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How does refugee family reunification work?

Nicole Goebel
December 29, 2017

Refugee family reunification in Germany has proven a major source of division in Angela Merkel's governing coalition. DW explains how the process works and what the main points of contention are.

A family of Syrian refugees enter a reception center in Lower Saxony
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Pförtner

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.

The issue has proven controversial across the political spectrum, opening up deep divisions within Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition. 

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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

Refugees and the battle against bureaucracy

What are the restrictions?

A two-year suspension on family reunifications for persons entitled to subsidiary protection was lifted on August 1, 2018. Subsidiary status mainly applies to Syrian refugees, many of whom were only granted lower-level protection because they were fleeing from a civil war, but couldn't prove they had been personally persecuted under the UN's Geneva Convention.

The government imposed a moratorium on reunifications for this group in March 2016 in an effort to reduce the numbers of migrant arrivals. Following lengthy negotiations in parliament, the scheme was reintroduced with certain limits, including a cap of 1,000 relatives per month who can be settled in Germany.

Where do the parties stand?

The question of how to deal with the families of refugees was one of the most contentious issues in the painstakingly negotiated coalition agreement reached by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its sister Bavarian party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Conservatives from the CDU/CSU want to limit family reunifications as much as possible, while the SPD has resisted any restrictions to the reunion scheme. In the end, they reached a compromise dictating that up to 1,000 people per month could enter the country.

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

The conservatives' main complaints include the possible impact of too much immigration on the labor market and on their voter base. The SPD's 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.

On the left, the Greens and Left Party have decried the regulations for being too restrictive, since they don't cover migrants' siblings.

Starting a new life in Germany