ISTANBUL, Turkey — With her brow furrowed in concentration, Mayada from Yarmouk tries once more to pronounce the string of letters on the whiteboard. “Ffff … fünfund … sss …” She throws her hands up in frustration and laughs. “Fünfundzwanzig,” the teacher offers. “Twenty-five.”
“This language,” Mayada sighs. “I’ll never understand it.” Still, she is determined to learn at least some German before joining her husband Adil in Hamburg, where he is seeking asylum after journeying across the Aegean Sea and the Balkans earlier this summer.
Mayada never wanted to risk her children’s lives on the same route. Like many refugee families, they decided that Adil should travel ahead so that he could apply for a reunification visa, allowing his family to reach Germany safely and legally. They fled Syria a year ago, first to Lebanon and then to Turkey after abandoning their home in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus that had been under siege for two years before the Islamic State stormed the area last spring.
But as European countries move to restrict family visas in an attempt to minimize the influx of even more refugees, Mayada fears that boarding a rubber dinghy may soon be her only choice.
“What if they don’t give it to us? We are Palestinian, we don’t have passports. What if they change the rules again and say only people with papers are allowed?” she said. “If the visa isn’t coming, I will go by sea.”
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In Germany, conservative politicians have raised concerns that family reunifications would triple or quadruple the number of refugees. The country opened its doors to more than a million asylum-seekers this year.
Last month, Germany’s coalition government agreed on a new strategy, under which some refugees will have to wait two years until they are permitted to apply for reunification. Other countries, including Sweden, are also implementing restrictions.
When her husband left in the summer, Mayada was confident they would be reunited soon. But after five months, Adil is still waiting for his own asylum case to be decided.
Despite a number of reforms, it takes the average asylum-seeker five months to receive refugee status in Germany. Syrians usually wait more than four months, while Afghans wait for a year or longer. Refugees can apply for family reunification only after they have been granted asylum.
Mayada, meanwhile, has found herself the family’s sole breadwinner. She is barely able to pay the rent without her husband’s meager income from his work as an electrician. After he left, she joined a women's craft collective, where she makes silver rings and bracelets. Her situation, she said, is far from unique: “So many families have been separated. The husbands have gone and the wives are here, waiting.”
European Union laws guarantee refugees the right to be reunited with their immediate family, but in many member states, visas take years and are subject to numerous exemptions. Germany and Sweden stand out for their more generous interpretation of the rules.
Restricting family reunification is just a small part of the scramble by governments to limit refugee arrivals. The EU recently agreed to a multibillion-euro aid package to secure Turkey’s cooperation with stopping the flow from its western coast to Greece, while member states have built fences and re-introduced border controls to restrict illegal migration.
Family reunification remains one of the few legal means by which refugees can apply for asylum in Europe.
Marei Pelzer, of the German refugee advocacy group Pro Asyl, says it’s essential.
“To freeze family reunification is cynical. You are driving these people onto the boats,” said Pelzer. “It’s downright irresponsible.”
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Conservative politicians often see liberal family reunification laws as “pull factors” encouraging illegal migration. But rights groups fear that limiting such visas will lead to an even larger refugee flow across the Aegean next summer and expose a growing number of women and children to the risks of this journey.
Pelzer noted that women and children were already increasingly among those who cross to Greece. According to numbers collected by the Hellenic police and the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than half of all refugees arriving on the Greek islands in October and November were women and children. In June, they only made up one quarter of arrivals.
There are no reliable estimates for how many refugees could travel to Germany on a reunification visa, but the country’s embassies and consulates are struggling to cope with the surge in demand. Refugees say the waiting period for an appointment at the consulate in Istanbul is at least several months.
“Compared to the previous year, the numbers of family reunification visas granted to foreigners has doubled in the first three quarters of this year,” a spokesman for Germany’s foreign office told GlobalPost.
Germany’s FAZ newspaper reported that a little over 10,000 Syrians were granted family reunification visas between January 2014 and October 2015.
The spokesman added: “Before the embassy in Damascus closed [in early 2012], the diplomatic missions in Turkey processed a little more than 100 applications for reunification visas per week. By now, this number has increased to more than 100 per day.”
It is the waiting, rather than the visa itself, that worries Mayada’s friend Amal. Her son, 15-year-old Adham, traveled to Germany in August. As the mother of an unaccompanied minor, she knows that she is almost certain to be granted family reunification.
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With her husband still trapped inside Syria and money tight, Amal could pay for only one place on a boat. Adham volunteered; she drove with him from Istanbul to the port city of Izmir and did not sleep until she heard that he had arrived safely on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Like Mayada, Amal is learning German at a local community center for refugees. She’s usually the first to complete classroom tasks and delights in correcting the pronunciation of her fellow students. During one recent evening lesson, however, Amal was quiet. Her son had sounded sad when she spoke to him earlier that day, she said. Usually, he would try to impress her with long German words and tell her about his new life in the northern city of Kiel, where he was placed in a home for unaccompanied underage refugees.
“He misses us. He said he wants to come back and live with us. I told him he has to be strong, that he’s not a child anymore,” she said. “But it’s hard. I miss him so I go to bed crying. I don’t think I can wait much longer. I may go by boat instead.”