Fighting to reach loved ones: One week of refugees’ hunger strike in Athens over delays in reunifying with their families

“We want to put our heads on our pillows at night and sleep in peace all together.”

 Foaz M, 40 year-old Syrian refugee awaiting together with his wife and three of his children to reunite with his daughter

Since 1 November, 14 refugees from Syria are on hunger strike in Syntagma Square, Athens demanding the immediate transfer of hundreds of mothers, fathers and children to their beloved ones who are waiting for them in Germany. They protest already for one week in the centre of the Greek capital, without yet receiving any response to their demands. The ongoing delays in refugee family reunification under the Dublin Regulation have broken emotionally hundreds of families who are waiting since the closure of the Balkan-corridor in winter 2016 to reunite.

In 5 May 2017, a letter from Greek Migration Minister Mouzalas to his German counterpart had been leaked confirming the existence of an unofficial agreement between the two countries to limit transfers under the Dublin Regulation. Greek Asylum Service employees reportedly informed dozens of refugees that the maximum number of family reunification transfers to Germany would be only 70 persons per month.[i] The existence of this form of agreement has been denied ever since by both sides, but statistics of transfers during the summer months have proven it to be real. The cap in transfers was also confirmed orally to German lawyers by staff of the Greek Asylum Service. The lawyers represented a refugee in Germany who waited for the transfer of a relative from Thessaloniki, Greece. The existence of an agreement between the two sides about a controlled number of transfers was confirmed by the Greek Asylum Service In a written answer dated 15 June 2017 and addressed to the Greek NGO AITIMA.[ii] While the numbers of transfers during September and October have increased, restrictions remain in the form of Germany not accepting charter flights with family reunification cases. This form of restriction has also been confirmed by the Minister Mouzalas in a recent press conference on 1 November.

The delays in transfers to Germany affect the vast majority of family reunification cases. According to the Greek Asylum Service, out of the 9,381 outgoing applications sent by Greece between January and the end of September 5,906 concern Germany.[iii] Most of the refugees trying to legally reach their relatives in Germany are from Syria (3,268), Afghanistan (775) and Iraq (621) according to information by the German government.[iv]

The obstacles met by families eligible for family reunification affect more than one tenth of the approximately 55,000 refugees that got stuck in Greece following the closure of the so-called Balkan corridor and the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal. Severe delays in transfers have also increased the waiting period that a sponsor’s family can reunite with him/her in Germany to an average of nine months after the date of acceptance. The deadline of six months the Dublin III Regulation foresees is nowadays being systematically undermined. Out of 4,948 decisions issued by Germany accepting family reunification requests from refugees in Greece in 2017, only 322 persons had been transferred until mid-September.[v]

The period that most the hunger strikers of Syntagma Square have to wait since the acceptance of their request from Germany has already exceeded the six months deadline. They have been separated from their small children during their flight from conflict; they were forced to leave their spouses or younger siblings move on first, as money did not suffice for the whole family to reach Europe together. “We haven’t seen each other for three years,” says Foaz, a father of four, and tears come to his eyes while thinking of his 11 year-old daughter, who is alone in Germany. The young girl currently stays in a shelter for unaccompanied minors.

They protest for the immediate transfer of all family reunification cases who already have exceeded the six-month period, the coverage of the ticket expenses by the sending government as required by law and transparency in the procedures of prioritization of transfers. In their official invitation to their first press conference on 2 November, they also declared their solidarity to a group of Iranian and Afghan refugees currently protesting and being on hunger strike on Lesvos Island. The second group of refugees started its protest demanding their right to leave the island and against the EU-Turkey Deal and its implications. “We are standing together against the European policies of deterrence,” says Fidan, a 42-year old Syrian refugee participating in the hunger strike. Repressive migration policies have created obstacles like increased border patrols, deportations, lack of access to the asylum procedure and hostile refugee camps in order to hinder the next ones from coming this way. The restriction of movement from the islands as well as delays in family reunification procedures are part of this message. “None of us will give up” the mother adds sending a salute to her fellow hunger striker Adela in Lesvos.

The seven women and seven men in the centre of Athens are determined to put up with the cold and hunger in order to fight for what they state is their apparent human right: their family unity and a free life in peace. “We struggle here for everybody’s right to be with his or her family. All families should be together. There is no reason to keep us apart! We demand from the Greek and the German government to allow us to travel now,” says Mohammed Fahed, a 54-year-old man who suffers from high levels of anxiety as he waits to join his wife and children in Germany for long time. He adds: “My daughter got sick now and I cannot be by her side.”

Hanne B. (39 years old) is a single mother of four. She and her husband survived the 2012 Houla massacre, where only a few survived.[vi] Her husband, who left for Germany at the end of 2014 and received refugee status there, has been branded by the events. Not only he experienced the massacre, but he still carries bomb splitters in his body from those horrible days. “My husband is visiting a psychologist until today for what we went through in Syria. Only he knows what happened to him during that time. I just know, first they bombed the houses and when people ran out, the snipers opened fire. Many died. My husband’s father and mother died. They killed and raped. We ran away without shoes…”. Hanne fled Syria in 2015 with her three children after the family’s house got bombed. She gave birth to a fourth child in Turkey. Her smallest child was one year old when he crossed the Aegean in a small boat. “We arrived on Chios, on 9 March 2016. After ten days, we were sent to Athens by ferry. I stayed for three months in a tent in Piraeus port. Then, we got moved to Skaramangas camp. I tried for almost three months to call Skype to apply for family reunification. I finally applied on 2 November 2016. On 6 March, I got my acceptance.” Hanne is now waiting for more than 8 months to reunify with her husband. Meanwhile, she is living alone with four children in the camp. She feels there is no security for them. Hanne says: “There is a family whose child drowned here. I am afraid to let my children play outside. I just want to travel to my husband.”

