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Black Families Matter: Refugees protest for right to be reunited with loved ones

Updated: Jul 25

By Marina Mai

'Where is my dad?' Young and old, many demonstrated for the first time in their lives Pictures: Florian Boillot

Yonas K sat in a train for 11 hours to get to Berlin for the protest.


Traveling from a small town in Baden-Württemberg, he was among more than 1,000 Eritreans from all over Germany demonstrating in the capital for the right to family reunification last Monday.


"I have an apartment. I’ve worked in a bicycle repair shop in Germany and am now doing a professional apprenticeship," says the man in his late 20s. "My family lives in Ethiopia in a refugee camp under very difficult conditions," he explains.


His wife and three children have been waiting for four years to travel to Germany: they have the right to do so as the family of a person legally entitled to asylum.


"But the German authorities are making us wait," says Yonas. And in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, a country which recently once again has been experiencing increasing political instability, waiting can be life-threatening.


"They wait for years in politically unstable and economically difficult neighboring countries," asylum-seeker advisor and Berlin native Daniel Mader says over the sound-truck speaker.


It is impossible for anyone in Eritrea to submit an application for family reunification, he continues.


First, you have to wait six months to register as a refugee with the UN refugee agency UNHCR, and then wait another year or so for an appointment at the German embassy, which lacks adequate staff and facilities in order to process the applications in a timely manner.


After that, it takes another six months to get a response from the German government. And in most cases, the answer is: you need to provide more documents and/or take a DNA test to confirm paternity or other family links.


"Germany demands documents that we do not have," another speaker at the protest complains.


That is because in Eritrea, births and marriages generally are only noted in church records. However, the German Foreign Office requires civil-law certification of religious documents.


Around three-quarters of applications for family reunification are rejected by the German embassy following additional processing times of six to eight months because this official stamp is missing, according to information provided in answer to a parliamentary question posed in May by Ulla Jelpke (Die Linke).

Yet Eritrean government authorities will only sign off on such a document under conditions that the protesters consider unreasonable. This is because Eritrea levies a two-percent “diaspora tax” on any income earned by its citizens subsequent to their emigrating abroad. The tax is payable immediately upon access of consular services. The payments are a major financial support for the isolated country, where human rights are violated on a massive scale.

It is the demonstrators’ great hope that this will change. "After all, they did block off the streets for us," says one Berlin resident, who is attending a protest for the first time in his life. He has high expectations.


The Eritreans are at pains to comply carefully with social-distancing rules.

"How many more years without my family?" reads one sign held aloft by a protester. "I miss you," is written on another, with photos of two elementary-school-aged children underneath.


Among the protesters are also individual children living with one parent in Germany, while the other parent and siblings were left behind on the journey.


"My father lives in Israel," says a nine-year-old girl from Leipzig. "I haven’t seen him for four years. I miss him, and I am scared for him."


Translation by Julie Niederhauser



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