Growing backlog in family reunification cases

The Finnish Immigration Service has not yet hired a single new employee to process applications for family reunification, even though around 12,000 applications are expected this year, 3,000 more than in 2015. The process has become bogged down, not only for resident refugees seeking to have family members join them in Finland, but also for family members of Finnish citizens.

A photo from "Anne's" wedding album. Image: "Annen" kotialbumista.

It has been over six months since the wedding. The happy couple was married in a civil ceremony in the morning and later the same day had their union blessed in a church. It was then time to celebrate the marriage of Anne (name changed to preserve anonymity) and her new husband.

"The music was both African and Finnish and the food was African. Dress for the civil ceremony was African, but traditional Western for the church service. We changed in between the two, recalls Anne and shows a photo of herself in a white wedding dress.

It started raining. The wedding guests, who included Anne's mother and a few of her relatives, took cover indoors. The moment marked the start of the rainy season.

From "Anne's" wedding album. Image: "Annen" kotialbumista.

Now Anne sits in her flat in Finland and lightly touches a stuffed toy that came in her maternity package. She takes out a woolen wrap she bought for her baby who will be born in a couple of months.

Her husband is still in Africa waiting for his application to be processed so that he can join his wife and coming child.

It was agreed that after the wedding Anne would continue working at her job in Helsinki and her husband would follow. When Anne found out last spring that she was pregnant, they were both thrilled and they also thought that having a baby on the way might speed up a decision on the father's residence application.

This was not the case.

It was the start of a mass of red tape: Forms, documents, stamps, waiting, interviews, phone calls, proof of pregnancy, requests to expedite, passport photocopies, wedding certificates, follow-up calls, stress, worry, fear, uncertainty and expense.

Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

To start, it took two months to formally register the marriage and because of bureaucracy it took four months for Anne's husband to be interviewed at the Finnish Embassy in Nigeria.

Anne also had to fill out page after page of forms aimed at convincing officials of the legitimacy of the marriage.

"I had to be very specific about writing where we live, with whom, whether there are children, how we became acquainted. They also asked what language we use to communicate, how we met, who proposed that we get married, whether we dated before getting married and if we've lived together."

Anne explained that the couple had met through friends and afterwards they were in daily contact for months and wrote hundreds of pages of mail to one another. They met six months before wedding. It is noted in the application that they lived together after getting married.

Once her husband's application had been formally registered in late June, the wait began anew. Anne phoned the Immigration Service a few times to ask about how it was progressing.

"The last time I phoned at the end of August, they estimated that processing could take another two months and getting the residence permit could take another few weeks."

Several officials have told her that by law the processing time may take up to nine months.

"Depending on the official, I've got different information about processing times. Some of them have been rather rude. On the other hand, some have reacted more warmly and one predicted that processing the application could take two to three months because that's been the average up until now."

Early on, one official told Anne that her husband's documents were being fast-tracked by the embassy in Nigeria. It later turned out that there is no system for fast-tracking applications.

Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

Anne has tried to speed things up on the basis of her pregnancy, but was told it is not sufficient cause to get faster processing.

"According to the Immigration Service, we don't have any good reason to expedite the application. We've been told that pregnancy is not a reason."

The Immigration Service says that it has now started processing family reunification applications that were filed over the summer. It could be that Anne's husband's application will soon be on an official's desk.

Or possibly not.

Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

The backlog of applications still even includes some filed last year.

The larger volume is mainly made up of applications for the children and spouses of people who have been granted asylum in Finland. This also has meant that the time it takes between application and a decision has become longer, for all applicants.

Immigration Service Senior Adviser Leena Turku told Yle that it is a now struggle to stay within the nine-month processing period set by law and that many applications on file are pushing that nine-month limit.

However, no new staff has been hired to deal with them.

The Immigration Service plans to partly fund hiring with the fees from applications. More applications mean more money, but also more work.

It is not unlikely that Anne's baby will be close to six months old before her husband's application is processed, even if the Service can stick to the law, something that in the present situation is not certain.

Anne says she's getting increasingly nervous and will have to get herself ready to have her baby alone, and to maybe start raising the child on her own for a while, at least.