Family reunification under the International Protection Act 2015
The most significant change in the International Protection Act 2015 relates to the family reunification provisions under Sections 56 and 57 IPA. A beneficiary of international protection must apply for family reunification within 12 months of being issued with a refugee declaration or subsidiary protection declaration. No reference is made in the legislation to any income or health insurance requirement. It is the duty of the sponsor (refugee or subsidiary protection beneficiary) and the person who is the subject of the application (family member) to co-operate fully in the investigation including by providing all relevant information in his or her possession, control or procurement which is relevant to the family reunification application.
The 12-month time limit for family reunification was the subject of a challenge of constitutionality before the Supreme Court in the case of A v. Minister for Justice & Equality & Ors, S v. Minister for Justice & Equality & Ors and I v. Minister for Justice & Equality & Ors.  IESC 20. The case concerned an applicant who became estranged from her family in 2011 and travelled to Ireland as an unaccompanied minor. She subsequently applied for, and was granted, international protection in 2014. After resuming phone contact with her family in 2018, she applied for family reunification with her parents and sister but the applicant was refused on the basis that it was not brought within the 12-month time frame specified by s.56(8). In a judgment delivered on 8 December 2020, Justice Dunne determined that the 12-month time limit established pursuant to s.56(8) of the 2015 Act was not unconstitutional nor was it incompatible with the ECHR. The Court noted in its decision that it remained open to the applicant to apply under the 2016 Family Reunification Policy Document, whereby the Minister for Justice can exercise her discretion to grant family reunification on humanitarian grounds.
No differences exist between the right to apply for family reunification for refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries. Once a family reunification application has been granted that permission will cease to be in force if the family member does not enter and reside in the State by a date specified by the Minister when giving the permission in accordance with Section 56(5) IPA. It remains to be seen how this will be applied in practice. The Irish Refugee Council has yet to see a grant of Family Reunification under the IPA, however, if there is any indication that there will be any sort of delay in the family member being able to come to Ireland – this should be relayed to the Family Reunification Unit as soon as possible.
One significant change from the previous legal regime is that there is now no possibility for beneficiaries of international protection to apply for dependent family members i.e. adult children, parents of adult applicants, nieces, nephews who are dependent on the refugee or are suffering from a mental or physical disability to such extent that it is not reasonable for them to maintain themselves. Under the previous Refugee Act 1996 as amended it was possible for the Minister to use her discretion to grant family reunification in such circumstances. There is no reference to dependent family members in the IPA.
In July 2017, a group of Senators presented the International Protection Act (Family Reunification Amendment) Bill 2017 to the Government. The content of the bill seeks to reinstate the dependency provision contained in the Refugee Act 1996. The bill would amend the IPA with a view to enabling a wider range of family members to apply for family reunification, including grandparents, siblings, children (over the age of 18), grandchildren, where dependency can be demonstrated. The bill went before the Seanad in November 2018 where it was passed by 29 votes to 17. The bill proceeded to the Dáil and was considered by the Oireachtas Justice and Equality Committee. The Committee called on the Government to support legislation which would give refugee families the chance to apply for their loved ones to join them in Ireland and that a ‘money message’ be granted and that the bill proceed to Dáil committee stage. This ‘money message’ was denied. The bill subsequently lapsed with the dissolution of the Dáil.
The Irish Refugee Council and other organisations advocated for it to be placed back on the Dáil order paper. On 9 December 2020, it was announced that the Bill would be restored for further debate before the Dáil. As of 8 December 2021, the Bill was at the third stage before the Dáil, during which the Bill is examined in detail by section and further amendments are proposed.
Following the onset of COVID-19 and associated restrictions, applicants experienced significant delays in the processing of applications for family reunification. DNA testing was suspended, which has further delayed a number of cases. DNA testing subsequently resumed following the easing of restrictions associated with COVID-19 in late March 2021.
According to statistics released by the Department of Justice, there were 1,199 applications for refugee status received throughout 2021. 484 applications for family reunification were granted throughout 2021 and 46 applications were refused.
