The context of the research 

Family migration has been the dominant legal mode of entry in most Europe countries in the last four decades (OECD, 2017). While European states have increasingly limited the legal entry of labour migrants - unless highly skilled - national governments can only partly restrict family migration without hindering fundamental civic and human rights of their own citizens (Kraler&Bonizzoni, 2010).

However, scholars have observed how the right to family life has become stratified according the several factors, such as socio-economic, legal status, and family type. The theory of civic stratification (Morris, 2003; Bloch, 2015; Schweitzer, 2015) has been widely used to account to the differential rights of nationals, EU citizens, and extra-EU migrants to reunify with their family members. Ordered along a hierarchy of membership, these subjects have to meet different economic, bureaucratic and legal requirements to reunite with their family members who are residing abroad. Within this hierarchy refugees are formally in a relative positive position.

Most European states in fact allow refugees to access a facilitated procedure to reunify with their family members. They normally do not have to provide documentation of sufficient income and housing arrangements to be with their close relatives. Many studies, however, high-light how issues of timing, documentation and economic resources often make family reunions extremely difficult, if not impossible (Groenendijk, et al., 2007). While legal and geographic borders keep families apart, scholars have increasingly analysed how care, parenthood and intimate relationships are transnationally enacted among separated families through ICTs, mobile phones and social media (Carling et al. 2012; Baldassar and Merla, 2013). These transitional relationships - the support they provide as well as the pressure they put on migrants - influence their daily lives, their feeling of belonging to the hosting country, as well as conventional definition of families (Grillo, 2008).The above debates have only partially addressed the specific implications of family reunification procedures for refugees and migrants protected on humanitarian grounds.

Why is this research important?

Within the current migration scenario, this issue is of great relevance. With the arrival of over 1 million asylum seekers in 2015, European countries are now increasingly receiving requests for family visas by beneficiaries of international protection and related statuses. The regulations and practices ruling their family reunification will impact not only on refugees’ wellbeing, but also on their long term integration and larger dynamics of social cohesion in national communities (Rousseau et al. 2001; Bonjour&Kraler, 2015).

Exiled and Separated aims to pave the way for a better understanding of the difficulties experienced by refugees who want to reunite with their families by building on the concept of structural ambivalence.

The main idea behind the project

The project builds on the idea that refugees’ position vis-à-vis family reunification policies in Europe is structurally different from other labour migrants. This research builds on the idea that refugees’ strategies of family reunification emerge in a context of structural ambivalence - defined as coexistence of contrasting expectations attached to the same social role (Merton, 1976). Whereas the asylum regime assumes that refugees have no contact with the institutions of their country of origin- as these are considered to be the persecuting actors - the visa requirements push them to contact their national embassies to provide the mandatory documentation, such as birth and marriage certificates, passports and criminal records. In other words, to enjoy the right to family reunion, refugees are often expected to be at the same time political discriminated outsiders and complying citizens of their home country (Belloni, 2019).

How will the project be conducted

The project entails multi-sited ethnographic research among Eritrean and Somali refugees living in Belgium, Italy and with refugee families awaiting their applications to be processed in transit countries (e.g. Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya). Interviews with visa officers, social workers and lawyers will be accompanied by participant observation in refugees’ everyday life in different sites. 

This multi-sited design will allow the researcher to grasp the complexity of transnational dynamics (intimate relationships as well as structural conditions) shaping the connections between refugees in Europe and their families waiting from afar.

Key references

Baldassar, L., & Merla, L. (Eds.). (2013). Transnational families, migration and the circulation of care: Understanding mobility and absence in family life. London: Routledge.

Belloni, M. (2019). Refugees and citizens: Understanding Eritrean refugees’ ambivalence towards homeland politics. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 60(1-2), 55-73.

Block, L. (2015). Regulating membership: explaining restriction and stratification of family migration in Europe. Journal of Family Issues, 36(11), 1433-1452.

Bonizzoni, P. (2015). Uneven Paths: Latin American Women Facing Italian Family Reunification Policies. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(12), 2001-2020.

Bonjour, S., & Kraler, A. (2015). Introduction: Family migration as an integration issue? Journal of Family Issues, 36(11), 1407-1432.

Carling, J., Menjívar, C., & Schmalzbauer, L. (2012). Central themes in the study of transnational parenthood. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38(2), 191-217.

Grillo, R. D. (Ed.). (2008). The family in question: Immigrant and ethnic minorities in multicultural Europe. Amsterdam University Press.

Groenendijk, C. A., Fernhout, R., van Dam, D. P. L. M., Oers, R. V., & Strik, M. H. A. (2007). The Family Reunification Directive in EU Member states. The first year of implementation.

Infantino, F. (2016). State-bound Visa Policies and Europeanized Practices. Comparing EU Visa Policy Implementation in Morocco. Journal of Borderlands Studies, 31(2), 171-186.

Kraler, A., & Bonizzoni, P. (2010). Gender, civic stratification and the right to family life. International Review of Sociology, 20(1), 181-187.

Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-level bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Merton, R. K. (1976). Sociological ambivalence and other essays. New York: MacMilliam.

Morris, L. (2003). Managing contradiction: civic stratification and migrants' rights. International migration review, 37(1), 74-100.

OECD (2017), International Migration Outlook 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Rousseau, C., Mekki-Berrada, A., & Moreau, S. (2001). Trauma and extended separation from family among Latin American and African refugees in Montreal. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 64(1), 40-59.

Schweitzer, R. (2015). A stratified right to family life? On the logic (s) and legitimacy of granting differential access to family reunification for third-country nationals living within the EU. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(13), 2130-2148.