Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex
In my house there’s a remarkable young man about to turn 18. He’s likely to leave home soon, followed by his sisters in the years to come. For parents of teenagers, it’s always later than you think, and time is forever slipping through your fingers. But imagine what it’s like for parents who can never live with their children, due to the arbitrary viciousness of immigration law. A first step unseen. A first word unheard. A school play unwitnessed. And even if the immigrant parent moves heaven and earth to comply with the conditions for family reunion in immigration law, it’s possible that just as the children might be able to join their parents, time runs out for their application because they come of age – leaving only the unbearable emptiness of a nest that was never full.
Family reunion for non-EU families in the EU is governed by the EU’s family reunion Directive, which provides for admission of children who are not at the age of majority. But what if an application is made before the child reaches that age, but is decided later?
Two years back, the Court of Justice decided such a case as regards an unaccompanied minor with refugee status, who turned 18 just after applying for asylum: the A and S judgment, discussed here. The Court ruled that as long as an asylum seeker applied for asylum before turning 18, the special rules in the Directive which provide for obligations to admit the parents of unaccompanied minor refugees still apply (assuming, of course, that refugee status was granted). However, that left open the question of what approach to take to other family reunion applications, where there is no such special rule, and in any event the date of an application for asylum would be irrelevant. (While the Directive does apply to refugee parents, it doesn’t logically follow from A and S that the date of their application for asylum should be decisive).
The recent judgment in BMM has addressed this issue – taking a humane approach to the issue of what happens when a child comes of age during the application process.
The basic EU rules on family reunion
The EU’s family reunion Directive sets minimum standards, so states can be more generous if they wish. It mainly concerns reunion of spouses and minor children with a non-EU sponsor; admission of further family members is optional in most cases. It does not apply to the UK, Ireland and Denmark. However, it will apply to family reunion of UK citizens in the EU (besides those living in Ireland and Denmark) after the post-Brexit transition period, when the UK is no longer covered by EU free movement law, unless (a) they are covered by the withdrawal agreement, if the sponsor moved before the end of the transition period (see discussion here), or (b) EU free movement law still applies, because the UK citizen is a family member of an EU citizen who has moved between Member States; or (c) national law only applies, because the UK citizen is a family member of an EU citizen who has not moved between Member States (a French citizen in France, for instance).
The standard rules in the Directive require that: the sponsor has a residence permit valid for at least one year, and has “reasonable prospects” of obtaining permanent residence; the family members must reside outside the territory when the application is made (although Member States can derogate from that rule); “public policy, public security or public health” are grounds for rejection; conditions relating to accommodation, sickness insurance and “stable and regular resources” may be imposed; Member States may require “integration measures”; and there can be a waiting period of two years of lawful stay of the sponsor before family reunion takes place.
There are also exclusions from the scope of the Directive. It does not apply at all to: asylum seekers; persons with temporary protection; persons with subsidiary protection on the basis of national or international law; and, as noted above, family members of EU citizens (whether they have moved within the EU or not). Implicitly it does not apply to irregular migrants, since by definition they do not have a residence permit with the prospect of long-term residence, until and unless Member States decide to regularise their status. Member States can choose to extend the Directive to those categories of persons (except those covered by free movement law) if they wish.
Member States can set lower standards than the Directive, where it allows for such derogations, although this is subject to detailed conditions. These derogations exist as regards: children over 12, who arrive separately from the rest of the family; minimum ages for the sponsor or spouse; children over 15; and a waiting period of three years.
The Court of Justice has ruled on the Directive several other times, as regards: its validity in light of human rights concerns (EP v Council); its application to dual EU/non-EU citizens (O and S); the sufficient resources condition (Chakroun and Khachab); the minimum age of spouses (Noorzia, discussed here); integration conditions (K and A, discussed here, and K); the application of the Directive by analogy to family reunion with “home State” EU citizens (C and A) and persons with subsidiary protection (K and B, discussed here); loss of a residence permit due to fraud which the family member was unaware of (YZ and others); documentation in refugee cases (E); the public policy exception (GS and VG); the definition of dependent family members of refugees (TB); and the consequences of a late decision by the administration (X).
As well as the special rules for refugee family reunion set out in the original Directive, subsequent EU legislation contains more favourable rules for the family reunion of other groups of non-EU citizens: holders of an EU Blue Card for highly-skilled workers (discussed here); intra-corporate transferees (discussed here); and researchers (discussed here). The proposal to amend the Blue Card law (discussed here) would enhance these rules further.