Foaz M. (40 years old) from El Hasaka in Syria is in Greece together with his wife and three of the family’s four children. His 11-year-old daughter is alone in Germany. When they first tried to enter Europe their paths got violently separated in Bulgaria when the smuggler suddenly split the group in two and the parents were arrested and pushed-back to Turkey in 2015. For eight months, Foaz and his wife didn’t know if their daughter was alive or not. Then they received the news that she was in Germany. The family managed to finally enter Europe when they arrived on the Greek island of Chios on 10 March 2016. However, the Balkans corridor had closed and they got stuck. Foaz told us when we found him in Syntagma square: “Although we found the borders closed, in the beginning we attempted to go to Germany because of our little girl who was alone. But the living conditions at the border were very bad and we could not put our children’s lives in danger. We moved from Idomeni to Piraeus port where we stayed in a small tent for two months. Then, the authorities transferred us to Skaramangas camp. We attended the pre-registration in June/July 2016 and finally registered our asylum claim on 21 December 2016. The procedure takes too long. Our daughter in Germany is starting to forget her mother tongue. We miss each other. We have been apart for three years. We want to know when we will go to her.” The acceptance from Germany came on 10 May 2017. This week, the family will complete the six-month deadline. They say that the uncertainty is the worse. Foaz tells us: “Sometimes our daughter loses hope. She fears we might never come to her. We just want to be complete as a family again. We don’t care anymore about anything else. We want to put our heads on our pillows at night and sleep in peace all together.”

Fidan B. (42 year-old) from Afrin is desperate to join her sick husband in Germany. Fidan and her three children stay in Skaramangas camp. Fidan says: “Me and my husband left Syria together. In Turkey, we got separated because there was not enough money for all of us to travel. I followed with our kids on 25 February 2016 and we arrived on Lesvos Island. From there, we got sent to a sports stadium in Kavala. We stayed there for two months and then I took my kids and we went to the port in Piraeus. After few days, the authorities transferred us to Skaramangas camp. I am living there now for nearly one and a half year.” Fidan’s husband suffers from PTSD, anxiety and depression and is visiting a psychologist in Germany. Fidan is very worried about his health. But she also feels a lot of stress for her children and their wellbeing. As she states, she cannot sleep well. “It is very difficult to be far from the father of your children. I am always worried about him and worried about my children’s safety. I also don’t feel safe. We rarely go out of our caravan (prefab house). I am afraid of new people coming to the camp who I don’t know.” Fidan received her acceptance on 1 March 2017. She is waiting now for more than eight months to travel to Germany. She says: “I don’t understand why we have to wait longer. Why we are not told when we will travel.”

Hyam A. (34 year old) is a single mother of six children. She comes from Aleppo. Her husband disappeared in Syria three years ago. Until today she doesn’t know what happened to him. Hyam and five of her children are waiting to reunify with Hyam’s 16-year-old son who has received a one-year protection status in Germany. She told us: “We escaped Syria in 2013. In 2016 we arrived on Chios island, Greece. From there, we went to Ritsona camp. I applied for asylum on 16 December 2016 and we got our acceptance to go to my sixth child on 27 April 2017. It is a month before our six month period expires and we ought to have been transferred to Germany, but we are still here in Greece.” After few months in Greece, the family started receiving threatening calls from an unknown person. Since then, Hyam’s 15-year-old daughter gets regular sudden panic attacks, suffering from breathing problems and tachycardia. “I am worried about my girl all the time. We have to go to the hospital very often. The camp we stayed was far from the hospitals. I just want my daughter to be healthy again. And I want us to be safe. We escaped war to find protection, but we are not safe here and we are not calm. We are still afraid”. According to Hyam, her daughter felt unsafe among the many people in the camp after these events. Even now, despite the fact that the family was offered accommodation in a flat, they cannot relax. “We were persecuted in Syria; we are persecuted now. The big refugee camps cannot provide security to refugees. You don’t know who is good and who is bad. If they cannot protect us here, why do they not let us travel to Germany?”

All photos copyright Salinia Stroux

 

ENDNOTES

[i] See: https://www.proasyl.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Background-Note-Family-Reunification-Dublin_RSA_PRO-ASYL-August-2017.pdf

[ii] See: http://aitima.gr/images/pdf/anoixtiepistoli.pdf

[iii] See: https://www.facebook.com/hungerstrike4familyreunification/

[iv] See: Statistics provided by the German authorities to a question by MP Ulla Jelpke of Die Linke, concerning the period January 2017 to 20 September 2017.

[v] See: Recent answer of the German government to a question from MP Ulla Jelpke of Die Linke revealed, Document Nr. 9/129, 25 September 2017.

[vi] Houla is a region in Syria northwest of the city of Holms.

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