AYS SPECIAL: The EU Family Reunification System is Broken, and it’s Tearing Families Apart

Philippa Metcalfe
Are You Syrious?
Published in
9 min readFeb 28, 2019


Family Reunion and Dublin lll

From 2013 to 2018, Greece processed 21,432 family reunification applications through Dublin III, a European regulation which dictates which EU member state is responsible for assessing an asylum seeker’s claim. A total of 15,146 of those applications were accepted by European member states, and at the end of 2018, a total of 12,102 people had been transferred out of Greece to be reunited with family members.

Under Dublin III, adult asylum seekers may generally reunite with spouses and underage children, whilst unaccompanied minors have the right to reunite with family members or relatives such as parents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, or grandparents.

The right to family reunification is integral to observing the right to family and private life set out under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Where children are concerned, the best interest of the child must also be taken as a ‘primary consideration’ — keeping in line with Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Unsurprisingly, ‘family unity’ is often of the utmost importance in observing a child’s best interests.

In theory, then, a strong body of international law exists to protect the family unit, and to ensure that families fleeing war and persecution are guaranteed the right to have their asylum claims assessed by the same member state, thus safeguarding against long-term separation. However, the reality in Europe is that Dublin III is not functioning as it should, and families are routinely denied their right to reside together throughout the asylum process and beyond. Hostile member states regularly either defy the law completely or interpret Dublin III disingenuously to the same effect.

We spoke to Saed*, a 19-year-old boy from Afghanistan, whose family’s fight to reunite is exemplary of the failures of a broken European asylum system. Where Saed’s family should have been protected by the laws concerning family reunification, they were instead torn apart.

Saed, who has been in Greece for three years, is soon to be left without his mother and sister, who will shortly be leaving to be reunited with his two brothers in Austria. Saed, however, must remain in Greece, where, due to his previously pending family reunification application, he will have to wait months or even years longer before he receives a decision on his asylum claim.

Saed will also be forced to leave the apartment that is currently provided by the UNHCR when his mother and sister depart, leaving him stranded in Greece, abandoned and homeless.

Saed’s Story

When we spoke with Saed about his story he seemed calm, laughing off the largest worries with an easy “no problem, no problem”. Yet his story shows how the fundamental failings of Europe’s family reunification system, coupled with Greece’s slow registration process and lack of access to quality legal support, can have tragic consequences.

Saed’s family arrived by sea in 2016, before the contentious EU-Turkey deal which effectively imprisoned thousands in ‘hotspots’ on the islands. Like thousands of others, they became trapped within Greek borders following the closure of the Balkan Route in 2016, thus becoming stuck in a country incapable of providing sufficient education, housing and support.

Photo Credit: Christos Tolis https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2017/7/5967468425/new-facility-refugees-greece-revives-abandoned-buildings.html?query=Christos%20Tolis

The family were not able to fully register until five months later, by which time they were living on the mainland. Following their initial registration, the family travelled to Thessaloniki, where they planned to travel overland to Germany. Unfortunately, however, they became separated en route, and only Saed’s two brothers, aged 21 and 13 at the time, made it across the border, continuing their journey and ending up in Austria. Left with few options, Saed, his mother, and 12-year-old sister returned to Athens, where they requested family reunification to Austria through Dublin lll.

Saed’s family were given little advice from the asylum office; an all too common story with family reunification claims. Asylum seekers are typically badly informed by asylum service officials, who often fail to disclose important time limits, deadlines, procedures and necessary documents to asylum seekers hoping to reunify with family members.

Saed was repeatedly told to be patient, to wait — a word you learn quickly when navigating the Greek asylum process, ‘ Περιμένετε’. Saed and his family sat tight, waiting and hoping for a positive decision that would allow them to continue their lives as a family, with a future and an education for Saed and his sister, basic rights they had not yet accessed in Greece. During this time, they lived first in a camp on the outskirts of Athens, later moving into City Plaza squat, and finally into their own apartment.

Saed remarks that his life was put on hold while they were waiting, always believing, after encouraging words from the lawyer they had obtained at an NGO in Athens, that a positive decision was likely and would mean the family would eventually be reunified. Unfortunately, their hopes were dashed.

“They told me at a very late point I couldn’t go; until that point, I was thinking it would work. So because of the fact I thought I was going to go, they were always saying ‘soon’ ‘soon’, I didn’t think to learn the language here, or anything else”

After a year and seven months of waiting, the decision arrived. Initially the lawyer called and told Saed’s mother that the claim had been accepted, that they would all be travelling to Austria. However, one week later the family received another call. It seemed Pireaus, the family’s asylum office in Athens, had been mistaken. Saed’s mother and sister had been accepted but not Saed, despite the fact they had made their application together, despite the fact Saed had been 16 when he arrived in Greece and 17 when they requested reunification, despite the fact that this decision would effectively ostracise Saed from his family.

