Family reunification and refugees

At least since 2015, most discussions about immigration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe have focused on refugees. While most serious participants in this discussion agreed that among the roughly 1 million people who successfully made it to Europe in 2015, both acute survivors of warfare and people searching for better economic prospects could be found. Much of the political discussion that followed – about what, if anything, European countries and the EU could and should do about the situation – was backed up by competing claims as to the actual mix of people fleeing, respectively, bombardments in Syria, political violence in Eritrea and Afghanistan, and economic hardship and deprivation experienced by large segments of the population in a number of (primarily African) low-income countries.

However, by looking at numbers from Statistics Denmark on both applications for refugee status and the numbers of applications accepted, as well as for family reunification, it becomes clear that to understand migrant inflows, we need to look not only at the number of refugees arriving, but at family reunification as well.

Like most other Western European countries, Denmark has introduced a number of restrictions on immigration since the late 1990s. Family reunification is mostly limited to spouses over the age of 24 (ostensibly to avoid arranged marriages, but possibly also to make Denmark a less attractive destination for couples who marry young, a trait that often corresponds with low levels of education), as well as to children under the age of 15. It is not, however, limited to citizens, and thus refugees can apply for family reunification as well.

Yet, as can be seen from the figure below, there were more people arriving by family reunification than by successfully obtaining refugee status in every year from 2011-2016.

Moreover, applications for refugee status and for family reunification follow each other closely. In fact, applications for refugee status correlate with applications for family reunification at 0.97 over the years in question, while numbers of accepted refugees and accepted family reunifications correlate at 0.99, that is, an almost perfect correlation between the two phenomena.

Refugees and family reunification in Denmark, 2011-2016


(Despite reports that the deal between the EU and Turkey to contain the flow of refugees was breaking down, it can also clearly be seen that both numbers were far lower in 2016 than even 2014, a year before the ‘European Migrant Crisis’ is normally said to have taken place.)

Obviously not only refugees may and do apply for family reunification. Ethnic Danes marrying abroad as well as members of older groups of immigrants could significantly contribute to the statistics. The former would often include native Danish men and Thai or Filipino women, while the latter would pertain to men of Turkish, Pakistani, and Moroccan origin with women from those same countries.

As another preliminary control for that – besides the very strong correlations over time of the two phenomena over time – we can add the national breakdown of applicants for family reunification in 2015 and 2016, respectively:

National origin of applicants for family reunification

As can be seen, Syrians, Eritreans and stateless Palestinians make up the three largest groups of applicants for family reunification in 2015, despite being quite small minorities in Denmark before 2015. They were, however, three of the five biggest groups of asylum seekers that year.  Furthermore, it can be seen that the numbers for the non-refugee related groups, such as those of Thai, Filipino and Turkish origin, are quite stable even as the refugee-related numbers sharply drop from 2015 to 2016.

All in all, this points to a strong connection between asylum seekers and family reunification and understanding the two as closely related; many refugees arrive hoping to bring at least one family member. Given the high correlation, policy-makers can use refugee numbers as a very strong predictor of family reunification – depending, of course, the country’s laws on the area.