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Invisible People: Integration support needs of refugee families reunified in Ireland

Invisible People: The Integration Support Needs of Refugee Families Reunified in Ireland

This research was commissioned by NASC and has received funding from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Grants Scheme as part of the Commission's statutory power to provide grants to promote human rights and
equality under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. 

Invisible people report KS image

Download full report here . 

Launch of research report ‘Invisible People: The Integration Support Needs of Refugee Families Reunified in Ireland’ The launch took place on 27th July 2020 via webinar featuring presentations from two of the report’s authors - Karen Smith and Muireann Ní Raghallaigh, as well as contributions from UNHCR Ireland and from refugees and family members with experience of the family reunification process.


Dr Karen Smith, Assistant Professor of Social Justice, UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice. Email: karen.m.smith@ucd.ie

Dr. Muireann Ní Raghallaigh, Assistant Professor of Social Work, UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice. Email: Muireann.NiRaghallaigh@ucd.ie 

Other Investigators

Dr Derina Johnson (Postdoctoral researcher)

Azad Izzeddin (Peer researcher)

Research Context

KarenSmith Image 2 Invisible people

The right to family reunification is a well established principle of human rights law and is one that has particular relevance to refugees and other beneficiaries of international protection (UNHCR, 2018). Statutory provision for refugee family reunification in Ireland is set out under Section 56 and Section 57 of the International Protection Act 2015. In addition, the Irish government has also provided for limited ‘complementary mechanisms’ for refugee family reunification through the Syrian Humanitarian Admissions Programme (SHAP) and the Humanitarian Admission Programme (IHAP).

Research Aims and Objectives

The aim of this study is to examine how the support needs of families reunified under refugee family reunification are being met in Ireland. Given the challenges for a small-scale study in capturing the range of issues associated with different categories of refugee sponsor and different reunification mechanisms the study primarily focuses on (1)
families reunified under the statutory mechanism for refugee family reunification and (2) in which the sponsor came to Ireland as an adult independently or as an unaccompanied minor (either independently or through a resettlement
programme). It is however likely that many of the issues identified in the study have broader relevance, given the lack of formal support programmes and consequent emphasis on the responsibility of sponsors for supporting family
members, which to varying degrees is common to all forms of refugee family reunification in Ireland.

Achieving the research aim involves four key objectives:
1. identifying the needs of families arriving under refugee family reunification,
2. exploring how these needs are being met by services in Ireland
3. highlighting good practice in the current provision of supports and services
4. identifying the limitations and gaps in the current provision of supports and services

Research Design

The methods utilised to collect data were semi-structured interviews and focus groups carried out with refugee sponsors, reunified family members and with a range of stakeholders working professionally in roles supporting refugees and reunified families.

  • 39 participants took part in the study.
    • 17 participants were of refugee background (11 refugee sponsors and 6 reunified family members);
    • 22 of the participants were stakeholders employed in roles relevant to refugee family reunification.

In order to capture a range of experience efforts were made to recruit a diverse group of participants in terms of
gender, country of origin, family relationships and current place of residence in Ireland. Participants of
refugee background were recruited either through gatekeepers employed in migrant NGOs or other
relevant roles or directly via social media: information about the study and an invitation to contact the
researchers was posted to a number of community pages for refugees in Ireland hosted on Facebook.
Stakeholders who took part were selected based on their experience in supporting reunified families and
recruited via the researchers’ professional networks.

Data was analysed thematically, guided by Braun & Clarke's (2006) approach to Thematic Analysis and with the assistance of the software programme NVivo12.

Findings: Main points

KarenSmith Image 3 Lady Invisible people

  • There are a number of key themes arising from the findings but among the most significant are the policy invisibility of reunified families and what Rousseau et al. (2004) refer to as “Western administrative violence”. Reunified refugee families are not specifically mentioned within Irish integration policy and no programmes of orientation and support exist for their benefit. This places a heavy burden on refugee sponsors – who may already be living in quite precarious circumstances – to assist family members in navigating the complex bureaucratic tasks involved in initially getting settled in Ireland.

  • The findings from interviews with those of refugee background and those working in support roles highlight the complexity and inflexibility of the governmental systems which must be dealt with: the expectation that interactions will generally be carried out through English, the lack of interpretation support and frequent insensitivity to the particular needs and circumstances of beneficiaries of international protection. From the outset of the process of applying for family reunification, individuals must conform to rigid timetables and with limited official guidance undertake what can often be an onerous and expensive process of proving entitlement.

  • Following a successful application there is limited support or guidance from government agencies either before or after reunification. Families arriving in Ireland are at high risk of housing deprivation or homelessness due to inflexibility in relation to provision for housing supports and the complete lack of a coordinated response to meeting needs.

  • Delays in accessing vital services such as social protection payments and medical cards exacerbate financial insecurity.

  • The resulting stresses – at a time when family members are adjusting to each other after what may have been a lengthy separation – are likely to negatively impact upon integration outcomes in the short-term at the very least. In addition, while friendships that are formed can provide important support, establishing social connections can be challenging, particularly within a very changed cultural context and when faced with a number of barriers, including racism and discrimination.

  • It is important to highlight positive aspects of the refugee family reunification regime in Ireland:the fact that beneficiaries of subsidiary protection have an entitlement to reunification is one of the most significant of these.

  • The provision of travel documents by the Irish government where necessary (and the waiving of the necessity fora visa in these cases) was also highlighted as a welcome recognition by the state of the challenges faced by refugee families.

  • It is important too to note that a number of the refugee sponsors and reunified family members who took part in the study were eager to express their gratitude for the refuge provided to them in Ireland and for the provision of social services in particular social protection and education.

  • It is clear, however, that inadequate access to certain social services– in particular housing and English language classes – is impacting on outcomes in relation to economic and social integration. For some of the participants who took part the biggest issue inhibiting integration was their concern about family members living in precarious situations elsewhere.

  • The narrow definition of the family under current Irish law means that for some of these reunification may not be possible. In this regard, the broader range of family members eligible for reunification under the complementary humanitarian admission programmes must be seen as another very positive aspect of the reunification regime in Ireland. Given the increasing rates of forced displacement and concomitant growth in the need for resettlement opportunities, there is a strong argument to be made for the establishment of a permanent complementary admissions mechanism.

Launch of research report ‘Invisible People: The Integration Support Needs of Refugee Families Reunified in Ireland’

 Future Research

  • This study captures the experiences of beneficiaries of family reunification at a particular point in time – there is a need for longitudinal research to be carried out to track experiences and outcomes over time.
  • Collection and/or collation of data for the purposes of monitoring integration outcomes must be carried out in way which facilitates assessment of outcomes for beneficiaries of international protection and family reunification.
  • There is a need for participatory research to be carried out with refugees and reunified families in order to ensure that their concerns are reflected in research and policy. This should be recognised in the development
    of state-funded research programmes.

Contact the UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice

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