Left Behind Tougher German Rules Leave Refugee Families in the Lurch

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed hundreds of thousands of men into the country, many of the refugees believed they would be able to bring their families later. Now the rules have changed, and countless women and children are trapped in perilous situations.

Diego Ibarra Sanchez / Memo / DER SPIEGEL

By and Asia Haidar


She stands at the window in a floor-length dress, with a blue headscarf, and looks out at the Mediterranean. A fan hums in the next room. Children play soccer in the dusty street outside the house. An acacia tree grows crookedly on the hillside.

Tabarak Karakouz hates this place.

It's been three years and two months since her husband Ammar left her behind in this hut on a hill in northern Lebanon. In the interim, Tabarak has lost almost everything of importance to her.

Sometimes her husband sends her photos of himself in Hamburg, of the refugee hostel or the city's pedestrian zone. Tabarak rarely goes outside, and never alone. Minija, a town near the city of Tripoli, is not a safe place. The Syrian border is only 30 kilometers (18 miles) away.

Tabarak is from the western Syrian city of Homs. The house she grew up in was destroyed years ago, along with the entire neighborhood. The family hasn't heard anything from her father and uncle since they were abducted by thugs working for the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in 2012. Tabarak believes that both men are dead.

Her husband Ammar no longer has a home either. They are distantly related, and he was her neighbor in Homs. The two married in April 2014, after fleeing to Lebanon, when Tabarak was 18 and Ammar was 23. She became pregnant soon afterwards. The couple decided that Ammar should go to Germany, and that Tabarak would join him there after the child was born. That was the plan.

It failed.

The borders are closed to Tabarak and countless other women and children. While their husbands have found refuge in Germany, where they receive government money and attend German classes, the women have been left behind - in poor neighborhoods in Lebanon, refugee camps in Greece or bombed-out neighborhoods in Syria. The refugees posing for selfies with Chancellor Merkel are almost always men.

When a large number of migrants set out for Germany in 2015, German laws generally allowed for recognized refugees to bring their spouses and children to Germany at a later date. But the government has gradually tightened its asylum rules in the last two years, restricting family reunification. Refugees who were not recognized as being persecuted but merely "in potentially serious danger," in the Syrian civil war, for example, are now no longer entitled to bring family members to Germany. About 230,000 people have been placed into this secondary category since 2016.

Thousands of women, together with their children, are now stuck in camps on the Greek island of Lesbos or the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, even women with a legal right to follow their husbands to Germany. According to Greek media reports, there are agreements between Greece and Germany to slow down the family reunification process, which the German government denies. The situation in Turkey is similar.

Minors who fled to Germany can now be joined by their parents, but not their siblings, even if the siblings are younger than 18. It has also become more difficult for those who qualify to enter Germany legally. For migrants with minimal German language skills, it is virtually impossible to overcome bureaucratic and legal hurdles.

The German Foreign Ministry estimates that up to 300,000 people are currently waiting for permission to travel to Germany. Many are Syrians, primarily women and children. They are the refugees in the greatest need of protection but now their chances of reaching Germany have dwindled to almost nothing.

People have been calling for the establishment of a female quota in many sectors of German society, but hardly anyone talks about the gender imbalance among refugees. About 74 percent of the refugees between the ages of 18 and 24 who have applied for asylum this year are men and the women and children who were left behind have no lobby to give them a voice.

Tragedy in Lebanon

Tabarak sits on a mattress on the floor and shows photos of her daughter Fatmeh on her mobile phone. In one photo, the little girl is blowing kisses to her father in Hamburg. Tears run down Tabarak's cheeks as her nine-year-old sister strokes her arm.

Tabarak lives with her mother and five younger siblings in the two-room shack. There is no furniture, and their belongings are stowed in wall niches behind pieces of green material. The family can only use one of the rooms in the winter, because the ceiling in the other one leaks.

Tabarak spends much of her days watching videos of Fatmeh playing with a hand mirror in the corner or toddling around the house. The last photo on her mobile phone shows Fatmeh lying in a hospital bed with tubes connected to her face.

The accident happened last October. Tabarak was boiling eggs when the pot slipped off the gas stove. Fatmeh, who had been playing next to her mother, fell into the puddle of scalding water.