“So they would say, be patient, wait, at one point they said you can go, but then they called me a week later and said there was a mistake … I was very happy when I heard I could go, and then they said no and now I just don’t know what to do. I appealed the decision, but it had no effect. I became concerned because I was over aged, I spoke with the lawyer and they said don’t worry you can still go etc, but it turned out not to be the case. He said wait further, wait further but…”

It became clear that the decision on Saed’s claim was due to the fact he had turned 18 during the process, meaning he was no longer a minor and therefore not legally eligible for reunification under Dublin. The appeal was unsuccessful, rejected by the Austrian authorities, and now the application has timed out and can no longer be legally challenged. The reunification decision process took more than a year longer than it should have done. If it had been done within the legal time frame, Saed would have not yet turned 18. Therefore, he would most likely be waiting, like his mother and sister, to be transferred to meet his brothers in Austria. This failure of Austrian bureaucracy has cost Saed everything. When asked how he and his mother had reacted when it became clear their family was to be torn apart he explained the deep pain it had caused.

“For a week I was destroyed, and my mother as well. And now I am going about trying to find a way to get there.”

Saed is not alone in his pain. The phenomenon of reaching eighteen during an ongoing family reunification claim is referred to as ‘aging out,’ and it affects large numbers of young people in Europe every year. The European council on Refugees and Exiles writes that

“The possibility of a child ageing out during the asylum procedure and/or before he or she had the chance to enjoy the special, child-specific guarantees for family reunification is not an uncommon phenomenon. The high number of unaccompanied children applying for asylum in the EU, the majority of whom are aged between 16 and 17 years old, combined with often lengthy asylum determination and family reunification procedures, makes ageing out more than a technicality for thousands of unaccompanied children.”

Indeed, in 2017, the year Saed applied for family reunification, 63,300 minors applied for asylum in the EU, out of which 69% were aged between 16 and 17, which demonstrates the huge risk of ‘ageing out.’

On paper, Dublin III protects against this, ensuring that long waiting times should not affect a child’s chance of family unity. Article 7(2) of Dublin III states that the responsible member state “shall be determined on the basis of the situation obtaining when the applicant first lodged his or her application for international protection”. Meaning that it is the age at the time an asylum seeker applies for international protection that should be taken into account, and not the age at the time of a decision reached. However, ‘there is a lack of uniform practice at the national level with regard to the decisive date on which an applicant’s age is determined for the purposes of applying the Dublin III Regulation.’

Austria, in fact, is particularly hostile when it comes to deciding the date on which age counts for a family reunification claim. In direct opposition to Dublin III ‘in Austria, the Supreme Administrative Court has found repeatedly that authorities should consider as decisive the child’s age at the time of the decision on the request for family reunification.’ However, it is also stated that authorities must decide on family reunification cases within six months, meaning that Saed’s application should still have been admissible.

Saed does not know what will happen to him when his mother leaves, only that he cannot stay in his apartment. He does not know where he should go, but thinks perhaps it will mean returning to a camp. He exclaims that the process, which has now been dragged out for over 2 years, has left him with no trust in either the law or the asylum service. He does not want further support from the lawyer, believing it to be pointless — a sentiment which, after hearing his experience, is easy to understand.

“I don’t even trust their help anymore because it’s proven useless”

When we asked Saed what his plan was he replied that he believed he only had one real option — “the smuggling route, it’s the only way”. This route has proven deadly to many, and violent pushbacks from Croatia to Bosnia are regular. Conditions in Bosnia have also been denounced as inhumane, with residents of the IOM run camp Miral describing conditions as a “living hell”, where residents never feel safe, and have been targets of violence by armed police inside the camp.

As our conversation draws to an end, we ask Saed if he blames Austria for the long wait which meant he ended up with a negative decision. His response was upsetting to hear. He blamed himself. He was kicking himself for deciding to ever have trust in the system, wishing he had travelled to Austria via other means before he had turned 18.

“If I had gone sooner, when I was under age, it would’ve been much better. But I decided myself to wait for the sake of my mother and sister and now this is where we are”

As it is, Saed now faces an uncertain future. If he chooses to stay in Greece, it will likely be years before he sees his family again, and he may never have the right to live, work, or study in the same European country as them. If he chooses to leave Greece illegally, he faces a dangerous journey and the possibility of deportation back to Greece. Saed’s family have been unlawfully split by a brutal European asylum system, yet is it unlikely they will see justice. Unfortunately, this story is not unusual.

The myriad of ways in which separated families are failed by the European asylum system warrants further research and exposure, as the ‘ageing out’ phenomenon is one of the many ways member states flout international law. Indeed, there are many stories as heart-wrenching as Saed’s that could be told.

  • All names have been changed to maintain anonymity

(By AYS Info Team Volunteer)

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