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German bureaucracy keeps Balkan families apart

August 4, 2020

Tens of thousands of people from the Western Balkans find work in Germany every year. Their families often face a long wait for permission to join them. Opposition lawmakers are demanding change.

The Zivkovic family from Serbia
Image: Privat

Two years ago, Milica Zivkovic and her husband Zeljko were fed up with Serbia. Instead of continuing to make do with poorly paid jobs that often enough depended on the goodwill of the ruling party, Zeljko got a commercial driver's license. In early 2019, he found a job in the city of Hof in the German state of Bavaria, where he rented a large apartment, as he was planning for his family to follow him to Germany soon.

As early as November 2018, his wife applied for an interview at the German Embassy in Belgrade for herself and their two children, but she was not able to submit her application for family reunification.

Read more: Balkan bottleneck: Germany overwhelmed by 'enormous increase' in work visas

And that situation went on for many, many months. "I feel terrible," Milica told DW as late as June 2020. "It's as if I'm not waiting outside the door to Germany, but the door to a madhouse." The separation was like torture for the family, she added.

A psychologist at a clinic in the southern Serbian town of Nis confirmed that the Zivkovics' 7-year-old son was impulsive and defiant, a reaction to the fact that his family is separated. The 4-year-old daughter could not control her urination as a result of the psychological strain of waiting for the family to move to Germany, according to another doctor.

The Zivkovic family from Serbia
The Zivkovic family has been separated since the start of 2019Image: Privat

Massive bottleneck

For Milica, the wait for an appointment to apply for family reunification was an odyssey through forums and Facebook groups where people with similar problems exchange information. Several thousand people from the Western Balkans who work in Germany live apart from their families for years because the German authorities issue work visas much faster than those for family reunion.

DW had access to two dozen electronic applications for family reunions, and in some cases, both parents were already working in Germany. The children were left behind to live with their grandparents.

Read more: Opinion: EU's 'no' to Western Balkans could spark conflict

The individual stories differ, but they are all similar in one respect: All of the applicants are desperate and they are all angry at the sluggish German authorities. "I'm going to start buying lottery tickets — the chances of winning are similar to those of being granted a German visa," one man wrote in a Facebook group.

But demand in six Western Balkan countries far exceeds the capacity of the visa offices despite staff increases, the German Foreign Ministry said.

Special permits for 6 countries

This has to do with the so-called Western Balkan regulations, under which citizens of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have been granted permits to work in Germany since 2016, even without job qualifications. After some debate, the German government now intends to extend the special permits until 2023. In addition to qualified workers, up to 25,000 untrained workers from the Western Balkans are to be allowed to come to Germany every year.

Gökay Akbulut standing at a speaker's desk
Akbulut says a double standard is at workImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Büttner

The Foreign Ministry admits to a glitch that has been causing problems for many families from Serbia: In 2019, new categories for family reunification of certain groups of workers were introduced. At the time, embassy staff "regrettably erroneously" advised some people not to register for a new appointment. This meant that newly registered applicants were able to get appointments much faster than those on old waiting lists.

Then, restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the German embassies in the region for several months. However, despite an economic slump in Germany, there is continued demand for workers from the Balkans.

Families are not a priority

But what about their families? Article 6 of the German constitution says after all that "[m]arriage and the family shall enjoy the special protection of the state."

There's clearly a double standard at work, according to Gökay Akbulut, migration policy spokeswoman for the Left Party in the German parliament. "Families who live in Germany benefit from the high priority given to families in this country, but this is not true for the families of many migrant workers," she says.

Read more: Lost in Belgrade: Iranian refugees head to Serbia as tourists

Akbulut, who also came to Germany as a child with her family, feels reminded of the era of the "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers) or "Vertragsarbeiter" (contract workers) actively recruited by former West and East Germany for years starting in the 1950s and 1960s respectively. "To this day, people from abroad are supposed to come to Germany mainly to work and make up for the shortage of skilled German workers," she said. "Family reunification is still not a priority."

Filiz Polat, the Green Party's spokeswoman for migration affairs
Polat says Germany's bureaucratic visa system makes it less attractive to immigrantsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. v. Jutrczenka

Germany cannot be an attractive for migrants if every visa application is like a "walk through a bureaucratic maze," said Filiz Polat, the Green Party's migration policy spokeswoman. "Labor migration can't be a matter of cherry-picking; we can't expect people to work here while putting up with restrictions on their own family lives," Polat told DW.

Finally, a date

For much more than a year, Milica Zivkovic was able to visit her husband in Hof only on a tourist visa. When DW spoke to her for the first time in June this year, she had lost all hope.

Read more:  Just like the professionals – How young people in the Western Balkans are shaping the future

At the end of July, however, she was at last told she would be able to apply for a visa for herself and the two children in the coming days. She was not holding her breath, however. "This can only be a beginning," she said. "The question is, how long will we have to wait after that, and will they need additional documents..."

But even so, she now sounds more optimistic than a month ago. When she shared the good news with her fellow sufferers on Facebook, however, some were surprised, and others were outraged — they have been waiting even longer than Milica Zivkovic and still haven't heard a word.

Headshot of a man with black hair and a beard (Nemanja Rujevic)
Nemanja Rujevic Editor, writer and reporter for DW's Serbian Service