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Refugee family reunification in Germany - what you need to know

Refugee family reunification in Germany remains a major sticking point ahead of preliminary coalition talks in January. DW explains how the process works – and why critics want to lift the current ban permanently.

Fleeing war and coming to Germany as a refugee is not an easy step. After arrival, refugees from Syria, Iraq or northern Africa often plan to bring their families from dangerous war zones or refugee camps to a safe home in Germany.

In spring 2016, the German government passed a new regulation on family reunification, which slowed down that process.

After the country's general election last September, the issue became a major sticking point in failed exploratory coalition talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party CSU, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green party.

Ahead of a second round of exploratory talks at the beginning of January - this time between the CDU, the CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) - the issue remains deeply divisive.

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How does family reunification work?

In general, someone who has been granted asylum or refugee status has the right to bring immediate family members to Germany, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Immediate family members include the spouse, children and – only if the refugee is a minor – siblings and parents. The family member who traveled to Germany has to apply for family reunification as soon as possible after having been granted asylum. They don't need to prove that they can support themselves or that they have adequate living space as a precondition for family members entering the country.

Family members also have to apply for family reunification in the German embassy in their country of residence. They technically have to do so within three months after asylum has been granted to their relative. But getting appointments with embassy officials can take longer than this. After the three months are up, it is up to the officials in charge to decide whether the right to family reunification is still granted.

Read more: What you need to know about the EU migrant relocation and resettlement scheme

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What are the restrictions?

A two-year suspension on family reunifications was introduced last year for persons entitled to subsidiary protection. Many refugees from Syria, for example, were only granted subsidiary protection because they were simply fleeing from a civil war, but couldn't prove they had been personally persecuted under the UN's Geneva Convention.

Refugees who were officially granted this protection after March 17, 2016 now have to wait until March 16, 2018 before they can even apply for family reunification.

The big question is what the rule should be after March 2018, when the current regulation expires.

What do the CDU and the CSU want?

- CSU leader Horst Seehofer wants a cap of 200,000 new arrivals per year and has made it clear that his party will accept nothing less than a complete end to automatic family reunification. Bavaria is on the frontline of the refugee crisis as it is located on a border point on the Balkan Route.

- Chancellor Merkel has taken a backseat on the subject, while her fellow CDU MPs largely agree with the CSU. Many in the CDU and CSU are concerned about the negative impact of too much immigration on the German labor market. But there are also dissenting voices, like Armin Laschet, the moderate state premier of Germany's most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia. He wants to allow reunification for those who "have an official residence and a job."

-the CDU's social policy wing, the union-friendly CDA, has stressed that Merkel and the CSU may be keen to take a tighter stance because of the sucess of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which garnered 13 percent of the vote in September's election. The CDA says that the CDU should not use family reunification as a means to wrest back votes from the AfD.

What does the SPD want?

- the SPD is in favor of family reunifications and does not want any blanket restrictions. Their main argument is that refugees will find it easier to integrate in Germany as a family, rather than having to worry about their loved ones having to contend with life in a war zone.

- the SPD only agreed to the current legislation during the Grand Coalition government that ended after the elections in September under the condition that family reunification would be granted in particularly tough cases, for example if a relative is ill or for other humanitarian reasons.

- the SPD is not expected to budge easily during the January talks, as the party was reluctant to even enter into talks with the CDU after a dismal election result. The party has repeatedly said it needs to sharpen its profile and Germany's treatment of refugees is one of the core issues on their social agenda.

Read more: Two years since Germany opened its borders to refugees - A chronology


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