How European Governments Keep Thousands of Refugee Families Separated

Ali al-Mardoud fled the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor with his eldest son in July 2015 because he was afraid that ISIS would hurt his family. His plan was to smuggle across sea and land borders into Europe, seek asylum with German authorities, get refugee protection status, and then request family reunification visas for his wife and three youngest children so they could come to Germany via a safe and legal migration route.

Ali’s plan was not far-fetched. Back then many thousands of people were making similar smuggling journeys to Europe. He chose Germany as his destination because he knew that the vast majority of Syrians that applied for asylum in Germany at the time were being granted refugee protection status, which entitled them to family reunification according to a German law and a European Union directive. “We knew that there are human rights [in Germany] and they will not allow families to be separated,” the 56-year-old Ali told me at a café in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district.

When he arrived in Germany, Ali thought he would reunite with his wife and children within maximum six months. But three and a half years have passed since then, and the al-Mardoud family is still living apart: the father and the eldest son share a room in a Berlin refugee accommodation facility, while Ali’s wife, two daughters and youngest son, who fled Syria for Turkey in August 2015, have been waiting in a small rented apartment in the Turkish city of Adana. Changes in the German asylum laws have so far prevented the family from reuniting in Germany.

“Trapped in a Bad Situation”

The family members communicate everyday via WhatsApp messages and video calls, though that sometimes leads to even more frustration and anxiety, according to Ali. He said the family separation is a source of tension between him and his wife, and that he’s spending most days worrying about what his three youngest children are doing.

“They are my responsibility and I should be caring for them, and it feels like I am trapped in a bad situation,” Ali said. He feels helpless, and he has no idea when his family will be together again. “It is very difficult for me to accept this situation,” he added.

Al-Mardoud’s “situation” is a result of a change of approach by the German government. This change began in March 2016 — seven months after Al-Mardoud arrived in Germany — when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government decided to freeze all family reunions of people with subsidiary protection. Then, on August 1 of 2018, a new family reunification law came into affect. According to this law, only 1000 family members of people with subsidiary protection* are permitted to come to Germany every month.

[*Subsidiary protection is a legal status granted to asylum applicants who came from unsafe countries but had not been directly persecuted there. Asylum applicants that prove a well-founded fear of being personally persecuted in their homeland are granted refugee protection.]

The new law does not apply to people with refugee protection, who continue to have family reunification rights, but it does impact thousands of people in Germany who have subsidiary protection, and most of these people are Syrians. There are 140,126 Syrians with subsidiary protection in Germany, according to the public data.

In the Middle East, there are between 50,000 and 60,000 Syrians that are eligible for reunification visas to Germany because of their family ties to people with subsidiary protection, according to estimates of the German Institute for Employment Research. In its consulates in countries neighbouring Syria, the German Foreign Ministry has already registered 28,000 reunion applications by family members of subsidiary protection. This includes the applications of the al-Mardoud family, who registered in the German consulate in Turkey last April.

Considering the amount of applications by family members of subsidiary protection holders and the fact that only 1000 family reunification visas are granted each month, Ali is not optimistic about reuniting his family anytime soon.

EU-Wide Trend of Restricting Family Reunions

Aside from Germany, the list of countries that restrict family reunions of people with subsidiary protection includes Austria, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Finland, Ireland and Malta. The book “Family Reunification: International, European and National Perspectives“ illustrates how in regards to family reunification, the European and national legal framework ”keeps being challenged, if not ignored” by EU Member States.

The book illustrates how EU Member States challenge — and sometimes ignore —EU laws on family reunification of refugees

The book’s co-editor Ralf Roßkopf, who is the President of the Scientific Advisory Board at the Association for the Study of the World Refugee Problem, told me in a phone interview that from a legal perspective there is no requirement in European Union secondary law to treat refugees and subsidiary protection holders the same. “From this perspective, it is legally sound to have more restrictive approach for subsidiary protected,” he said.

While treating people with subsidiary protection different than people with refugee protection is legal, the European Commission, which is the legislative body of the EU, has encouraged Member States “to adopt rules that grant similar rights to refugees and beneficiaries of temporary or subsidiary protection.” The Council of Europe (a human rights organisation) recommends Member States “urgently review and revise” laws and policies that discriminate between people with refugee protection and people with subsidiary protection. And the United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has also advocated for matching family reunification rights of subsidiary protection holders to those of people with refugee protection, stating that the former group’s need for protection is not fundamentally different than the latter’s.

Consequence of an Anti-Migration Climate

There is indeed a trend of European countries making it more difficult for subsidiary protection holders to reunify with family members, according to Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute. She explained that the European countries that have implemented restrictions on family reunion rights of subsidiary protection holders are the ones who saw a sharp increase in number of asylum applications. “In 2015 and 2016, a number of countries including Germany and Sweden were facing very real capacity issues on their ability to house people, to process asylum applications, to process family reunification applications,” Fratzke told me in a phone interview last summer. “Those very real capacity limitations did have an affect on the changes to things like family reunification rules.”

”I think in the current climate, where governments are very much afraid of what their public think about migration and are afraid of their public thinking that they don’t have control over migration, there is perhaps a reluctance to change the policies that they introduced in 2015 and 2016, even if the conditions that led to those policies being introduced in the first place are no longer there,” Fratzke added.

Syrian refugees hold a sign “Family Life for All!” as part of a demonstration for family reunification rights for all refugees, held in front of the German parliament in Berlin last summer (credit: Yermi Brenner)

There is a certain irony about governments placing restrictions on family reunification in order to appear tough on migration, according to Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a European network of non-governmental organisations. “Historically, it is shown that if people arrive in boats this creates a sense of panic in the public,” Woollard said. Her recommendation to European governments that want to properly control migration is to increase safe and legal channels for people in need of protection so that they are not forced to irregular ways of getting to Europe. “And family reunification is a key safe and legal way for people to arrive and seek protection,” she said.

Placing restrictions on family reunification of people with any kind of protection status is both inhumane and counter productive for the integration of those people, according Dr. Sergio Carrera, the Head of Justice and Home Affairs Program at the Centre for European Policy Studies and a Professor at the Migration Policy Centre. “The paradox is that on the one hand government call for refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries to integrate, but on the other hand they don’t offer them the tools to do so by restricting family unity,” Carrera said. “I mean, how can one integrate without her or his family?”

“These dilemmas need to be weighed very cautiously and very carefully,” he added. “And I think at the moment for political reasons, [European governments] are not doing that.”

Outside the German parliament in Berlin stands a glass wall on which the 19 basic laws of the German constitution are engraved, including Article 6, which stipulates that “the family shall enjoy the special protection of the state” (credit: Yermi Brenner)

“Torn Apart… Just Trying to Resist”

The integration efforts of Ali al-Mardoud have been hindered by the fact that he is separated from his wife and three youngest children. After three and a half years in Germany, Ali can only speak a few sentences in German, and even though he had plenty of managerial experience in Syria, in Berlin he cannot find a job. He said he lacks the motivation or concentration that are needed in order to create a new life in Germany. “In my head I am always thinking about my family… I just cannot focus,” al-Mardoud said.

He has already thought about giving up and leaving Germany. He twice applied for visa to Turkey, hoping to reunite his family there. But Turkish authorities have denied his applications. He thinks going back to Syria would be a big mistake. So for now, he is staying in Berlin.

“I am hoping that my patience will lead to something good,” Ali told me at the end of our conversation. “I feel the family is being torn apart and we are just trying to resist.”