No more separations of families!

Many vulnerable refugees in Greece are waiting for prolonged periods to reunify with their family members in Germany. PRO ASYL and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) are calling for an end to be put to the suffering of more than two thousand refugees who are stuck in Greece while waiting to be reunited with their family members in Germany. Most of these families have escaped war or conflict and are highly vulnerable. PRO ASYL and RSA have documented dramatic cases of families who are highly vulnerable and still wait for more than 18 months to be reunited with their loved ones.

 

Alone with ten kids

 

“I feel (that) we are like mosquitos to them… Everybody feels just disturbed (bothered?) by us!”

Banan B. (37 years old female refugee from Syria)

 

Banan is from Allepo, Syria. Banan fled from Syria with her husband and their children in October 2015, but was not able to travel together with him to Greece as they did not have sufficient money to leave Turkey all together. Banan’s husband crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece soon after with one of their sons, aged 10. Father and son moved on to Germany through the Balkan Route, that was still open at the time and were granted subsidiary protection status in October 2016.

Banan herself arrived to Greece shortly before the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, with six of her children and four children born from her husband’s second marriage. Her husband’s second wife was killed during a bombardment in Syria. During the same bombardment, Banan’s husband and one of the family’s children had also been wounded at his hand and feet. Until today, the boy has some problems with the movement of his hand and he suffers from the trauma.

 

Following their initial registration on an island in February 2016, Banan and the family’s children were offered shelter in the Nea Kavala camp, in Northern Greece. Conditions in the camp were very poor. Banan said: “The worst was that we were living in a tent in the beginning without any protection and there was no support for us, (and) for my (vulnerable) situation as a mother alone with my ten kids.”

 

After seven months, a volunteer helped the family to move in a private flat funded through donations. Banan and the children stayed there for three months. In early January 2017, Banan decided to move back to the Nea Kavala camp, as she was in need of her community for mental support and in order to have immediate access to children’s activities and doctors nearby. During that time, the tents in the camp were replaced by containers and cash cards were introduced for the refugees living in the camp.

 

But life was not much better than in the tent she and her kids had stayed before. After another month, the family left the camp again to go to a private flat sponsored by donors.

“For me and my children, life in the camp was dangerous and bad. I felt it was the last step before death. There were never enough supplies for all of my children. There were too many people in the camp. My children stayed hungry sometimes. More than that, in the summer it was very hot and in the winter, it was cold. Sometimes we had no electricity,” Banan says.

Banan turned to many organizations for assistance but felt they would not be able to offer that and address her family’s needs because of the number of the family’s children.

“I feel that we are like mosquitos to them, everybody feels just disturbed (?bothered) by us!”

Banan was never identified as vulnerable. As a single mother responsible for ten underage kids, she never received any special support by the authorities despite her difficult situation. An application for housing was made for her by the Greek Refugee Council in Thessaloniki. In March 2017, the family was finally transferred to a UNHCR funded accommodation near Thessaloniki at a former tourist village.

 

However, the family’s plight has not been resolved since the financial assistance Banan is being given by the authorities cannot cover the family’s basic needs. Upon introduction of cash cards, Banan started receiving 550 Euros per month to support her family. This is the maximum amount available that a refugee family can receive each month and is meant to address the needs of a family with five children.

 

Banan told us: “Life is not possible for us here. We wait and we suffer. We hardly survive. The money we get is for a family with five children. I have ten. We are lucky that our neighbours share food with us….”

 

The family’s neighbours confirmed Banan’s plight when RSA visited the family. The family’s difficult situation is exacerbated further by the long period they have to wait until they join their loved ones in Germany.

 

Banan’s asylum claim was pre-registered by the Greek Asylum Service on 27 June 2016. Despite her obvious vulnerability, the full registration date was scheduled for many months later (beginning of March 2017). On 10 January 2017, an application citing Banan’s vulnerability and requesting an earlier registration date was made before the authorities by RSA. In a re-scheduling of the full registration procedure, she got a new registration date assigned for the 22 February 2017 – along with all other unregistered refugees.