The Irish Humanitarian Admission Programme (IHAP)
On 14 November 2017, the government announced the introduction of a Family Reunification Humanitarian Admission Programme (FRHAP), which was later renamed the Irish Humanitarian Admission Programme (IHAP). As the programme has been developed within the ambit of the Minister’s discretion, it will allow for reunification for immediate family members who would normally fall outside of family reunification provisions held in the IPA.
UNHCR’s Information Note on the IHAP sets out more information on the rationale behind the scheme:
“The IHAP is additional and complimentary to existing rights and entitlements to family reunification under Irish law. The programme will provide an opportunity to Irish citizens and persons with Convention refugee status, subsidiary protection status, and programme refugee status, who have immediate eligible family members from the top 10 major source countries of refugees, to propose to the Minister for these family members to join them in Ireland.
Up to 530 persons will be given the opportunity to join immediate family members in Ireland under the programme.”
The ISD website sets out the eligibility criteria. On the one hand, proposed beneficiaries of the programme must be nationals of one of ten countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, DRC, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea or Burundi.
In addition, proposed beneficiaries must be eligible family members i.e. one of the following:
- Unmarried adult child without dependants;
- Unmarried minor child who is not eligible for family reunification under IPA;
- Parent who is not eligible for family reunification under IPA;
- Related unmarried minor child without parents for whom the sponsor has parental responsibility e.g. orphaned niece, nephew, sibling;
- Vulnerable close family member who has no spouse / partner or other close relative to support them;
- Spouse or civil partner as recognised under Irish law who is not eligible for family reunification under IPA, or de facto
The programme also takes into account a sponsor’s existing living arrangements and their capacity to accommodate family members under the scheme.
The first open calls for proposals ran from 14 May to 30 June 2018. A larger number of applications than were anticipated were received, however, just 80 applications were granted. A second call for proposals was opened on 20 December 2018 and ran until 8 February 2019. The Department of Justice was aiming to finalise all IHAP 2 decisions by the end of 2020. It is understood that as of December 2021, all IHAP decisions have been finalised. There is no appeal mechanism against a negative IHAP decision though there is anecdotal evidence that some negative decisions have been overturned following an administrative review.
Community Sponsorship Ireland (CSI)
In 2018, Community Sponsorship Ireland (CSI) was established as a complementary refugee resettlement stream to the traditional state-centred model. CSI has been developed in cooperation with the Government of Ireland, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), and civil society organisations such as: UNHCR, the Irish Red Cross, NASC, Irish Refugee Council and Amnesty International Ireland. This programme gives private citizens and community-based organisations an opportunity to directly support a refugee family newly arrived to Ireland.
Through CSI, sponsoring communities support integration into Irish society of refugee families by providing a home and offering opportunities to connect with the local services they need, such as English language tuition, employment, and education pathways.
A pilot CSI programme commenced in December 2018 has now concluded. During this pilot phase, 5 refugee families (17 persons) were warmly welcomed by host community groups in counties Cork, Waterford and Meath. A further family is to be received by a host community in Dublin in December. After this successful pilot scheme an evaluation review was undertaken to inform the development of a scaled-up national programme. On 15 November 2019, Minister of State, David Stanton, officially launched the Community Sponsorship Ireland Scheme.
The Community Sponsorship Scheme was significantly curtailed in 2020 following the onset of COVID-19. The Irish Refugee Council supported one family arriving under community sponsorship in late December 2020. In 2021, the Irish Refugee Council engaged 17 new community sponsorship groups. Approximately 26 resettled refugees were supported across nine community sponsorship groups around Ireland, marking a significant increase on the previous year.
 Oxfam Ireland et al., ‘Refugee family reunification bill progresses to the Dáil’, 5 December 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2ZTj89B; See also Oireachtas, International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017, available at: https://bit.ly/2TeGzUN.
 INIS, ‘Minister Flanagan and Minister of State Stanton announce new Family Reunification Scheme in support of refugees and their families under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme’, 14 November 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2A4u6Nh.