the Katainen government. At that time, only seven percent of all family reunification cases were for people receiving international protection. A report from 2012 suggested an inquiry into the possible outcomes of extending the income requirement to those under international protection. This report was never produced.
The tightening of Finnish immigration legislation is not a response to an exceptionally high number of asylum cases. Instead the motivation behind it seems to be primarily political—restrictions would have been introduced even if the number of migrants had remained lower.
These restrictions make the difficult, expensive and slow process of family reunification nearly impossible. It is clear that the right to family life should be the same for everyone, regardless of citizenship or resident status.
In June 2016, the Finnish Parliament will decide on amending the Aliens’ Act to restrict family reunification of refugees. You can follow news on the results in English at YLE news (www.yle.fi/news), or the Immigration Service (www.migri.fi).
Saara Pellander will defend her PhD-thesis at the University of Helsinki in June 2016. Her thesis “Gatekeepers of the Family: Regulating Family Migration to Finland” deals with the norms and understandings of family life that migration regulation and their implementation create and maintain.
International protection is an umbrella term which refers to resident permits that are granted on humanitarian grounds. These are refugee status, subsidiary protection, and theoretically interim protection (this is not used in practice). Previously there was a category named humanitarian protection in Finland, but this will cease to exist in summer 2016.
Refugee status, or asylum, is granted to people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their origin, faith, citizenship, status in society or political opinions.
Subsidiary protection is granted to people who do not fulfill the requirements for being granted asylum, but who are threatened with death sentence, execution, torture or other inhumane or degrading treatment. A residence permit can also be granted if it is clear that the applicant cannot return to their home country or their country of permanent residence without serious and individual threat to their life due to violence in situations of international or internal armed conflict.