Geneva - The slow and intentional delay of processing family reunifications in Sweden, especially of unaccompanied children, is deeply concerning, says the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, describing the country’s lack of action as ‘contradicting children’s best interests as well as human rights standards.’
Testimonies speak of painful experiences for refugees living in Sweden and away from their families, who, in turn, are stuck in different Middle Eastern countries, adds the watchdog group, calling on the Swedish government being formed to give priority to bettering the Migration Agency’s work once sworn in.
The prospective government’s priority concerns should be speeding up the processing of family reunification requests without complicating procedures or unjustifiably denying refugees asylum, in line with children’s best interests as stipulated under the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
The waiting period for decisions on reunification requests ranges between 22 - 24 months, according to the Swedish Migration Agency, including requests involving unaccompanied children, whether living in Sweden alone or are in refugee camps and conflict zones waiting to be reunited with their family members already residing in the country.
In many cases, the waiting period family reunification applicants have to endure does not end at two years, but is rather doubled. This is the case when the Agency turns down their reunification requests, forcing them to appeal at the country’s competent courts to try and overturn the Agency’s decision.
The number of pending reunification requests at the Swedish Migration Agency from January to October 2018 stood at 33,129. Only 57% of requests have been processed during the same period, whilst those turned down do not seem to have been rejected for clear and specific reasons.
Families Torn Apart
Ali, 8, is a Syrian child who arrived in Sweden with his grandfather. His request for asylum was approved after eight months. However, he had to wait for two additional years in order to reunite with his parents who were still in Syria at the time. According to his parents and grandfather, Ali has suffered a severe psychological trauma during this long period and needed therapy sessions. “Now that I met mom, dad, and siblings, I don’t need to go to these sessions anymore,” said Ali, whose parents’ request for family reunification was approved in June 2018.
In another testimony, Mayada al-Hayek, a Syrian divorcee with two children, said to Euro-Med’s team that she arrived in Sweden in October 2015. Having obtained a temporary residence permit at the beginning of 2017, she applied for family reunification with her two children, who were living alone in Lebanon. She added: “The Agency sets strict conditions for one to apply for reunification. Among these conditions is securing work and a suitable living place for myself and my kids even before I know whether my request is approved [or not].”
Although Mrs. al-Hayek met all prerequisites, the Agency refused to reunite her with her 18-year-old son, notwithstanding the fact that he was not yet 18 when she started her application, according to her. Because of the decision being delayed, Mrs. al-Hayek son lost his right to family reunification.
Recently, Mrs. al-Hayek received a positive decision from the court to reunite with her younger child after almost three years away from each other. She spent about a year until she managed to obtain a residence, and another two years until her request for reunification with her distant minor child living in Lebanon alone without his family was approved. Meanwhile, her older son, having already become 18 years old, will remain away from her.
Aliaa, 29, is a Syrian mother whose request to family reunification with her husband and her only daughter living in Syria was turned down almost two years after she filed her application. She had a job and a house, but the Agency refused her application because she did not have a kitchen at home.
The Swedish laws require that an applicant provide a house consisting of at least a single room and a kitchen. The laws make exceptions where the applicant manages to provide a kitchenette. Regarding this, Aliaa said: “I met this condition, but the Agency is exploiting every reason to disqualify me”, adding that: “I rented two rooms in a large villa. The contract provided clearly that I have the right to use the villa’s kitchen with all the tools in there. Nonetheless, the Agency considered it insufficient to meet the maintenance requirement.”
This is not the only problem facing refugees when it comes to fulfilling the ‘maintenance requirement’. In several cases, applicants wishing to reunite with their four- or five-member families must rent large housing units in order to meet the country’s existing laws on the maintenance requirement, and thus are forced to pay large sums of money for a long period while waiting for a decision that might take years without the applicant needing this huge space for such a long time, not to mention the burdening costs, said Sarah Pritchett, Euro-Med’s spokeswoman.
“At times, reunification requests are turned down for broad reasons or ambiguities and small errors in the application or the documents provided. The Agency prefers turning down requests to contacting applicants and having them explain these mistakes before making a decision,” said Pritchett.
“Let’s not forget that applicants already wait for years to obtain the residence permit before they can start their application for family reunification. With decisions to turn down requests taking years, applicants are forced to struggle for more years with appeals, another problem that contributes largely to fragmenting or separating families whose members already risk their lives surviving conflict zones while waiting for a decision,” added Pritchett.
It is true that some improvements were made as to the waiting period, such as the appeal for review, which applicants can submit six months after they have submitted their reunification request. This appeal of review allows for a decision to be made on the reunification request within four weeks from the time of appeal. However, this allowance is not obligatory, and the Agency can simply dismiss it without providing reasons. In this case, the applicant is not allowed a second appeal to speed up the process.
The right to family reunification for asylum seekers is only limited to those granted a ‘refugee status’, and under which they obtained a residence permit in Sweden. However, those with temporary protection or those holding a residence permit for exceptional circumstances (including children) are excluded from the right to family reunification.
That is to say, children living in Sweden under a temporary residence permit cannot apply for family reunification, which contradicts the “best interests of the child,” and Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that: “a child shall not be separated from his or her parents,” not to mention children’s right to family reunification under Article 10 of the same convention.
Over 1,200 Syrians obtained temporary protection in 2017 alone, accounting for 29,6% of all requests, in addition to 1,668 Iraqis, accounting for 17,6% of requests. Hence, these individuals cannot apply for reunification with their families who are living in conflict zones in the two war-torn countries for years now.
The number of unaccompanied children with temporary protection or protection under exceptional circumstances reached 510 during 2018. These children will remain in a state of psychological instability, given their inability to reunite with their families who could be surviving life-threatening situations.
The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor calls on the Swedish Migration Agency to take into consideration children’s best interest with regards to reunification requests made to unaccompanied children, and to give these requests the priority when processing family reunifications.
Euro-Med Monitor also calls on the Swedish Parliament to amend the country’s laws so as to guarantee the right to family reunification to all children, whether given refugee status or temporary protection.
The nonprofit organization also calls on the Swedish Migration Agency to further include more amendments to processing of reunification requests, including the waiting period, and the means of contact with applicants during processing, in order to avoid situations where requests are rejected based on misunderstandings or broad interpretations.