The family immediately took the two-year-old to an infirmary in Tripoli. "The facility and the doctors, it was all terrible," says Tabarak. Fatmeh remained in the hospital ward with her burns for 10 days, says Tabarak. When Fatmeh screamed too loudly in pain, the staff sedated her with full anesthesia. The doctors eventually advised Tabarak that a skin transplant should be performed. According to Tabarak, the doctors removed a tissue sample from the girl's arm and then forgot to suture the wound, which became infected.

Tabarak was holding her daughter's hand when she died. She used the WhatsApp video chat feature to communicate with her husband Ammar as it happened.

"I don't know how Tabarak is supposed to cope with all of this," says her mother Taghrid. She is referring to the loss of her child, her home and her father, the fear of never seeing her husband again, and her lack of prospects. "There must be someone who can help her," says the 43-year-old. Taghrid can no longer hold back the tears.

They had a nice life before the war, says Taghrid. Tabarak's father was an engineer in Homs, and they had their own home, a car and nice neighbors. Tabarak was one of the best students in her school, and it was important to Taghrid that her daughter graduate. "It was my wish that she would have a good future," she says.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently wanted to include Taghrid and Tabarak's siblings in a program that brings refugees especially in need of protection to Europe, Australia or the United States. It was a one-time opportunity.

But Taghrid turned down the offer, even before she could be told where their new home would be. Tabarak would have been the only family member not to qualify for the program, because she is no longer a minor. "It would have killed her," says the mother. "I wanted no part of it." But now Tabarak blames herself for the fact that her family is still living in poverty. "I am a burden for everyone," she says. She has almost given up hope that her husband can do anything to improve the situation from Hamburg.

Struggle in Germany

Perhaps it's because he too has almost abandoned hope. He has often thought of returning to Lebanon, even though he knows that there is no future for the family there, but he lacked the necessary exit documents. As a Sunni who fled Assad's regime, he fears the Shiite Hezbollah militia, which is very influential in Lebanon and supports Assad. "I have no idea whether I would even make it to Tabarak in the north," he says.

Ammar feels lost in many ways. He made it to Germany because his sister lives in Hamburg. She came to Europe through the UNHCR after the Syrian war began. The rules were even more generous back then, and her family, including her brother Ammar, was allowed to join her in Germany in 2014. Ammar believed that he would have the same rights and says that this is what he was told at the German Embassy in Beirut.

Instead, he was granted status as a "contingent refugee," which doesn't even allow him to bring his own wife to Germany, at least not as long as he receives money from the government. There are many different types of residency status in Germany, but it usually takes a lawyer to understand which rights and obligations are associated with each status.

After three years in Hamburg, Ammar, a tile setter, still lacks the German vocabulary to have a simple conversation. German is the first foreign language he is learning. He even attended a German course at first, but he stopped going after the death of his daughter. "My head is empty," he says. "I can no longer think of anything else."

If Ammar could find a job to support his family, Tabarak would stand a chance of being granted a visa. But as long as her husband doesn't even know how to say tile or bucket in German, this option seems unlikely.

One remaining possibility for Tabarak is to apply for asylum for "humanitarian reasons." "Experience has shown that this approach is very difficult," says Karim Alwasiti, an expert on family reunification with aid organization Pro Asyl. According to Alwasiti, the authorities are rarely willing to recognize exceptional cases, and most refugees from crisis-ridden regions already have dramatic stories to tell. A dead child isn't enough, he says.

Alwasiti, who fled to Germany from Iraq in the 1990s, has many similar cases on his desk. The men make it to Germany, with the intention of bringing their wives at a later date, but the women are stuck elsewhere. He often can't do anything to help the women still stuck in Syria.

The Turkey Problem

Chancellor Merkel has also contributed to the situation. She was the one who negotiated the refugee agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The European Union will pay Turkey €3 billion ($3.6 billion) until the end of the year to detain refugees attempting an exodus -- even if it means preventing them from leaving Syria. Erdogan had a 556-kilometer (345-mile) wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire errected along the Syrian border, stretching across Turkey's southern and southeastern provinces.