On the 11 May 2017, the Greek Dublin Unit sent a family reunification request to Germany and while two months later Germany had not responded, the request got automatically accepted. Now, the family is waiting to get the decision issued. With the current waiting time, a transfer without fast tracking would occur only in the first quarter of 2018.

 

Meanwhile, Banal reported she suffered from stress and needed her husband so she could share the care of all their children. She told us in a tired voice: “I cannot be separated from my husband any longer. The children want their father. My husband and I are desperate. He thinks of returning back to Greece, so we can be together again…. We are in a very bad psychological state. Please help us!!!! “

 

Child in need of a surgery

 

“Is family reunification a crime?”

Ahmad A. (48 years old)

 

On 11 August 2016, Ahmad A., his wife and four of the family’s children (two daughters, one son and one niece – all underage) arrived on Chios. [1] The family’s two eldest sons – one of them underage – had already arrived in Cottbus, Germany one year earlier. The family stayed in total 1½ months on the island.

 

During their first weeks on Chios, the family had already arranged quickly an appointment with the German Embassy for the same month so they could apply for family reunion and a visa to travel to Germany as soon as possible. However, the authorities initially did not allow them to travel to Athens since family reunification cases are not exempted from the geographical restriction that applies to refugees arriving on to the Aegean islands after the EU-Turkey deal As a result, Ahmad and his family lost the soonest available opportunity to apply for family reunification.

 

On 22 August 2016, – Ahmad and his family applied for family reunification through the Dublin III Regulation. A month later, they were finally allowed to leave the island and travel to Athens due to the serious health problems of B., Ahmad’s, ten year-old niece.

 

A check-up of the girl’s health in Chios General Hospital resulted in a medical certificate stating that she suffers from a birth defect called Lipomielomeningocele/ spina bifida. This birth defect had led to a surgery in the first days of her life. B. was also diagnosed with neurogenic bladder, a urinary condition related to her birth defect. Practically, the little girl has problems to move freely and cannot hold her urine, which also leaves her stressed out and feeling bad about herself. B. was referred to a children’s hospital in Athens for further examination and treatment of this special medical condition.

Upon their arrival to Athens, the family went directly to the Skaramangas temporary accommodation site, where they remained until recently. They got a new appointment to apply for family reunion at the German Embassy for 29 November 2016. Twenty days after they applied, Ahmad and his wife were issued a visa. However, the children did not receive one. . For this reason Ahmad decided not to use his option to travel and stayed behind with the kids, while his wife moved to Germany.

 

“When we went to apply for the visa I told the person in the Embassy that I want to apply also for my small niece who is ill. I explained I was her legal guardian by court decision. They told me I couldn’t apply for her. Some weeks later, when we were handed the decision for our visa application, the translator translated the employee saying: ‘Congratulations. There is just a small problem, the children cannot get a visa.’ I asked how this is possible and how could we leave them back…” Ahmad says.

 

On 20 January 2017, Germany accepted the family reunification application based on the Dublin III Regulation. In the beginning of March and with the help of the Greek NGO AITIMA that supports their cases, Ahmad, his three children and his niece were served with decisions by the Greek Asylum Service stating that Germany was responsible to examine their applications. However, due to the limitation imposed by the Germany government since May 2017 that allows only 70 persons accepted for family reunification to travel to Germany each month, Ahmad and the children are still waiting to be reunited with the rest of their family.

 

Ahmad describes the very poor conditions in the camp and the impact that living in such environment has upon the children’s health. “We have been in Skaramangas camp for a year. We don’t feel safe here. The girls don’t go out at all. Anything can happen here. The camp is located in the industrial port. When the wind blows a strong smell of the oil refinery reaches this place. My son who is asthmatic, has problems to breath. When there is a medical emergency, the ambulance sometimes needs hours to come and there are no interpreters to go with us. We need one hour from here by public transport to go to the city, if we want to see some organisation for help… and if I go with my whole family I will have to pay 15 Euro for a return ticket. Also we have to pay 16 Euro a week for pampers for my niece. That’s difficult. This is not a place to live for families and people who are ill. Children have died here before,”

 

As recommended by the International Red Cross that is treating the little niece, B. is in need of an operation and further medical treatment.[2] Furthermore, a psychologist of the municipality recommended that B. should be “transferred to a safe and supportive environment, where all actions for her physical as well as her mental restoration are possible”.[3] In May 2017, the same psychologist issued also a certificate concerning one of Ahmad’s sons stating that: “H. was forced to become separated from his main source of care and support, his mother, an event that affected and is still affecting him emotionally at a great coast. […] It appears that the burden of his separation from his mother has become unbearable for H. since it added to the already great loss, changes, separations and traumatic events that he has experienced because of the war and the constant moving during the past few years.” [4] She concludes that the 10-year-old has developed emotional difficulties as a result of the separation from his mother and that family reunification is urgent and needs to be placed in priority.

 

“Is family reunification a crime? Why do we have to be separated from each other for such a long time? We are not criminals to put us in a prison and keep us far from our beloved. There are so many people waiting here in Greece, it will take years for all of us to go. The long waiting period is like a punishment for all families,” Ahmad says.

 

The family got finally transferred to Germany on 24. August 2017.

 

Minor held in administrative detention together with adults, and then remained stuck alone Greece

 

“The jail was the most horrible thing.”

Hussam R. (17 years old)

 

Hussam R. is from Damaskus. The part of the city that his family was living was bombarded daily, as he remembers. He escaped Syria with his mother and sister three years ago.

 

“First me and my mother left, then my sister came. We met in Turkey. During the time in Turkey, I had to work 12 hours shifts in order to provide my mother and sister with a shelter and food. Only this way, we could save the money to travel together to Greece. On 24 February 2016, we arrived on Mytilene Island. After a few days, we went to Piraeus and from there to Idomeni. We stayed there for nearly six months. Then I managed to cross the border to Macedonia with my family. We were in two different groups: women and men. My mothers and sister’s group passed. We got arrested by the Macedonian police. They beat us with iron sticks and batons. They hit me on my back, on my head and they broke my leg. They also insulted us. Then they pushed us back to Greece. There, I got arrested and detained by the Greek police.”

 

On 19 June 2016, Hussam was placed in administrative detention in a police station and the following day he was transferred to Paranesti Drama pre-removal detention center for adults. He was held there for almost three months until he was released with the legal aid of RSA / PRO ASYL. Over the last decade, Greece has been condemned repeatedly by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for the degrading and inhuman detention conditions. Specifically, the mixed-detention of minors in the same space with adults is violating international law[5] as it puts children at an increased risk of abuse, including sexual violence.[6]

 

Hussam described his horrendous experience in detention. He said: “The jail was the most horrible thing. First I was in one cell with adults. The police hit the people many times. I was afraid too much so I couldn’t sleep. The worst thing was that I could not get in contact with my mother and sister. I didn’t know if they are alive or where they are. I was very worried.”

 

Upon release, Hussam was transferred to a so-called “safe space for minors” in Lagadikia camp in Northern Greece as there was no place in a shelter for minors[7]. There he stayed for two months and only after that he was transferred to a shelter for minors. Hussam told us: “While I was in Lagadikia, most of all I suffered from waiting too long for my interview appointment. After the time in prison, the only thing I was thinking was to get faster to my mother and sister. My mental state was very bad. But there was nobody to help me there. I had no one to trust. I didn’t feel safe.”

Meanwhile, his mother and sister arrived in Germany in August 2016 and applied for asylum on the 4th of the month. Hussam applied for family reunification two months later.[8] On 6 October 2016, his mother and sister received subsidiary protection status and on 21 February 2017 the family reunification request got accepted by German authorities. Hussam has now turned 18 and is waiting for his transfer ever since. He has moved out of the shelter for minors and is now housed in a flat run by the NGO Terre des Hommes.

 

With the current waiting times for a transfer in the framework of Dublin family reunifications, it is very likely that Hussam will have to wait some weeks more, before he can finally join his mother and sister in Germany. This delay of family reunion is a breach of the special protection rights for minors in the Dublin Regulation[9].

