Migration is a natural behavior that has saved and improved the lives of countless millions of individuals and their families since time immemorial. New currents of human migration, triggered by persecution, conflict, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, economic need, climate change, natural disasters, and other adversities, are appearing all the time, and immigration has become one of our time’s most contested issues.
While many people migrate out of choice, many others migrate out of need. Of the 258 million migrants worldwide, representing 3.4% of the global population, some 70.8 million children, women, and men were forcibly displaced in 2018 due to persecution, conﬂict, violence, or human rights violations, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in its yearly Global Trends report. This was the highest number in the agency’s 69-year history. Indeed, every minute in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee, the agency said.
Some 25 million people are also displaced by the climate change crisis, with the World Bank estimating the number from Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia alone to skyrocket to 143 million by 2050.
The U.N. Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration importantly reaffirms that migrants have an inherent natural and legal entitlement to enjoy human rights, regardless of their immigration status. Among those liberties is the right to family life, with its integral right to family unity.
Seventy years before the Compact was endorsed by the General Assembly, the deliberative and policymaking organ’s landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his . . . family. . . . Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
The international community has accepted the human rights obligations under the Compact and Declaration, but with current governmental concerns about migration control — as part of a global trend of ethnonationalism, nativism, identity politics, euroscepticism, and other neoliberal rejections — it is no surprise that safeguarding the right to family life, family unity, and family reunification is fraught with obstacles. Many countries have established restrictive interpretations of their obligations to protect the families of immigrants and refugees alike.
While the Athena Network — a global nongovernmental organization providing psychological and psychosocial support for immigrants, especially those living in extreme situations — recognizes the challenges States face in balancing their migrational concerns with their humanitarian obligations, we also attest that protecting, upholding, accounting for, and vindicating human rights require compassion inherent in justice and empathy essential to the rule of law.
For this reason, the Network advocates for the position that societies and governments have a moral and normative duty to demonstrate through laws and practice that family unity is an inviolable right of refugees and immigrants.
The family is universally recognized as a central societal unit — a unit fundamentally entitled in all cultures and traditions to protection and assistance from both the State and civil society. The right to family unity as inherent to this central societal unit is also universally recognized, including in many national legal instruments.
Family life is the best way to achieve emotional and psychosocial stability and the best investment in the prevention of violence, social exclusion, and mental disorders. At its best, family life offers love without condition, predictability, structure, physical and emotional safety, and encouragement as members of the family mature. The bond is instinctual, often starting at birth, and establishes the basis for an ongoing mutual attachment.
In most societies, families also help children acquire socialization for life outside the family. Additionally, as the central unit for meeting basic needs of its members, a family provides food, shelter, and clothing; develops a person into a functional adult; and transmits culture. The family also provides other culturally beneficial functions, including the development of an understanding of boundaries and such humanitarian activities as caring for others when they are sick or disabled. The very act of living together as a family generates warmth and companionship, both among caregivers and between caregivers and those they care for, including those too young or too old to care for themselves. On the social side, the family serves to promote order and stability within society as a whole and ensures the continuity of humankind with precedents of knowledge.
The protection and assistance of family life apply to all human beings, regardless of their refugee, immigrant, residency, or citizenship status.
The trauma and deprivation of persecution and flight among refugees and immigrants make family support particularly critical. Refugees and immigrants repeatedly demonstrate remarkable powers of resilience in adversity, but if a migrant has no family support, he or she must, by necessity, rely more heavily on external providers of assistance and protection, placing burdens on governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations. The efforts of refugee families to care for themselves without assistance from others multiply the efforts of external actors, as recognized by UNHCR’s executive committee in calling for programs to promote the self-sufficiency of adult refugee family members “to enhance their capacity to support dependent family members.”
By contrast, the rupture of a family generates enormous alterations and imbalances in all family members. Just considering children, separating them from their parents or guardians places tremendous, prolonged psychological stress on them. It also compounds the harm caused by other migration adversities and denies them vital emotional support at a hugely vulnerable moment, often leading to clinically significant anxiety, depression, traumatic stress, and other psychological disorders. It has also been shown to lead to lifelong negative health consequences.
The Athena Network considers family separation and the growing mandatory detention of “unauthorized arrival” refugees and immigrants to be a strong example of a growing dehumanization in governmental approaches to migration challenges. Rather than seeing refugees and migrants as people worthy of the dignity and worth inherent to be a human person, governments increasingly evaluate refugees and migrants by economic, demographic, and other statistical and structuralist measures. Everybody has a right to live with dignity. Living with dignity is one of the basic rights of life.
The Network maintains that children separated from their families have been needlessly traumatized and must be reunited with their parents or other family members as quickly as practicable to minimize long-term harm to their mental and physical health. They should be surrounded by support and resources, including counseling and restored security. Separating families is an unacceptable policy to counter unlawful immigration.
Recognizing the inalienable rights of migrants to the integrity of the family is both a legal right and a humanitarian principle.
Many displaced families currently seek to escape, among other places:
For these and all other migrants and refugees, the integrity of the family is both a legal right and a humanitarian principle. It is also an essential framework of protection and a key to the success of durable solutions that can restore migrants’ lives to something approximating normalcy.
The Athena Network invites members of governments, NGOs, and other societal influencers to experience ourselves as members of the human family and to imagine how we would treat others if we really thought that we were exactly that: members of the same family. Such a realization would be a Magna Carta for humanity.
Joseba Achotegui, M.D., Ph.D.Founder Athena Network
María Elena Ferrer-HarringtonChairAthena Network New York