Only those who can pay a trafficker are now able to get out of Syria, but Feriaz Mohamad Ali doesn't have the necessary funds. The 40-year-old Kurdish woman is among those being kept out of Europe through the EU's deal with Turkey.

Every day, she and her three children walk to the Turkish border checkpoint in the northern Syrian city of Kobani. Her husband Ahmad traveled to Cologne via the Balkan route two years ago.

Sometimes, the Turkish soldiers fire warning shots into the air when the family approaches, but other times they simply ignore her. "Still, we keep trying," says Feriaz. "Maybe they will let us through one day."

Feriaz and her children live with relatives. Their own house in Kobani collapsed in 2014 during clashes between Islamic State terrorists and the Kurdish YPG militia. The fighting lasted for months, destroying much of the city. "The children have nightmares because they believe IS will return," she says. They are 9, 11 and 13. "The youngest is terrified of the dark."

Although the family has a roof over its head, there is rarely running water or electricity. When Feriaz wants to chat with Ahmad, she climbs onto a rooftop terrace to get an Internet connection.

"The thought that we could have been in Germany long ago drives me crazy," says Feriaz. The family fled from Kobani once before, when the fighting was particularly intense. In 2015, Feriaz and Ahmad were both working in a textile factory in the Turkish city of Izmir. But life there was unbearable, says Feriaz. "They treated us like dirt."

The couple worked until late at night to make enough money to survive. They brought hundreds of T-shirts and pairs of pants home with them every day to cut off strings from the seams. The children also helped out until late into the night. But there were constant pay disputes with the factory manager, and Ahmad eventually decided that it wasn't the kind of life he wanted his family to lead.

He managed to make it to Germany via Greece and the Balkans. "It was clear that the journey was too dangerous for the children and me," says Feriaz. An image of a dead boy on the beach near Bodrum had been in the media a month earlier. "You can't make it with children," says Feriaz.

After Ahmad's departure, Feriaz canceled their apartment lease in Izmir, sold the furniture and traveled with her children by bus to Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, where her mother-in-law lives. Many Syrian Kurds have relatives in Turkey.

'The Borders Were Always Open'

Meanwhile, Ahmad applied for asylum in Cologne and was recognized as a refugee a few months later. The German authorities quickly approved his petition for family reunification. Feriaz had an appointment at the German Embassy in Ankara in February 2016, which was still several months away at the time.

As the weeks dragged on, Feriaz and her mother-in-law quarreled more and more frequently. Money was tight, and in the end the mother-in-law's family asked Feriaz and her children to find a new place to live. "I didn't know what to do, except return to Kobani," says Feriaz. The Kurdish militia had since driven IS out of the city. "I thought we would have no trouble getting out of Syria again. The borders were always open."

But by now the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey had come into effect. Unlike the German government, the Turkish president isn't worried about people seeing dramatic images at his border. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been a number of deaths when Turkish soldiers shot at refugees.

This hardly elicited any protests from Germany. The German government has, on a fundamental level, welcomed the new Turkish containment policy. The real victims are those who have remained in Syria. How could they have known that the humanitarian sentiments in Germany would dissipate so quickly? That the country's doors would close to the weak? Feriaz Mohamad Ali never made it to her appointment at the German Embassy. She was unable to leave Syria.

Ahmad, who lives in an apartment building made of shipping containers in Cologne, closely monitors news reports about the German-Turkish relationship. He leans against the wall in his kitchen as he scrolls through a Kurdish news website on his mobile phone. The two-room apartment, occupied by four men, smells of dirty feet, because the shoe rack is next to the refrigerator. A Kurdish flag hangs over the dirty sink. Ahmad feels lost without his wife. He attends an integration course, and he spends most of his free time in a nearby park. When the weather is nice, he sits on the grass and plays computer games on his mobile phone. He barely speaks any German.

"Maybe it would be best if I returned to Syria," he says. But what if Erdogan cancelled the agreement with the EU tomorrow and his wife and children were suddenly allowed to pass through Turkey? What if he could find a job as a tailor soon and send money to his family in Kobani?

Feriaz will continue her daily trips to the border. Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, is about to begin. She has heard that the Turkish border guards take pity on refugees on days like that.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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