The road to family reunification can be long and burdensome. Bureaucratic hurdles and restrictions mean that many refugees in Germany have been separated from their closest family members for years, diminishing their chances of integrating and connecting with their new surroundings.
When Awad said goodbye to his three-year-old son, he reassured him they would be together again in two months - six at the very most. It was Syria, late summer 2015 and the family had lost their home. The 44-year-old father of four would make the dangerous trip to Germany alone. Once there, he would apply for family reunification.
It has been two years since Awad, who now lives in Berlin, has seen his wife and children. His youngest daughter was two months old: almost small enough to fit into his two hands. Now she can walk and talk. “She only knows her father from a picture on a mobile phone,” he says. They speak on the phone every day, but Awad prefers to limit how often they turn on the camera. “It is easier with just voices,” he says. “Seeing their faces is difficult.”
The separation has been equally tough for his children. “The older daughters understand it is not my fault it has taken so long and that I came here to find a better life for us all,” says Awad. “But my son now calls me a liar. He won’t speak to me.”
Explaining why he couldn’t keep his promise is tough: the intricacies and logic of Germany’s asylum process remain opaque to many adults. Yet an end is in sight. After waiting seventeen months for a decision on his asylum application, Awad received refugee status earlier this year. This meant his wife and children were eligible to apply for family reunification. But not without further obstacles: His wife had to wait one year to get an appointment at the German Embassy in Beirut. In August, she finally got one and took the family’s documents across the border into Lebanon.
Prolonged family separation
Family separation is a painful reality for thousands of refugees in Germany. Many, like Awad, seeking reunification are powerless in the face of long bureaucratic delays they didn’t anticipate.
For others, the policy has shifted beneath their feet. Last year the right to family reunification was suspended for refugees given “subsidiary protection” - rather than full refugee status - until March 2018. In August, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière stated it could be extended further.
The suspension has drawn broad criticism. At a joint press conference last week in Berlin, human rights group Pro Asyl and Amnesty International Germany urgently called on the German government to reinstate the right to family reunification for those granted subsidiary protection, arguing the suspension was an infringement of human rights.
“In terms of limits to family protection I would say Germany is one of the stricter countries in Europe,” explains Minos Mouzourakis of the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “The use of subsidiary protection and entitlement to family reunification is one of the areas where we have an asylum lottery in Europe. It is different from country to country.”
Subsidiary protection rather than refugee status
“The number of those receiving subsidiary protection now supersedes those getting refugee status in Germany as far as Syrians are concerned,” added Mouzourakis. The numbers receiving subsidiary protection amongst Syrians jumped significantly from less than 1 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2016.
“In a way, Germany has sided with those countries in Europe where subsidiary protection is granted, not quite as a rule, but more frequently and systematically as a general practice. This means that the uneasy and controversial link between policy considerations of trying to keep numbers down and asylum decisions is becoming more clear.”
At the end of May this year there were 69,068 pending appeals in Germany against the awarding of subsidiary protection status, the vast majority made by Syrians.
Last year the International Organization for Migration (IOM) established five Family Assistance Programme offices in Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq to help the family members outside of Germany with the process of reunification. “Even before the suspension, people were frustrated because of the waiting times for an appointment,” explains Eric Schneider at IOM. “When we started we had waiting times of between 10 to 12 months and up to two years. And this has gone down now to less than two months in Turkey, about a year in Beirut and nine months in Erbil”.
The programmes have also worked to tackle misinformation. “Some people were being conned out of a lot of money by brokers who claimed they could facilitate family reunification,” explains Schneider. “It starts with people offering to fill in forms and then goes all the way to saying if family reunification doesn’t work, then I can put you in a boat.”
Impact on families
“For the families left behind, the separation can really affect their situation, especially if the person who left was the household's main earner,” says Megan Passey, a researcher on a report ("Separated Families: who stays, who goes and why?")conducted this year by REACH for the Mixed Migration Platform. “Sometimes it also means they have less access to aid. We saw examples of people being forced to move house or kids dropping out of school to start working." Among the people interviewed for the report that planned to reunite, none had expected or prepared for such a long separation.
“I have not encountered anyone who was forced to go against their will,” says Passey. “It was always done with the best interests of the individual and the family, and usually after a lot of research. Many people tried legal routes first - such as family reunification and resettlement - but resorted to irregular migration when these safe options seemed inaccessible. Nobody wanted to take unnecessary risks.”
Amnesty International Germany and Pro Asyl argued that family reunification is one of the legal and safe routes of migration that the German government and the other EU Member States should be supporting rather than restricting.
Pressure from home
At the BBZ refugee support center in Berlin, advisor Dorothea Lindenberg has seen first-hand the impact policies are having on families. “Some people, including children here on their own, experience so much pressure from their families back home,” explains Lindenberg. “They wait for years for family reunification but can’t change anything. Then when the strain is too much to bear, they break off contact. And this separation, in the end, destroys families.”
“In my opinion, the authorities also don’t do a good enough job of informing them about the process,” says Ahmad Shaaban, another advisor at BBZ. “Sometimes they can’t read the information because it is all in very difficult bureaucratic German, and sometimes the information they receive is out of date. They always have to research themselves and rely on advice centers."
Lindenberg has also witnessed how it hinders integration in Germany with many clients struggling to commit to a new life while worrying about their family: “They can’t focus in German class because they have so much on their mind,” says Lindenberg. “And then they suffer because they feel like a failure.”
Hindrance to integration
For Awad, after two years of having one foot in Berlin and another in Damascus, the toll of separation has been profound. “I missed a lot of moments and memories...it’s not easy to talk about,” says Awad. “I am crying every day.”
Even with reunion feasibly a few months away, the price of their new life has been high. “For the kids, Germany is like a dreamland. But being here without them has made it feel like a prison,” says Awad. “I wouldn’t have traveled if I knew how long it would take.”
What will become of the suspension of family reunification for those with subsidiary protection remains to be seen. Many clients tell the advisors at BBZ they feel stuck. “We hear one sentence from so many people,” says Lindenberg. “They say ‘I would rather die together with my family than to stay here alone’.”