New legislation has narrowed eligibility for family reunification for refugees

29 May 2017

Embargo: 00:01, Tuesday 30 May 2017

The ESRI published new research today (30 May 2017) examining the process by which refugees and migrants reunite with their family members in Ireland. Family reunification plays a critical role in the successful integration of migrants and refugees in a new country. Additionally, family reunification schemes extend protection to family members in potentially vulnerable circumstances and as such are particularly relevant in the context of the recent refugee and migrant crisis. The report examines developments in family reunification policy in recent years both in the context of refugees and non-refugees. This is a timely and important study as significant changes have been introduced in Ireland which affect, in particular, refugees and their families at a time when legal migration routes to Europe are most needed. 

Key findings

European context

The study found key differences in policy in Ireland when compared to practice across the EU. First residence permits issued for family-related reasons represented the smallest category of permits issued in 2015, coming after education and employment. In contrast, permits issued for family-related reasons formed the largest category of permits issued in the EU. However, the number of first residence permits issued for family reasons in Ireland has increased steadily since 2012.

Absence of legislation for non-refugees

Unlike most other EU countries where an EU Directive applies, family reunification for non-refugees operates as an administrative scheme without a legislative basis. NGOs have argued that the extent of Ministerial discretion within the system, in particular for non-refugee sponsors, has resulted in inconsistent decision-making. On the other hand, NGOs and decision-makers noted that flexibility may benefit individual applicants, for example income requirements may be waived on a case-by-case basis.

Family reunification for refugees

The study also found that new legislation has narrowed the eligibility for family reunification as it applies to refugees to nuclear family members. Prior to the implementation of the International Protection Act 2015, other dependent family members were eligible for family reunification. This is no longer the case. While refugees can still apply to be joined by other dependent family members, they now have to show that they can support them financially. In practice this means that it may be more difficult for refugee sponsors to be joined by extended family such as grandparents or siblings of adult sponsors. While the restrictions bring Ireland’s system closer in line to most other EU Member States, the changes have raised concerns in light of the current refugee and migration crisis.

Report author Samantha Arnold commented:

Family reunification facilitates the integration of migrants already living in the host country. It is often a feature of national immigration systems used to attract highly skilled migrants. Family reunification also helps to ensure the protection and wellbeing of refugees and their family members. In the current context it is clearly important that refugees are able to access safe legal avenues to Ireland. UNHCR and NGOs have called for the expansion of such legal routes. While the narrowing of eligible family members and introduction of a time limit for applications in the 2015 Act brings Ireland more into line with other member States, the absence of a statutory scheme for non-refugees is unusual within the EU and leaves non-refugees without a clear path to reunification with family members.

For more information, please contact:
Samantha Arnold,
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
+353 1 8632047
Mobile: +353 85 858 5508

Notes for Editors:

  1. Family Reunification of non-EU Nationals will be published on the ESRI website and the EMN website at 00:01 on 30 May 2017. The embargo is 00:01 Tuesday 30 May 2017. 
  2. In 2016 applications were made in respect of 756 family members of refugees and 406 were approved.
  3. Non-EU family reunification at the EU level is governed by Council Directive 2003/86/EC of 22 September 2003 on the right to family reunification (Directive) in all Member States except Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
  4. The term “Refugees” here encompasses Geneva Convention Refugees and holders of Subsidiary Protection.
  5. The ESRI acts as the Irish National Contact Point of the European Migration Network (EMN). The aim of EMN is to provide up-to-date, objective, reliable and comparable information on migration and asylum at member state and EU-level (see and
  6. The EMN is co-funded by the European Commission DG Migration and Home Affairs and the Irish Department of Justice and Equality.
  7. All EMN studies are compiled according to common specifications and an EU-level synthesis report is subsequently produced. The synthesis report for this study is accessible at: