Germany's 'grand coalition' talks stumble over refugee rights

Germany's 'grand coalition' talks stumble over refugee rights
Negotiations between the SPD, CDU and FDP have broken down over the contentious issues of immigration and family reunification.
5 min read
29 January, 2018
Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz following coalition talks in Berlin [Getty]
Three months after a general election, Germany entered 2018 with its government still unknown.

Previous attempts to form a so-called "Jamaica Coalition" between the Conservatives (CDU), the Free Liberal Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, collapsed in November with one controversial policy proving unsurmountable: whether refugees should have the right to reunite with their families.

Germany's two largest parties, the SPD and the CDU, have entered negotiations to form a new "grand coalition". Over the coming weeks, talks will revolve on immigration and particularly on family reunification. Whatever decision is made it will be refugees who live with the consequences.

Temporary legislation

German law had guaranteed refugees the right to reunite with their families. However, a two-year suspension to family reunification applications was introduced in March 2016 for all refugees who receive "subsidiary protection". The next government will have to decide whether this temporary suspension will be renewed, revised or rejected.

According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, "subsidiary protection applies when neither refugee protection nor an entitlement to asylum can be granted and serious harm is threatened in the country of origin". In practice this translates to any individuals who cannot demonstrate a good reason to fear personal persecution but originate from unsafe countries.

Previously, the rights of those with subsidiary protection status were relatively similar to those who received full asylum. However, after March 2016 this radically changed.

Refugees who receive asylum are given a three-year visa. In contrast, subsidiary protection only guarantees a one-year visa, with the possibility of extension depending on further conditions. Apart from the psychological uncertainty which this places refugees under, it also makes it practically impossible to find private accommodation and employment. Most landlords and employers simply refuse to enter into a contract with someone who may be deported in a year.

Of even greater consequence for a large minority of refugees is the suspension of family reunification. Because processing times for such applications can take many years, the likelihood is that even once applications begin, separation will continue for a lengthy period.

Since the temporary legislation was introduced, an unofficial change in assessment practice has led to a breath-taking rise in the numbers of refugees who receive subsidiary protection. For example, in 2015 only 61 Syrian asylum seekers received subsidiary protection, whereas in 2016, this number shot up to 121,000.

Family reunification

The temporary legislation also suspends the right of family reunification to minors who have received subsidiary protection. Anne-Marie Koras is the CEO of Angehört, an organisation which has given legal advice to thousands of recent refugees in Berlin.

"This is one of the biggest complaints we have because they are all turning 18," she told The New Arab. 

By March 2018, it will be too late for many refugee children who are approaching adulthood. If they turn 18 before next year, they are no longer considered minors and will lose the right to join their parents.

A further problem is that family reunification does not apply for siblings. Imagine that you are a 14-year-old Afghan boy alone in Frankfurt with your parents and sisters still in Afghanistan. If, after March 2018, your application for family reunification is processed and accepted, it would not entitle your sisters to join you. Therefore, your parents would be forced into a decision between leaving their daughters alone in Afghanistan or their son alone in Germany.

Motivations and consequences

The motivation behind the suspension is easy to understand. With roughly a million recent asylum seekers entering Germany, many social services feel stretched. Estimates vary over how many people would claim asylum through family reunification, however the Institute for Employment Research believe the number to be no bigger than 60,000. Whatever the number, it is feared to add extra pressure on struggling social services.

According to a recent poll, the majority of Germans support the stopping of automatic family reunification. With the rise in votes for the far-right AFD, conservative and right-wing parties see the blocking of family reunification as a central policy to win back floating right-wing voters.

Yet, those who work with refugees complain that by denying family reunification, the government is creating an integrative nightmare which is pushing people towards depression and alienation.

Solveig, a German teacher who has taught hundreds of refugees over the past few years, has seen many of her students fall into depression over their inability to reunite with their families. After speaking to her struggling students, she believes that this policy is so psychologically damaging that it is better to not let refugees in at all than "to let one in and then tell them their family cannot follow".

Family structure can play an important role in helping individuals navigate a hugely frustrating and alien new nation. UN reports emphasise the family's importance for individual development alongside social and economic integration.
It is kind of absurd to say that refugees will integrate and become German and be a good part of society and then on the other hand you don't allow them to bring over their families
Lilian, an employee of Handbook Germany, an organisation which counters misinformation in refugee communities, tells The New Arab: "For me, family reunion is the biggest problem… it is kind of absurd to say that refugees will integrate and become German and be a good part of society and then on the other hand you don't allow them to bring over their families. Then you claim that there are too many young men in this country."

Many husbands and fathers fled to Europe, leaving their family behind on the premise that they could later be reunited. Nearly three years later, they are still separated from loved ones who may remain in areas of conflict.

The New Arab spoke to one Farsi translator in Berlin who works in family reunification assessment interviews, and who asked to remain anonymous. She described refugees threatening to kill themselves unless they could reunite with their families.

Recently, an increasing number of Syrian refugees are taking the perilous journey back to Syria, where they risk torture, violence and even death. Mohmmad, a Syrian refugee based in northern Germany, told The New Arab that in the past year two of his friends had embarked on such a journey. They decided to risk their lives rather than be separated from their wives and children any longer.

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