Thursday 13, June 2013
BUDAPEST, 13 June (UNHCR) – At the end of his shift, Biruk Nahom* says farewell to his Hungarian colleagues with a warm smile that belies the pain he carries with him.
“Life is nothing without having my family here,” says the 45-year-old, who left his wife and daughter in Ethiopia when he came to Hungary almost seven years ago, initially just for a short time to study. Soon afterwards, he fell foul of authorities in his home country for his links to opposition parties and applied for asylum.
Now Nahom works full-time for a cable television company on the outskirts of Budapest, packing equipment for delivery; he sends whatever money he can back to the family he misses so much.
The Ethiopian man started working and paying taxes in Hungary not long after he received his refugee status in 2006. Ever since, he’s been trying to bring his wife and now 12-year-old-daughter to join him. So far, his efforts have been in vain.
For Nahom, the years of failed attempts to reunite with his family have taken an emotional toll on him. Tears swell in his eyes when he thinks of his family “Waiting is very hard for all of us. But my wife is a strong-willed woman – few women would wait seven years to their man,” says the husband in a soft voice.
Nahom says that within the first six months of him receiving refugee status his family sent by post their first application for family reunification from Ethiopia to the Hungarian consulate in Kenya. The application seems never to have reached its destination. Meanwhile, the six month period for filing refugee family reunion applications under more favourable conditions passed.
This period is crucial for refugees because they are not obliged to prove that they can provide for their families during this time.
Once six months from the date of a positive refugee decision have passed, refugees who want to bring their families to Hungary must prove that they can cover their families’ health insurance, accommodation and other living costs – a difficult task for those still finding their feet in a new country.
Nahom’s family filed for a new application that now had to comply with these different rules.
In their determination to reunite, his wife and daughter moved to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the closest place to Ethiopia with a Hungarian consulate. This way, the family could adhere to Hungarian law by personally filing a request for reunification at the Hungarian consulate or embassy in their country of residence.
Because Hungary, generally, has no official representation in countries affected by conflict, families of refugees, usually women, children and elderly people, have no choice but to take expensive and sometimes dangerous journeys to nearby countries.
According to UNHCR’s 2012 “Access to Family Reunification” report, the travel and additional costs that burden families could be eased considerably if applications for family reunification were accepted and processed in the country of refuge, rather than in consulates abroad.
Immigration authorities rejected Nahom’s application because his modest income was below the level required for a minimum standard of living, according to Hungary’s national statistics office.
Meanwhile, Nahom was making new and true friends. His former boss, who noticed his employee’s distress over his family’s plight, offered to help with the new application by providing for the needs of his family once they arrived.
Despite the appeals of Nahom’s lawyer, this application also failed because legally only a family member could take responsibility to provide for the family.
“That means that he has to have an adequately high salary, and/or substantial savings” says Helsinki Committee’s lawyer Gabor Gyozo, who helped the refugee file his repeated requests for family reunification.
“Or to convince the immigration to be more ‘kind-hearted’,” he adds.
Nahom says the authorities’ demands are too high and his current job, better paid, still fails to make the grade.
“They said I have a small salary. Now I earn 100,000 HUF a month but I was told I should make 180,000 – who makes that much money in Hungary?”
Holding back tears, Nahom says he is consoled by his visits to church and weekly conversations on Skype with his family.
“My daughter was only five years old when I left home. Sometimes is hard for me to see her on Skype, so it’s better just to hear her on the phone.”
For several years, UNHCR has called on governments in Europe to make it easier for refugees to reunite with their families.
In Nahom’s case, the refugee agency has asked Hungary to review its decision and put an end to the tremendous hardship of the family.
“Integration or indeed refugee protection is an empty idea without having one’s family in the country of asylum,” said the Head of UNHCR’s Hungary Unit Agnes Ambrus.
“The family is the building block of society, and refugees – who have already survived so much – need their families with them in order to rebuild their lives.”
By Andreea Anca in Budapest
*Name changed for protection reasons.