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Torn Apart

October 29, 2015

Refugee Families Struggle to Reunite in Hungary

Refugees in Europe face no end to terrifying and exhausting challenges: the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, the uncertain legal asylum process, and worries about their loved ones still in danger in Syria, Afghanistan, or other major conflict zones. Reuniting with those family members requires a grueling legal procedure with no sure outcome. UUSC is partnering with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization and pillar of civil society in Hungary, to provide crucial financial and legal assistance to refugee families who are struggling to reunite.

An Excruciating Ordeal

Exiled from their homes without knowing whether their children or parents have been been killed, tortured, or kidnapped in a civil war, many refugees endure intense trauma. Far from helping to alleviate this suffering, many governments have erected an elaborate series of bureaucratic hurdles to keep families apart.

Family reunification has become especially difficult in Hungary, where the government has been ruthlessly hostile to asylum seekers. Refugees cannot initiate the family reunification process within Hungary, even after they’ve been granted asylum. Rather, their family members abroad have to find a Hungarian consulate and lodge a claim. This is no small task for people still living in major conflict zones; there are no Hungarian consulates in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. To begin the reunification process, family members have to make perilous and expensive journeys across closed and unsafe borders — in effect, become refugees themselves. The Hungarian state provides no assistance to these family members.

Family members must then prove that they are related. To do so, they have to obtain birth certificates, marriage licenses, and other legal documents from their governments. By requesting these materials, family members are essentially announcing to the authorities — of the countries they are trying to escape — that they intend to leave the country. This puts them in a terrifyingly vulnerable position.

For undocumented refugees, who never had legal papers to begin with, the requirement to prove family relation is exceptionally difficult. Many are forced to rely on DNA tests, which are often prohibitively expensive. And these tests do nothing for people trying to reunite with adopted children, spouses, and other family members without genetic connections.

In addition to the expenses of travel and testing, refugees in Hungary have to pay fees to begin the process and to secure translations of their documents into English and Hungarian. These fees are substantial burdens for people who have just journeyed thousands of miles on foot with only the clothes on their backs. Faced with these difficulties, many refugees are at the mercy of loan sharks and other unscrupulous lenders. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee reports cases in which refugees have been forced to take on ruinous personal debts to try to pay for their family’s safe transit to a Hungarian consulate and thence to Hungary; others have relied on insecure smuggling routes, where their family members’ lives may be at risk.

This exhausting and demoralizing process is not unique to Hungary. The requirement to prove relatedness is a huge barrier for many refugee families in the United States. Hungary, however, has made legal family reunification particularly onerous, especially for stateless refugees and those who have been displaced from multiple conflicts in the Middle East. Hungarian authorities grant entry only to family members with passports — an impossible requirement for undocumented refugees — and they do not recognize documents issued for Palestinian refugees by the Syrian state as a valid form of travel ID.

A Rights-Based Response

Humanitarian asylum is guaranteed to all refugees under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 16 also guarantees that every person’s family “is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Refugees have a basic human right in all countries where they reside to preserve the integrity of their families.

Through its partnership with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, UUSC will work to protect this right. With UUSC support, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee will do the following:

  • Accompany refugees through every stage of the family reunification process
  • Cover travel costs and all fees associated with the reunification procedure
  • Provide legal counseling free of charge to families navigating the process

UUSC aims to reunite as many families as possible and help undo the traumatic separation caused by the world’s conflicts. This includes helping refugees preserve hope in the face of laborious and even dangerous bureaucratic procedures. Long term, UUSC and its partners seek to guarantee to all people the right to live in safety with the people they love.

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