1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Turkey-Syria: Quake survivors face delay for German visas

February 23, 2023

Germany has eased visa conditions for some earthquake survivors. But many of the bureaucratic hurdles remain high.

The German flag flying outside the German embassy in Istanbul
Germany is home to the largest Turkish population outside TurkeyImage: Yurttas Cemal/Demiroren Visual Media/ABACA/picture alliance

The longer Süreyya Inal talks about the situation, the angrier she gets. The tax consultant, who now lives in the German capital, Berlin, was born in the city of Antakya, in Turkey's Hatay province. It is one of the cities ravaged by an earthquake earlier this month.

Inal recalls the dread she felt when she heard about the earthquake on February 6. She tried in vain for hours to call one of her family members. Even now, more than two weeks on, some of her relatives are still missing.

But her uncle, sister-in-law, and cousin survived. Inal wants to bring them to Berlin for a while, so they can recover from their ordeal.

'I feel let down'

When Inal first heard that Germany's Foreign Office planned to temporarily ease visa restrictions for earthquake survivors, she felt hopeful. Germany is home to a large Turkish diaspora.

The decision would allow German citizens, as well as non-nationals holding a German residence permit, to invite first- and second-degree relatives to Germany for 90 days, provided they signed a declaration of commitment. The declaration obliges hosts to pay for their guests' medical treatment and living expenses while they are in Germany.

A close-up image of Süreyya Inal near the Brandenburg Gate
Süreyya Inal is concerned about her relatives living the the distaster-struck city of AntakyaImage: Bettina Stehkämper/DW

Unlike others, Inal is not worried about the costs. The 57-year old earns well. "The declaration of commitment is fine by me," she says. But why does she have to send it to her family in Turkey especially considering that they do not even have an address there anymore, she asks.

"Why can I not leave it with a notary?" the consultant asks. Also, her uncle, sister-and-law and cousin are neither first- nor second-degree relatives. She hopes she will be able to extend an invitation to them through her mother. All she wants to do is help. But things are not moving quickly enough. "I feel let down," Inal tells DW.

Stuttgart lawyer Engin Sanli offers support

DW meets immigration lawyer Engin Sanli in Turkey's biggest city, Istanbul. Sanil, who lives in the southern Germany city of Stuttgart, traveled to Istanbul to gauge how practical the announced easing of visa restrictions truly is. His wife lost four cousins in the disaster.

Before leaving for Turkey, Sanli was optimistic about the German government's easing of the visa restrictions, telling the local news outlet Stuttgarter Nachrichten that it was "a uniquely positive sign." He added that those living in Germany with Turkish roots would appreciate this step as a "huge recognition." 

But since arriving in Istanbul, Sanli's optimism has slowly been dwindling. "There are insurmountable hurdles in the way," he says. In order for earthquake survivors to visit relatives in Germany for a maximum of 90 days, they need to produce 10 separate documents.

Passports buried under the rubble

One major obstacle is procuring a passport. Few people in Turkey own a passport, as they are costly and only necessary for international travel. In addition, those who survived the earthquake were too busy fleeing for their lives to consider what paperwork to bring.

In short, most passports are still somewhere in the rubble. Even if a passport office were operational in the quake-struck region, people would still have to find a photographer who could take a biometric photo and spend about a month's worth of earnings to cover the application fees. Even then, receiving a new passport would take at least three months.

Antakya residents grieve for loved ones, for their city

Engin Sanli knows a workaround. Earthquake survivors who cannot show their papers might still be able to prove their identity with the help of Turkey's digital government portal, known as e-devlet.

Sanli points out that Turkey's administration is much more digitally advanced than Germany's. Turkish residents are accustomed to having easy access to a variety of personal documents — ranging from criminal records to extracts from family registries — through one password-protected portal.

The German embassy in Ankara, or the German consulates in Izmir and Ankara, could issue temporary visas using this digital system, Sanli says.

Fear of retraumatization

The lawyer says he is not ready to give up yet. He meets with Turkish colleagues, the bar association, and the guardianship court. To him, it is an insult that earthquake survivors are expected to write a letter of intent detailing why they would like to leave the earthquake-hit area. Scoffing, he likens it to a cover letter, and adds that "many are not capable of writing such a letter, because that would let everything rise up to the surface again, and they would be retraumatized."

Requirements are different for children who have become orphans due to the quakes. Not only do they need to produce all their paperwork, they also require permission from a Turkish guardianship court before they can visit relatives in Germany. Sanli says this is an intolerable demand on children "who just need protection and some peace."

Along with like-minded colleagues and local networks, he is fighting for a small group of children most affected to obtain residence permits for Germany. After all, where should they go after 90 days?

A close-up image of Gökay Sofuogl in front of a green background
Gökay Sofuoglu has called for Germany to accelerate the visa program for those affected by the earthquake Image: picture alliance/dpa

Worry over a new immigration debate

Gökay Sofuoglu does not think this is a good idea. DW meets the chair of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD) on a cold, windy day in Berlin. About 200 people have gathered at the Brandenburg Gate to hold a memorial for the earthquake victims. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also come.

Sofuoglu worries that "the children will only be burdened further if they are brought to a foreign country speaking a foreign language." Instead, he believes that it is far more crucial to bring affected relatives to Germany for three months, to give them a chance to rest and recover.

Time and again, Sofuoglu repeats that these are not refugees, and that they are only meant to stay for a short time. His greatest worry is that the temporary admission of earthquake survivors will become mixed up with Germany's wider migrant debate.

Currently though, it takes about three months for a visitor visa to be processed — far too long for an earthquake survivor to wait.

"Our authorities take a long time to process even normal visas," vice president of the Bundestag, Aydan Özoguz, told the newsroom Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland. "In this case, they need to find a way to work faster."

No rush to secure visas

But it seems that, despite the death, destruction, and threat of diseases that surround them, many in Turkey are reluctant to leave.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited the earthquake-affected region in southeastern Turkey. There, they announced that a German visa office in Gaziantep, the city closest to the earthquake's center, had granted only 120 visas in the past days.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stand with others amid the rubble
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (second from left) and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (right) visit Turkey's earhquake hit region of KahramanmarasImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Gökay Sofuoglu does not think there will be a rush to apply for visas. Local aid, he believes, is far more important — especially for people in neighboring Syria for whom it is nearly impossible to obtain a visa to Germany.

Many of those affected tell DW that they worry global attention for the earthquake survivors will soon flag.

In a recent video message, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz mentioned a Turkish saying: "Gercek dost kötü günde belli olur." "A friend in need is a friend indeed."

More than 3 million people living in Germany have Turkish roots. They would love to believe that what Scholz said was true.

This article was translated from German.