The sponsor in the MBB case is a citizen of Guinea with refugee status – although the case concerns the general rules in the Directive, rather than the special rules on applications by refugees. Applications for family reunion with the sponsor’s three children were rejected, and the sponsor challenged those rejections in court. The first instance court refused to consider the legal challenges, on the grounds that the children were now grown up. On appeal, the appellate court decided to ask the CJEU questions about the interpretation of EU law in the circumstances, given the differences between the position of unaccompanied minor refugees in the AS case and the general rules in the Directive.
According to the CJEU, while the Directive left it to Member States to determine the age of majority as regards the general rules on applications (it’s set at 18 where the applicant is an unaccompanied minor refugee), it does not refer to national law as regards when to determine when that condition is satisfied. Member States should not have any discretion on the latter point, because EU law should have a uniform interpretation when it does not refer to national law, taking account of the context and objective of the legislation. The objective of this law is ‘to promote family reunification’, and it respects fundamental rights, including the right to family life and the rights of the child (to maintain a relationship with parents) in the EU Charter of Rights. So the Directive ‘must be interpreted and applied in the light of’ the Charter, including the best interests of the child.
If applications ‘timed out’ once a child became an adult, national authorities and courts might be tempted to run down the clock, ‘and could thus act in a way which would jeopardise the very rights of those minors to family reunification’, following the A and S judgment. Indeed, in this case, it took three years and nine months for the first instance court to rule; and ‘such processing times do not appear to be exceptional in Belgium’: the Belgian Government admitted that the average court waiting time is three years, and this case ‘had not been regarded as a priority by that court’ despite the ages of the children concerned. So using the date of the administrative decision would not be in accordance with the best interests of the child. Nor would applicants be treated equally, since the success of their application would be determined by how fast the administration or court decided the application.
Next, the Court ruled on a remedies point. Did the right to bring a legal challenge to a rejection, interpreted in light of the right to an effective remedy in the Charter, mean that a national court cannot simply dismiss a claim as inadmissible purely because a child ‘has reached majority in the course of the court proceedings’?
The Court ruled this out. In its view, the child still had an interest in proceedings, since the application had to take account of the age of the child at the time when the application was made. While there was no time limit for the court to give its ruling, and Member States have ‘some discretion’ as regards rules on legal challenges to rejections of an application for family reunion, Member States are still required to comply with the Charter right to an effective remedy before a tribunal. This meant that legal challenges must be ‘effective and real’. Therefore they ‘cannot be dismissed as inadmissible solely on the ground that the child concerned has reached majority in the course of the court proceedings’.
Both the substantive and procedural elements of the Court’s judgment give strong protection to family life. Its unqualified ruling that the age of the child when the application is made is decisive will guarantee that parents of teenagers cannot lose the right to family reunion purely because of national administrative or judicial tardiness. This compensates somewhat for the Court’s own decision in X, which failed to provide for an effective remedy (the automatic grant of a residence permit) in the event of a late decision on a family reunion application by the administration.
On that point, the Court’s insistence on effective remedies in the context of this Directive is relevant above and beyond the issue of timing out applications by children. The confirmation that the Charter applies to effective remedies in the context of family reunion is not surprising in light of other recent judgments (on asylum law and on visa applications, for instance), but it is always useful to put to rest any doubt on the issue. This principle has general application – so, for instance, strict time limits, or limitations on the scope of judicial review or the remedies which courts can order, could be challenged as a violation of the Charter, in any family reunion case within the scope of the Directive, not just those involving children. Again, the Court has reaffirmed its interpretation of EU law based on a rights-based reasoning, rather than the control-based approach taken by many Member States and the EU institutions during the supposed “migration crisis”.
More broadly, the Court’s reaffirmation of the importance of the rights of the child when interpreting the legislation could be relevant to interpreting other aspects of the family reunion law, as well as many other EU immigration and asylum laws: for instance, the returns Directive, the asylum procedures Directive, the reception conditions Directive, and the Dublin rules on responsibility for asylum seekers. (Note that conversely, EU criminal law legislation on child suspects’ rights – discussed here – does explicitly address this issue, setting out rules on this point similar to the Court’s family reunion judgments in its Article 2(3)).
Barnard & Peers: chapter 26
JHA law: chapter I:5, I:6
Photo credit: Ackah law