Society

Greece and refugees: Lives put on hold for reunification

Article published on Sept. 8, 2017
Article published on Sept. 8, 2017

A small gesture can go a long way. That's definitely the case for the Mobile Info Team in Greece, a dedicated crew of 12 volunteers who seek to give counsel to refugees on asylum laws and procedures. In an administrative system that can sometimes feel like a Kafkaesque nightmare, these movers and shakers work tirelessly to reunite divided families. And it's not always easy.

“But is she dying?” Jannika asks. It’s a hot afternoon in Thessaloniki, Greece and it’s even hotter in the little downtown office where the Mobile Info Team (MIT) meets every morning. The question is followed by an exasperated laugh from the group, but this is a main criteria to know whether a case is severe enough to be accelerated in the family reunification program. In practice, it’s not far from the truth, a case is rarely considered for acceleration unless the applicant is severely ill or needs medical treatment they cannot receive in Greece.

MIT is a motley crew of 12 volunteers who provide honest counsel to refugees on asylum law and procedures. The team sits in a circle in the middle of the room, some on chairs pulled from toss-away piles bound for the trash, some on benches made from reclaimed wood while the rest sit cross-legged on the floor. They are in the middle of a case workshop and today’s debate about flight acceleration is not uncommon.

Lives put on hold

MIT was founded in 2016 when Greece’s neighbouring countries had closed their borders, blocking the Balkan route and causing refugee camps to spring up near Macedonia. A year later, in May 2017, about 62,000 asylum seekers are still stranded in Greece. MIT aims to help asylum seekers reclaim a measure of autonomy and control in an often confusing and inaccessible system.

In March this year, the German Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière requested a restriction on transferring approved family reunification cases from Greece to Germany. Before April, Germany was reunifying well over 300 people a month, but since the restriction was put in place only about 100 a month have made the journey from Greece to their families. 70 of these cases are chosen by working down the acceptance list in chronological order, and the other 30 are accelerated cases due to exceptional circumstances, which are often severe illnesses, occasionally a pregnancy nearing its due date, or sometimes a minor child alone in Greece.

When the restriction was set in place, MIT started a campaign to raise awareness of injustices and to put pressure on the German Interior Ministry to lift this restriction. They created a petition to mobilise support for the cause, and started collecting and translating letters from refugees who are directly affected. The letters are clear windows into the state of mind of these asylum seekers.

“The situation is terrible. My 16-year-old daughter in Germany has not been going to school regularly because she is suffering from psychological trauma. Her sister, my 18-year-old daughter, is looking after her. Every time she hears the words ‘father’ and ‘mother’, she cries.” Mahmoud has been in Greece with his wife and four of his six children since February 2016. He continues: “We haven’t seen our two daughters in Germany for two years and we cannot cope with being apart. Please, Minister de Maizière,” he pleads, “lift the current restriction on reunifications to Germany. Let us go to our daughters and support them, as all parents want to do for their children. Let our children in Greece have safety and security with their family.”

Asylum seekers who are already exhausted from fleeing their homes and their countries, traumatised by wars they are trying to leave behind, are now suffering while waiting endlessly in Greek camps.

What’s more, the requirements needed for a case to be chosen for acceleration isn’t clearly defined, meaning the team has to gather as much information as possible so that they can present coherent files to Greek and German asylum services. Still, there is no guarantee that the case will be accepted.

Getting ‘Granny’ to Germany

One case was presented to MIT in June when the grandson of a woman who the whole team referred to sweetly as ‘Granny’ had reached out by phone. He was set to fly in August to Norway for the relocation program, but his grandmother who he had been caring for alone in Greece was in the family reunification program to Germany. Due to flight restrictions, there was no way to know when she could fly. There was no way the grandson would leave his grandmother alone, even if that meant staying illegally in Greece.

