How European Governments Keep Thousands of Refugee Families Separated

Yermi Brenner
7 min readMar 6, 2019

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…

Yermi Brenner

Articles, personal essays, and data-driven analysis on how emigration, immigration, and displacement are impacting societies and individuals.