Feature

Germany’s Family Feud

Family reunification for refugees is no longer a given. But keeping relatives apart hurts host countries as well as newcomers.

By Vauhini Vara
Illustrations by George Butler for Foreign Policy

April 9, 2018

Staif and Ayla Haddad, together with their two young daughters, set off from Damascus, Syria, 
to Istanbul in May 2015. The journey began with a taxi to Beirut, where they boarded a flight to Turkey. Their plan was for Staif to continue on to Germany and seek asylum. His wife and children would travel back to Syria and wait for him to send for them. At the time, Germany was granting refugee status to the vast majority of new Syrian arrivals and, crucially, also allowing them to send for their immediate families. The trip was a send-off as well as a vacation. One morning, after just over a week in Istanbul, Staif kissed his 4-year-old daughter, Layla, goodbye. His 6-year-old, Rana, was still asleep. As he prepared to leave, Ayla wept. Staif told her that he would see her soon — next year, at the latest. (The family’s names have been changed for safety reasons.)

Staif traveled first to Düsseldorf, in western Germany. In Syria, he had studied electrical engineering and later worked as a technical manager for a cell-phone operator, so he was thrilled to see office buildings emblazoned with the names of German engineering companies he recognized. He was sure he would find a position at one. The German government assigned Staif to live in Berlin, where, that summer, he began the process of filing for asylum. By then, his family had returned to Syria, where conditions were worsening. Then, in August 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel fully opened German borders to asylum-seekers, insisting, “We can do it.” In the months that followed, thousands of new refugees arrived, lengthening processing times for asylum claims and souring public opinion.

In the winter of 2015, Staif moved into a hostel for migrants on the outskirts of Berlin. He began learning German and applying for jobs. He didn’t put up photos of Ayla, Layla, or Rana in his single modest room. Seeing them, he said, would only remind him of their absence. “When we come to Germany, we want to go to the sea,” his daughters told him over the phone. “We want to go to the mountains. We want to buy bicycles.” Staif told them that they’d do it all. But the prospect of any of it happening soon was about to become much more remote.

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“The family,” the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, “is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Three years later, haunted by the Holocaust and facing an exodus of people fleeing newly communist Eastern Europe, a U.N. diplomatic conference adopted what became known as the Refugee Convention. This document accorded refugees both a clear definition — any person with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” — and a clear set of protections. A nonbinding recommendation attached to the declaration urged governments to ensure that “the unity of the refugee’s family is maintained.”

The need to keep refugee families together, or allow them to reunite, soon became a standard plank of human rights ideology. But this idea was rooted primarily in the clear benefits of family reunification for refugees themselves.

The need to keep refugee families together, or allow them to reunite, soon became a standard plank of human rights ideology. But this idea was rooted primarily in the clear benefits of family reunification for refugees themselves, not in terms of the benefits unified families afforded their hosts. It was not necessarily clear yet just how much these social networks actually help a refugee’s adopted country.

Over the next several decades, allowing refugees to reunify with their immediate families became routine practice. The United States codified a refugee’s right to be joined by his or her spouse and children in the 1980 Refugee Act. In 2003, the European Union legislated protections for migrant families seeking to be reunified, with special consideration for refugees; Germany (as well as several of its neighbors) incorporated this provision into its domestic law.

Then came the most recent wave of migration — the largest since the end of World War II. As of 2016, conflict or persecution had displaced roughly 66 million people worldwide. More than a million of them were living in Germany alone. The United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States were each taking in more than 100,000.

Though the refugee problem was a global one, by far the largest group — nearly 6 million people — hailed from Syria, though the majority of them never left the Middle East. Still, hundreds of thousands arrived in Europe and North America at a fraught political moment. Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris; Nice, France; London; and San Bernardino, California, had fanned fears about Muslims across Europe and the United States. Concern that low-income immigrant laborers would replace native-born workers stoked this growing anxiety and raised the profile of anti-immigrant populist politicians. In 2015, Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s far-right National Front party, blamed France’s “crazy, undiscerning immigration policy” for terrorist attacks in Paris that took the lives of 130 people, and Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician, spoke of an “Islamic invasion.”

Politicians were now reframing family reunification for those who had fled home, long seen as a human rights imperative, as simply more unwanted migration. As the numbers of asylum-seekers increased, several countries — including Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden — began to move away from automatically allowing Syrian arrivals to send for their families. In October 2017, Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, wrote that the “increasingly tough” measures were “often incompatible with the letter or spirit of human rights standards.” In an interview, he said the trend toward restricting family reunification was “the most urgent human rights issue” facing Europe. Despite his protests, many countries upheld the new restrictions.

