The German government is restarting its family reunification program. But for refugees who turn 18 while waiting to join their loved ones, the move comes too late. Ann Esswein reports from Lebanon.
It sounds desperate, but Riham abo Staiti says she would rather die than turn 18. The 17-year-old only leaves her darkened accommodations when absolutely necessary.
She lives here in a 30-square-meter (323-square-foot) portable housing unit with her father and three siblings in the Nahr al-Bared Refugee Camp in northern Lebanon. Yet, one important person is missing: "I just want to be with my mother," Riham says. She only speaks with her mother, who lives in a suburb of Karlsruhe, Germany, on her mobile phone. Her fear is constant when the two talk each day: "I am terrified of being left here on my own," says Riham. She has been waiting for the day she can join her mother for more than three years now. She is in a race against time, for she will likely be barred from family reunification as soon as she turns 18.
In 2015, family reunification sounded like a great promise. At the time, the family had no idea that they, like so many other refugees, would fall through the cracks. Riham's mother, Fteim Almousa, still remembers German Chancellor Angela Merkel's vow that every asylum seeker would be able to be joined by their spouse and underage children. Fteim was a teacher in Damascus, Syria when she started receiving death threats because she protested against the closing of her school. She fled on her own in order to protect the children. "There wasn't enough money for all of us to leave," she says. The mother of three hoped what she had been told by acquaintances was true: The children could join her in Germany after six months.
A false promise?
But her plans were foiled just a year later when the so-called Asylum Package II was passed: In light of rising numbers of asylum applicants the government decided to put a two-year halt to family reunions involving "subsidiary" refugees.
Refugees with subsidiary status are people who are fleeing civil war but cannot prove they are under direct threat of persecution. Such people are granted temporary residency until the situation in their country of origin is deemed safe. Currently, the number of refugees with subsidiary status is small: Less than 60 Syrians were granted temporary protection before November 2015. Today, some 200,000 subsidiary refugees face deportation.
Family reunifications were scheduled to resume in March 2018. Riham's father Ahad tried in vain to contact the German embassy around that time. He says when he visited to the diplomatic mission's homepage, he read a notice stating that no new applications would be accepted before August — the statement was punctuated with a red exclamation point. As the family sat together staring into a laptop, the youngest child, a boy, tried to comfort his two older sisters, ages 14 and 15, as they silently sobbed. "Their psyche is suffering," Ahad told DW.
He says it is difficult for him to care for the children on his own. "We live in one of the most unhealthy places on earth," says the former doctor. Surrounded by mountains of garbage, unsanitary water and bullet holes from past conflicts, Ahad says this is not how he wanted his children to grow up. He is most concerned about his eldest daughter, Riham. Ahad reads from the German diplomatic mission's website as if he were a judge handing down a verdict: "The right to parents" expires at age 18.
No chance for those who come of age while waiting
According to the German Residence Act, only immediate family members — spouses and underage children — are allowed to join a family member already in the country. Youths who happen to turn 18 during the course of an exceptionally long waiting period are excluded from family reunion. That is one reason Adriana Kessler, a lawyer and the managing director of the Berlin-based human rights group JUMEN, says the new rules are "unconstitutional." A legal opinion issued by the Deutsche Kinderhilfswerk, a German child welfare organization, says the separation of children and youths from their parents is especially irresponsible.
Riham has been suffering from depression ever since her mother left. "I am scared to go outside," she says. Harassment and sexual assault are an everyday occurrence when girls her age go out onto the street unaccompanied, says the 17-year-old: "In our culture we live under our parents' supervision even after we turn 18." Riham has already tried to slit her wrists with a paring knife, says her younger sister Rasha. She says she will do it again if her family is forced to leave her behind.
Different cultural definitions of nuclear family
"Here in the Middle East, family members depend on one another differently," explains psychologist Anaelle Saadeh. She says young refugees who have been the victims of sexual assault often come to her clinic in Dar Al Zahraa, but notes that such contact centers are as rare in refugee camps as security personnel.
The German government will vote on new changes to family reunification policy just after Riham's 18th birthday. From August 1 onward, the German Foreign Ministry, immigration authorities and the Federal Administrative Court will review the cases of no more than 1,000 family reunions per month. Meeting criteria such as being able to support oneself financially, having secured sufficient housing, exhibiting German language proficiency, having employment and being civically engaged all improve an applicant's chances of getting into that small monthly contingent — and thus bringing their family to Germany.
How long will it take?
Fteim Almousa knows that roughly 26,000 people are waiting to be reunited with their families. She also knows she will have to work hard to fulfill the integration requirements if she wants to be able to see her family. It could take three or four years before her loved ones are among the 1,000 being reviewed for the month. For the 49-year-old, such limitations no longer sound like a promise but rather like a race against time. She is worried about her second-eldest daughter Rasha. She will turn 18 in two years, meaning the new rules might be too late for her as well.