Right to reunion eludes refugee families in Europe
Thirteen-year-old Ensaf presses the phone to her ear, perched on her bunk bed in a refugee shelter on the Greek island of Leros. "I miss you, mama," she whispers.
More than 2,000 kilometres away, in a flat in the quiet town of Thalheim, in eastern Germany, her mother, Layali Radwan, chokes back the tears at the sound of her daughter's voice.
They have not seen each other in more than eight months, ever since Layali, 36, and Ensaf's 15-year-old brother, Riyad, fled to Europe after their home in Syria was bombed late last year.
The plan was for Ensaf and her father, Bashar, to follow them to Germany once Bashar had recovered from a head injury he suffered in the bombing. By the time father and daughter arrived in Greece by rubber dinghy from Turkey in the spring, they found a very different situation.
Borders were closed, effectively cutting off the Balkans route to western and northern Europe. And with a new European Union (EU) deal to return more migrants and refugees from Greece to Turkey, many more people remained in the refugee shelters and processing centres on the Greek islands, often in difficult conditions. Ensaf and Bashar landed in Greece on March 20, the day the EU began to implement this deal.
Nearly five months later, the family remains split in two: one parent and one child each in Germany and Greece. Their smartphones give them a virtual window into their parallel lives through a steady stream of photos, voice recordings and spotty video-calls.
They are among the tens of thousands of refugee families in Europe separated, trying to navigate the legal labyrinth and practical challenges of reuniting with their families.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Europe, separated refugee and asylum-seeking families are in fact entitled to legal reunion under the EU’s Dublin Regulation. This law also determines which country is responsible for processing an asylum claim. So once a family member arrives in a country covered by Dublin, in theory they can apply for other immediate family members to join them.
But in Greece, and in the reality of an overstretched asylum system, the processing of often-complex Dublin cases has been slow and not prioritized. Even when claims to reunite are approved, it can take many months to a year – or even longer – before families are back together again.
To 13-year-old Ensaf, the waiting feels like an eternity. And for a family who have suffered so much, it’s hard to go without one another’s support.
"War tore my family apart," Ensaf says. "Overnight I found myself in a crisis – bombs, petrol bombs – and my family was taken from me… Thank God we are okay, but I would feel better if I was with my mother. I am afraid now that I will never see my mother and brother again."
"I am afraid now that I will never see my mother and brother again.”
In Syria, Bashar, a professor, taught dentistry at the University of Aleppo. Layali looked after their home and children.
Last year, fighting engulfed their home town in Aleppo governorate, in northern Syria. Armed groups set up checkpoints around the area. Ensaf and Riyad still attended school, and Bashar kept teaching, even when the shelling increased.
Tight finances and a desire to keep their family together kept them in Syria. Neighbours fled in droves.
Then, in November, a bomb crashed through the living-room ceiling as the family sat together. Bashar was hit by debris, and Riyad fainted from shock. They were taken to hospital, where doctors stitched Bashar's forehead.
Bashar was still in the hospital when he and Layali decided that she and Riyad would leave for Europe. Like many families fleeing war and conflict, they could not all leave together and faced a devastating dilemma: Who will go first, and who will stay behind?
Within days they raised more than €3,000 from relatives and friends to pay smugglers.
"I told my mother, 'God willing, we will reach you safely'," Ensaf says of their last day together at home, before her mother and brother left. "And that I love her."
Layali and Riyad passed numerous checkpoints to get out of Syria and across the Turkish border, to board a dinghy to Greece. Then, tragedy struck.
Layali and Riyad's boat sank off the Greek island of Kos as they crossed the Aegean Sea. "We fled from the war and fear and death to face death again," Layali says. "It was a hard journey, but it was still better than staying in my country."
The Greek coastguard rescued them. After recovering, they continued on their difficult journey through the Balkans, often on foot as well as by train. Layali and Riyad arrived in Germany in mid-December.
In March, once Bashar had regained his health, he and Ensaf set off from Syria, despite the known dangers, hoping to join Layali and Riyad.
The family may now live on the same continent, but their daily lives are worlds apart.
In Thalheim, home to about 6,600 people, Layali and Riyad live in a small flat. The owners, a German family who receive financial support from the government to host refugees, live upstairs.
Household items are labelled with their German names, to help Layali and Riyad build their vocabulary. They attend German language courses and often practice talking with their host family.
Sometimes, on Facebook, Layali posts photos of her children side-by-side. "God bring us together again," she wrote recently.
Meanwhile on Leros, where some 700 refugees and migrants are currently sheltering, Ensaf and Bashar live with about 100 others in Pikpa, a former hospital near the port of Lakki. Volunteers with the Leros Solidarity Network run Pikpa, with support from Greek authorities and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Ensaf and Bashar sleep in bunk beds in a room shared with three other families. Grey thermal blankets hang between the beds for privacy. Three days a week, Ensaf attends free English-language lessons. She dreams of becoming a paediatrician one day – "so I can help people," she says.
Pikpa is filled with members of separated families, mostly women and children who are trying to reach husbands and fathers elsewhere in Europe. Bashar and Ensaf are the only father-daughter pair. There is also a 22-year-old woman whose husband had to flee Syria a month before the birth of their daughter. The smiling baby girl only knows her father through WhatsApp.
Although Ensaf and Bashar are inside the EU, administrative delays in processing Dublin cases could mean months will pass before Ensaf and Bashar are reunited with Layali and Riyad.
“Family reunion keeps loved ones together, ensuring the right to family life. It’s the much-needed chance for father, daughter, mother and son to see each other once more, after devastating events. But it can and must work so much better and faster,” says Daphne Kapetanaki, a UNHCR protection associate based in Athens.
“Family reunion cases need to be prioritized, with more officials processing them,” she added. “The best way for people to start their new lives is not apart, but together, as a family.”
“The best way for people to start their new lives is not apart, but together, as a family.”
Faced with long delays and practical barriers, some refugees in Greece who are trying to reach family members already in Europe risk turning once more to smugglers and clandestine and possibly dangerous journeys.
UNHCR has long advocated for speedy and smooth family reunion procedures to prevent further hardship for families who have already experienced many difficulties before, in and en route to Europe. This means the need to dedicate additional resources, including additional staff, and prioritization by the authorities of family reunion cases.
Moreover, further legal pathways to Europe are needed so people don’t have to undertake risky journeys at the hands of ruthless smugglers. In addition, European States can address numerous practical challenges faced by families outside Europe, which make the family reunification process very long, cumbersome and in some cases almost impossible.
"I hope that I will be with my mother and my brother and my father,” Ensaf says, “that we will have a house in Germany, God willing, and that we will return to Syria one day if the situation gets better.”
She ends each day with a prayer: "God, let me see my mother again soon."
Additional reporting by Daniel Morgan