 

Meanwhile, Hussam is psychologically in a devastating state, as he reports. “I turned 18, the six months will pass by mid-August and I am still here waiting for the date I will fly. I cannot wait any longer. I need to see my family finally. I miss them too much.”

 

“Hello,

 

I am Hussam R. I am 17 years old. I live in Greece since February 2016 after running away from war and death. I want to become someone important in the future. And with my insistence, I want to continue my future. I am now living since one and a half years far from my family in Greece. I have been accepted by Germany and they allowed me to leave Greece, but still I have to wait since a long time to get the permit to fly and to get a ticket. I have lost one year and a half from my life. I could not study. I wish to go to the university and to finish the education I started in my country. I am running away from my country also to become someone who takes his flag higher. I am thankful to the German government that they accepted us and offer us a life in peace – for me and my family and all the other children.

 

Now, I beg you to do something so I can go quickly to see my mum and my sister after long time and to go and study again. I miss my family. I want to continue my life. The situation in my home country Syria is very bad: there is war and death everywhere, there is no food and no school for the children.

 

Thank you for your hospitality.

 

Hussam”[10]

 

No separation of families

 

There are still an unknown number of refugees in Greece who had arrived shortly before the closure of the West Balkan Route and the EU‐Turkey Deal. Many of them have applied for family reunification to Germany and await their transfer without knowing when they will finally be able to join their loved ones. They endure months in refugee camps, far from local society and established refugee support structures. Desperate suffering and, in some cases, even deaths during their waiting time in Greece could have been prevented.

 

Therefore, PRO ASYL and RSA

 

  •  demand the immediate transfer of these families and all others waiting for their family reunification from Greece to Germany. There are lives at risk in Greece and in Germany, while other lives already were lost[11] in Greece. We ask for the immediate reunification of families where members are especially vulnerable or even suffer from life‐threatening conditions. Families should have access to appropriate medical care in a country that is able to provide such care. The right to family unity has to be respected. Families should be able to care for each other in times of illness and to be together in times of grief;

 

  •  call for the immediate end of the limitation of Dublin transfers in the case of family reunifications from Greece to Germany;

 

  • call for the respect of the best interest of the child during family reunification and family reunion, and the possibility for underage siblings of minors living in Germany to join their parents and to be transferred together. Many unaccompanied minors have turned 18 while waiting to be re-united in Greece and lost many opportunities in education and child protection that they would have otherwise been able to access upon arrival in Germany. Other cases of family reunification have been rejected as the underage relative in Germany turner 18, while Greek and German authorities delayed the procedures. Meanwhile, in Greece many minors were forced to stay for months under inadequate reception conditions in hotspots, refugee camps or even detained in police cells and pre-removal centres along with adults.

 

Endnotes

[1] On 3 January 2016, a Syrian court granted Ahmad A. guardianship of B., his 10 year old niece. This decision was re-confirmed by the Greek public prosecutor on Chios on 23 September 2016. The Chios public prosecutor gave Ahmad A. temporary guardianship of his niece.

[2] International Red Cross document, dated 14 December 2016.

[3] Document, dated 14 December 2016.

[4] Document, dated 12 May 2017.

[5] CRC, art. 37(c); ICCPR, art. 10(b); EU Recast Directive 2013.33/E art 11(3); Law on Reception, art. Art 46 10(b).

[6] See, Rahimi v. Greece, application no. 8687/08, Judgment of April 5, 2011, available at www.echr.coe.int

[7] See recent publications by Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/08/02/greece-huge-rise-detention-migrant-children and https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/19/greece-lone-migrant-children-left-unprotected

[8] Hussam applied for family reunification on 30 September 2016.

[9] Dublin Regulation, special provisions par. 13 and 16 and Art. 6 and 8. concerning minors as well as Art. 29 concerning the transfers and time limits.

[10] Letter dated 12.06.2017. Hussam turned 18 on 15.07.2017.

[11] See: https://www.proasyl.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Dublin-Greece_No-Separation-of-Families.pdf

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