Every country does, of course, have a sovereign right to protect its borders. And in Germany, as in much of the rest of the Western world, public opinion has turned against liberal refugee policies. In December 2017, a poll by the Allensbach Institute, a research organization, found that only 23 percent of German respondents supported allowing refugee families to reunite.

As a result, a question that national leaders seemed to have answered more than six decades ago — whether host nations have a responsibility to keep refugee families together — is being debated again by governments, and citizens, around the world.

But an emerging body of evidence reveals a more complicated picture — one in which family reunification actually serves a country’s interests, rather than harms them.

Politicians who seek to limit family reunification argue that refugees have strained Europe’s social services, from schools to welfare programs, and that newcomers aren’t properly screened for potential security threats. Welcoming the families of refugees is cast as a dangerous prospect, one that will expose host nations to peril.

But an emerging body of evidence reveals a more complicated picture — one in which family reunification actually serves a country’s interests, rather than harms them.

Family reunification increasingly appears critical to ensuring those refugees integrate into their new homelands and begin contributing more than they take.


Staif was raised in an elegant old house in Damascus. His father was a clothing merchant, his mother a teacher. He studied engineering at Damascus University, where he met Ayla. Within three years of receiving his degree, he had found a job, bought an apartment in the Damascus suburb of Hamouriyah, married Ayla, and become a father. “We were privileged … being born in the right families, in the right time, in the right places,” said Staif’s friend Zayn (whose name has been changed), who went to college with him and now lives near Düsseldorf. In 2012, one year after Layla was born, Syrian rebels gained control of Hamouriyah. Government forces soon began bombarding the town with artillery and airstrikes. Staif and Ayla gathered their daughters and fled to central Damascus. When they returned months later, parts of their town had been reduced to rubble. At their apartment, a man opened the door dressed in Staif’s pajamas and explained that he would not be leaving. It was the last time Staif saw his home.

As Staif waited for his asylum decision in Germany, his wife and children back in Syria bounced from one relative’s house to another. Staif continued to promise Ayla that their reunion was imminent. But domestic pressure was growing on the German government to close its borders — pressure that intensified after New Year’s Eve 2015, when groups of men, including new asylum-seekers, sexually assaulted hundreds of women on the streets of Cologne and other cities.

Frauke Petry, then a leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, declared that German border guards should be allowed to “use firearms if necessary” to prevent illegal entries. Most politicians condemned her words, but in February 2016 the German parliament, the Bundestag, passed a sweeping package of laws aimed at limiting benefits for migrants. One of the new laws applied specifically to those migrants who were denied full refugee status. Instead, they were given something called subsidiary protection — a category used for migrants who didn’t fit the complete definition of a refugee but still faced significant dangers back home. Those in that category were barred from bringing their families to join them until, at the earliest, March 2018.

Frauke Petry, a former member of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party and currently an independent, speaks at the Bundestag in Berlin on Feb. 1. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

At first, the number of asylum-seekers who fell into this category was small. At the beginning of the crisis, less than 1 percent of Syrian asylum-seekers were granted subsidiary protection. By the end of 2016, about 40 percent of those applying for refugee status were instead given subsidiary protection. Coupled with the new legal delays on family reunification, this meant thousands of would-be refugees suddeny found themselves in limbo, unable to bring their families to Germany.

In July 2016, the German government denied Staif’s application for asylum. He, too, received subsidiary protection. Bringing Ayla and the girls had never seemed more remote.

That fall, Staif met Sigrun Krause, a lawyer at Jumen, a Berlin-based human rights organization. Krause and her colleagues were looking for clients on whose behalf they could sue the government to overturn its newly restrictive family reunification policies. The lawyers argued that the new rules violated the German Constitution, which grants families the special protection of the state, and flouted the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Germany had signed and which specifies that if children or their parents need to cross a border to be reunited, the request should be handled “in a positive, humane and expeditious manner.”

In March 2017, Krause filed suit on behalf of Staif’s wife and daughters, contending that the government had violated its legal obligations by refusing to admit them. They requested an urgent hearing.


Staif’s lawsuit and others like it could set a legal precedent on a relatively new question: When migrants from war-torn countries attempt to send for family members, does their right to family unity trump Germany’s right to limit migration?

How well a refugee integrates into his or her new home depends on how well that refugee adjusts both socially and professionally.

But some advocates are taking a different approach, arguing that the question itself is founded on a false premise. They argue that preventing unification does not actually serve the host country’s national interests. After all, how well a refugee integrates into his or her new home depends on how well that refugee adjusts both socially and professionally. Studies of Sudanese refugees in Australia and of Kosovar Albanian refugees in the U.K. have found that refugees separated from their families experience high rates of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. And according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), such stress can “inhibit [refugees’] ability to learn a new language, search for a job and adapt to their country of asylum.”

