An African family of a teenage boy and three young girls are in accommodation that resembles a tent. Two girls that might be twins are sitting one of each knee of the boy and the third girl is sitting next to them. They are all smiling at the camera.
At the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Bor in South Sudan, Bhang Wan, 15, (in blue) and his younger siblings are preparing to travel to the Ethiopian border to reunite with their mother who they haven’t seen in two years.

Family reunification

As we noted in the previous course steps, children and young people leave alternative care for different reasons. One reason is family reunification - whether back in a child’s own country, while in a country of transit, or in a country of final destination.

Related topics of family tracing, return to country of origin, and durable solutions, are important but complex. Although we have not included these topics in any detail in this MOOC, if you would like to read more about them please look at the materials in the ‘See Also’ section below.

Family tracing and reunification needs considerable investment of time and resources that allow us to carry out the process in a careful and sensitive manner. This is important as we must take every precaution possible to make sure we are not sending children into a potentially risky situation. Any decision must take into consideration the child’s best interests. Most importantly, we must not forget that all preparations and plans for family reunification must encompass the meaningful participation of children.

Reunification with parents or a legal/customary caregiver might include situations when a child:

  • Who was on the move with parents or legal/customary caregivers, but separated for protection reasons, are reunited if the original concerns have been addressed
  • Is able – and willing - to return to their country
  • Is reunified with parents or other legal/customary caregivers who, for example, are also on the move, or found in refugee camps. You will be able to see an example of this in the next course step
  • Is travelling for the specific purpose of being reunified with their parents already living in another country

Guidance on family reunification

The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children provide recommendations regarding family reunification. This includes efforts to facilitate ‘regular communication between the child and their family, except where this is against the child’s wishes or is demonstrably not in their best interests.’

The UN Guidelines also urge us not to return an unaccompanied or separated child to their country of origin for purposes of family reunification:

  • Unless a caregiver - such as parent, other legal/customary caregiver, or agency authorised by the Government in their country - has agreed and is able to take responsibility for the child and provide them with appropriate care and protection
  • If, following an assessment, there are reasons to believe the child’s safety and security would be in danger
  • If, for other reasons, it is not in the best interests of the child, according to the assessment of competent authorities
  • If there is no verification of the relationships and, the willingness of the child and the family to be reunited

The UN Guidelines also recommend that no action should be taken that may hinder eventual family reunification - such as adoption, or change of name or movement to places far from the family’s likely location - until all efforts to trace and reunify a child with their family have been exhausted.

To help think through steps to assist a child returning to their family, please also take a look at the ‘Guidelines on Children’s Reintegration’. This guidance has been produced by an inter-agency group and is now widely accepted within the international alternative care community. It is available in six languages including English, Arabic, Spanish, and French. Although the guidance has primarily focused on children placed in care in their own counties, the principles and practical guidance can also be relevant for unaccompanied and separated children leaving care. This includes:

  • Undertaking assessments to establish whether reunification is possible and in a child’s best interests
  • Ensuring any root causes that may have put a child at risk and led to original separation have been/are being addressed. For example, you may remember in Week 1 of the course we considered some of the protection concerns that lead to children leaving home
  • Taking the time necessary to facilitate careful preparation of children, their families, and their community
  • Facilitating initial contact between a child and their family with all necessary supervision and support
  • Continuing with support for the reunification process until the correct time a child is able to live full time with their family
  • Providing follow-up support and monitoring if a child returns to their family. This should continue until it is considered possible to end such support. It will require coordination and cooperation between different service providers. If the care leaver is returning to their family back to their home country, this will also require coordination between professionals in the countries the care leaver is moving from and to. On this matter, please remember our consideration of inter-country cooperation that we discussed in course step 3.13.

When family reunification is not possible

Unfortunately, even after intensive work, it might never be possible, or in the unaccompanied or separated child’s best interests, to be reunified with their family of legal/customary caregiver. Parents may have been killed or cannot be located in the country of origin. Perhaps the family has travelled to another country but the care leaver is unable to ever join them in that country. In such cases, the UN Guidelines recommend we find a permanent placement for the child with a new family - as for example, through adoption or kafala. However, the UN Guidelines urge States to ensure all ‘efforts to determine the location of his/her parents, extended family, or habitual carers have been exhausted’ before these steps are taken.

In the next course step you will be able to watch a short film providing an example of family reunification. This particular example takes place in refugee camps in the north of Ethiopia.

For more information please look at the materials in the ‘See Also’ section below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

University of Strathclyde