Unaccompanied Minors and the Importance of Family Reunification

Unaccompanied Minors and the Importance of Family Reunification

There are almost 1,600 unaccompanied minors, the legal term for children seeking asylum without parents or guardians, in refugee camps on the Greek islands. Forced to flee persecution in their country of origin, these children experience untold trauma on their journey to Europe. Many of these children believe that arriving in Greece – their port of entry into Europe – marks an end to their long and dangerous journey. For most unaccompanied minors, sadly, arriving on the Greek islands is just the beginning.

On Lesvos, nearly 18,000 asylum seekers are crammed into one of the most densely crowded and under-resourced camps on the islands. Of those 18,000 people, more than 700 are unaccompanied minors – children without anyone to care for them. Most of these children are detained behind high chain link fences and guarded by the Greek military.

Tragically, the unaccompanied minors held in the so-called “pen” are the lucky ones. Other children, mostly teenage boys who lack the proper documentation proving their age, are left to fend for themselves. These children are at high risk of exploitation and violence. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and aid workers on Lesvos have reported worrying spikes in self-harm and suicide attempts among children. These already unhygienic and unsafe conditions, coupled with the threat of COVID-19, make the Aegean island camps unacceptable places for unaccompanied minors.

In March, Ireland joined a “coalition of the willing”, a group of EU states which signed up to take a portion of the 1,600 unaccompanied minors being held on the Greek islands. Several European states, and members of this coalition, have relocated children from Greece to their respective countries. Ireland must be next. We ask that the Irish government follows through on its pledge to bring some of these children to Ireland as soon as possible. The unaccompanied minors on the Greek islands, these children who find themselves alone in the world, need a safe haven now more than ever.

Ireland has long served as a place of refuge for some of the most vulnerable. These unaccompanied minors – or any refugees, for that matter – have come to Ireland to start a new life. For many, this is almost impossible without their family by their side. Under the current International Protection Act of 2015, refugees can only apply to be reunited with immediate family members and children under the age of 18. This narrow view of the family does not take into account cultural differences of multi-generational family units, children “ageing out” during the asylum process, or same-sex couples who could not legally be married in their country of origin.

When refugees flee their countries, they are often separated from family members. Yet for asylum seekers granted refugee status in Ireland, the process to reunite with their loved ones becomes a race against the clock. Under the International Protection Act 2015, a person has 12 months to submit an application for family reunification from the date on which they were recognised as a refugee or received subsidiary protection status. While this may seem like sufficient time, in practice, it is often not enough for applicants to find their family and source the necessary documentation. In addition, the current law takes a narrow view of family and disallows dependent parents, siblings or other family members.

In 2017, Oxfam Ireland, the Irish Refugee Council and Nasc put forward the International Protection (Family Reunification) Amendment Bill 2017. This amendment would broaden the definition of eligible family members to include dependent relatives, including elderly parents, brothers, sisters and children over the age of 18. The presence of family members can accelerate the integration of both new arrivals and family members already in Ireland. The nurturing and coping strategies a family unit can provide are broad, ranging from financial and physical support, to emotional support and guardianship. Above all, the family can help anchor a loved one in a new place and contribute to building cohesion, as well as boosting their ability to engage with social institutions outside the family unit.

Oxfam Ireland is asking the new Irish government to uphold its obligation to relocate unaccompanied children from the Greek islands. We also ask that the new government ensures that the International Protection (Family Reunification) Amendment Bill 2017 be resubmitted for attention when the new government is formed, be allowed to pass through the final stages of the Dáil and be enacted into law.

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