Others who champion the rights of refugees, such as Muiznieks, the human rights commissioner, point out that separating families causes additional problems as well. It may increase illegal border crossings, for example — since many families who can’t reunite legally will try to do so through illicit means.

Despite such arguments, the political tide continues to turn against refugees. The wave of newcomers is already straining social safety nets throughout Europe. And while Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office has not found that the refugee influx has led to a proportional increase in crime, one much-cited recent report, conducted by the Zurich University of Applied Sciences on behalf of the German government, did find a link between refugees and increased crime in Lower Saxony, Germany’s fourth-most populous state.

But even the authors of this study suggest that one way to address the problem is to permit family reunification — which would provide social support that could temper criminality.


In the summer of 2017, Staif found a job through a contracting agency as an electrician at a hotel in Berlin. He was overqualified, but it provided a steady income of about $1,400 a month. (He began earning more in February, after the hotel hired him directly.) He started sending some of it to his wife and parents. Ayla used some of the money to buy tablet computers for the girls. They started communicating via WhatsApp. Layla once tried video-calling her father, but when she saw his face, they both began to weep. The next time she called, he didn’t answer.

In late August, a judge on Berlin’s administrative court declined Staif’s request for an urgent hearing, questioning the merits of the case. The judge wrote that Staif appeared to have left Syria voluntarily and that his motivation was economic. “It is not believed that the family separation occurred for refugee-relevant reasons,” the ruling read, and Staif should be able to return home to his family “without significant problems.”

Staif’s lawyers believed that such language was in contradiction with his immigration status. Having subsidiary protection meant, by definition, that he was in too much danger to go home. The United Nations had also recently deemed Syria unsafe for exiles to return. But the administrative judge was apparently unmoved by such logic.

By the time I first met Staif last fall, at a coffee shop in East Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighborhood, the setbacks had clearly taken a toll on him. Without prompting, Staif said he should never have left home in the first place and was seriously considering returning to Syria. “I haven’t failed in all my life,” he said, “but I’ve failed in Germany.”

Staif had fallen into a depression. He still held out hope of finding a better job that would allow him to obtain a blue card, a form of residence visa for highly skilled employees, which would make him eligible to send for his family. Finding a better job in Berlin would be difficult, though, because of competition and the complex bureaucracy that determines refugee affairs. As a result, he was stuck in a sort of purgatory, unable to integrate or fully contribute to Germany as a trained engineer. And he remained dangerously isolated. He was wary of socializing with other Syrians given the tensions caused by the civil war at home. He still spoke to Ayla daily but, out of guilt, had sometimes avoided the girls. “He’s just a shadow of the man he used to be — just a devastated, soulless person,” said Zayn, his old college friend.


In February, the Bundestag extended the ban on family reunification. Asylum-seekers like Staif who received subsidiary protection are now ineligible to bring their families before August. As part of a coalition agreement among German political parties, reunification for humanitarian reasons will theoretically resume at that point — but at a tightly controlled rate of just 1,000 admissions per month. The German Institute for Economic Research estimated last year that 50,000 to 60,000 family members are currently waiting to join their relatives in Germany; at the proposed pace, that backlog would take about five years to clear.

On Feb. 19, Staif spoke at a two-hour hearing about his family’s case.

He told the judge that his children were suffering, that his fear for their well-being was making it difficult for him to concentrate on succeeding in his German life, and that they no longer asked about their reunion. “They don’t believe me anymore,” he said. The next day, the court informed Staif’s lawyers that the judge planned to rule against the Haddad family. They could still appeal all the way up to the Federal Constitutional Court and, if that fails, could turn to the European Court of Human Rights. But that process could take years.

Almost three years have passed since Staif left home. Ayla has started pressuring him to leave Berlin and return to her and the girls in Damascus. A couple of days before our last conversation, in January, Staif learned that a bomb had detonated in the neighborhood where his family now lives. When he called his wife, frantic, she shrugged it off. Of course she’d heard the blast, she said, but these things were normal in a war zone. Now it was Rana’s ninth birthday, her third without her father. When Staif called her earlier that day, she had handed the phone to her mother without saying a word. “Every man sometimes thinks, ‘I’ve made a mistake,’” he said. “But when I really think about it, I think I didn’t make a mistake.” Praying about his decision, he’d come to feel that he’d had no choice but to leave and give his family a chance at escaping. “I’m trying,” he said. “I’m keeping on trying.”

Vauhini Vara is a contributing writer for the New Yorker’s website, and her stories have been published in the Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and Bloomberg Businessweek, among other publications. She reported from Berlin as a 2017 Arthur F. Burns fellow.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of
  Foreign Policy magazine.

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