Family reunification is the procedure that allows immigrants (including refugees) to live together in the receiving countries. Many times, when a person must flee due to war or persecution, they end up separated from their family. Thus, family reunification is the process that allows refugees and other immigrants to enjoy their right to family life – a right granted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (1966). The first barrier refugees face to reuniting with their families is the definition of ‘family’. Many Global North countries define family to be the ‘nuclear family’, that is, a couple and minor children. Nevertheless, in many cultures, a family is composed of other relatives including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and others (the so-called extended family). These relatives develop important functions in the family life including taking care of children, providing emotional support, and helping with the house chores. However, because they do not fall under the definition of ‘family’ they are not allowed entry under most family reunification schemes. A second barrier that immigrants and refugees face to achieving family reunification is administrative requirements, including maximum or minimum waiting times, income and house requirements, and DNA tests. This barrier is particularly impactful for female immigrants that face gender inequalities, such as wage gaps, which harm their ability to achieve the income threshold.
Brazil is a country with progressive legislation on family reunification. The country’s Migration Law 13445/2017 recognises family reunification as a principle of the Brazilian migration policy. It also guarantees an explicit right to family reunification to all immigrants (including refugees) living in the country. Brazil adopts an expanded definition of family which includes children of any age, grandparents, and other economically dependent relatives. The country does not require the administrative exigencies discussed above. However, refugees face a tough time reuniting with their families in Brazil because the process of granting visas depends on diplomats. A final barrier to family reunification for immigrants is convincing those in charge of approving the family reunification procedures and granting the visas that immigrant families are family according to the country’s legislation. Diplomats are key actors in family reunification because visa approval depends on them.
My research in Brazil shows that diplomats impede family reunification in two ways. First, by denying family reunification visas for refugee families (even if these visas were previously approved by authorities in Brazil) under one or more of the following grounds: a) they do not believe some family members are truly relatives, b) they are not convinced that the family member abroad is economically dependent on the refugee in Brazil (Brazilian legislation does not define economic dependency), and c) refugees applying for asylum should not have been recognised as refugees in Brazil in the first place. Due to this, some refugee families, especially Congolese refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are perceived by Brazilian diplomats abroad as criminals lying to the Brazilian government to achieve family reunification. The main problem is that the Brazilian family reunification procedure does not have a review or appeal process. Therefore, if the family reunification visa is denied, refugees have no possibilities to challenge the decision, provide explanations or present new evidence, resulting in permanent separation for some refugee families.
While the denial of visas is the most visible way in which diplomats separate refugee families in Brazil, my research shows that the suspicion of refugee families shared by Brazilian diplomats in the Brazilian Embassy in Kinshasa (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) motivated internal changes in the Brazilian family reunification procedure, and granted more decision power to diplomats. Since 2015, Brazilian diplomats in Kinshasa started to send telegrams to the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brazil (MRE) fuelling suspicion of the refugee families and asking for changes in the family reunification visa procedure, changes that would grant them the power to deny family reunification visas for refugee families. In May 2017, an internal change in the MRE (motivated by the accounts of the Brazilian Embassy in Kinshasa) gave diplomats the authority to deny family reunification visas for refugee families. Prior to this change, only the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), which is responsible for analysing asylum requests in Brazil and for designing public policies for refugees, had the authority to question family reunification procedures for refugees. After May 2017, diplomats started to deny family reunification visas for refugee families with the authorization of the MRE. In October 2018, following pressure from the MRE (supported by continuous telegrams from Kinshasa asking for a formal change in the family reunification procedure for refugees), CONARE consolidated this change in the Brazilian family reunification policy for refugees. In the diplomatic correspondence, diplomats justify the need for these changes as a way of protecting Brazilian national interest.
Diplomats are now the only authorities responsible for family reunification visas in Brazil. As in other countries, diplomats in Brazil are trained to protect the Brazilian border by avoiding ‘potential’ migrants coming to Brazil and guaranteeing that tourists and investors can enter the country. Brazilian diplomats are not trained in international protection. My research shows how Global South countries, such as Brazil, deploy a variety of strategies to separate refugee families. Diplomats are key actors in achieving this given they are the ones that deny family reunification visas for family members abroad. Diplomats also pressure the Brazilian government to change family reunification procedures in a way that grants them more power and use Brazilian national interest (as they perceive it) as the main justification for policy changes that allow the permanent separation of refugee families in Brazil.
Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli
Patrícia is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sheffield. She holds a PhD in political science (2019) from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Brazil. Patrícia has a bachelor’s degree (2014) and a master’s degree in international relations (2015) from the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). Patrícia was a visiting scholar at the Zukunftskolleg (University of Konstanz, Germany), the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development (University of Zurich, Switzerland), and the Carolina Population Center (University of North Carolina, USA). Her research interests include migrant and refugee children, family migration and asylum policies in Brazil and Latin America.