Though the grounds for acceleration were obvious because of her age and health concerns, there was no guarantee for an early transfer. Rosie, a new caseworker at the time, took over the case and started to reach out to MIT’s contacts. She contacted the transfer office several times, walked the grandson through how to secure the necessary medical documents for the flight. She kept Granny and her grandson informed every day. In the end, the story was a rare but heartening success and Granny’s flight to Germany was scheduled for August.

Rosie organised transportation from Granny’s caravan in her camp to the airport. It was all too good to be true. But the whole team’s hearts stopped when the grandson, who had been scheduled to fly later that same day, saw his grandmother behind a glass divider in the airport. Hours had passed since her flight was supposed to take off. Frantically searching on the airline website, the team found out that it was just a matter of delay. Granny arrived in Germany to be reunited with her family that same day. For all the inconclusive cases MIT deals with on a day-to-day basis, Granny’s was a rare case of closure and happy endings.

Catch-22

Article 29 (1) of the Dublin Regulation states that: "The transfer of the applicant ... from the requesting Member State to the competent Member State shall be carried out ... as soon as practically possible, and at latest within six months of acceptance of the request." This deadline was set to prevent applicants from having to wait an indefinite period of time for their transfer. But when Germany’s restriction was set, the six-month limit seemed to become void without any explanation. As of June 2017 this deadline has been exceeded for more than 300 cases, and the backlog is growing every month.

Laura, another MIT caseworker, is speaking rapidly in German to someone at BAMF (the asylum office in Germany). She is struggling with a case in which two grandparents in poor health face being stranded in Greece. Their son Ahmed and his family are set to fly to Germany to be reunited with Ahmed’s own son, who has been living without his family for over a year. Despite being told otherwise at first, Ahmed is now being told by asylum authorities that his wife and kids have to fly to Germany first. Only then can the grandparents apply for reunification based on claims of dependency. Those eligible for the family reunification program are spouses, parents and minors – unless there is proof that one party is dependent on the other and therefore needs to be with them.

Ahmed pleads his parent’s situation. His father can’t walk or go to the toilet alone. He is always in a wheelchair and needs constant support. His mother has heart, blood pressure and blood sugar level problems. She needs surgery for something in her back, and she can’t do anything by herself. Taking care of his parents is a full-time job for Ahmed, and each member of the family plays a role in their wellbeing.

Ahmed is in an impossible situation. Flying to Germany with his family will allow him to reunite with his own son who needs him, and may be the only way to get his parents to Germany. But it also means he and his family cannot provide the necessary care for his parents while they wait in limbo in Greece, stuck within the obscurities of the system.

The Dublin Regulation states that there should be “rapid processing of asylum applications for international protection.” The Regulation also states that: “family life should be a primary consideration of the Member States.” MIT caseworkers repeatedly have to tell people that their case was accepted for transfer – that they will definitely fly to Germany – but that it’s impossible to say when. The prolonged wait and complete lack of information takes an immense psychological toll on the separated families.

Glimmer of hope

On July 27th, the EU launched a new humanitarian program for “the integration and accommodation of refugees in Greece.” 209 million Euros were pledged to those seeking asylum in Greece. Of this amount, 93.5 million Euros will be put towards housing, placing up to 30,000 refugees in rented apartment. 57.6 million will go towards a monthly cash program, which “aims to enable refugees to meet their basic needs in a dignified manner.” The remaining money will be distributed to NGOs “to top up existing projects addressing pressing humanitarian needs in Greece.” 

The MIT team is hopeful this aid will bring change but the number of refugees seeking asylum in Greece keeps growing. Any refugee who has or will arrive in Greece after the 20th of March 2016, and is not eligible for family reunification, has one option: applying for asylum in Greece. But the integration procedure is weak. There are no official language courses, for example. At first, a refugee is provided with assistance in the form of housing and a cash allowance. After three or six months, even if the case is still vulnerable, this cash allowance ends. There are many Greek citizens who are out of jobs, so it is extremely difficult for non-Greek speaking refugees to find work.

Just like that, the meeting is adjourned and the MIT volunteers go back to their work. They pick up the phone to call lawyers, message clients and hope for the day their work in Greece will no longer be needed.

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