© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New German Law Delays Refugee Families Reuniting


Germany allowed more than a million migrants into the country last year, but anti-immigration sentiment is growing. Earlier today, the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was significantly weakened in regional elections in three states because of her pro-immigration stance. Meanwhile, the German parliament is trying to made the country less attractive to asylum-seekers. A new law would delay family reunification for some recent arrivals, and that law has a particular impact on children who make the dangerous trek to Germany on their own. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Zara Hussein looks right at home at this Berlin high school with his gelled hair and faded jeans.

ZARA HUSSEIN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He's 16 and rather shy, not what you'd expect from a kid who managed to sneak across a half-dozen borders and travel 2,000 miles to escape the war in Syria. Zara is one of more than 60,000 minors seeking asylum who arrived in Germany on their own, a number that's climbed exponentially in recent years according to refugee advocates.

HUSSEIN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says he was 14 when he fled northeastern Syria after the Kurdish YPG army tried to forcibly draft him. An uncle helped him scale a border fence in the middle of the night into Turkey. But even there, his family felt he wasn't safe, so his older brother arranged for smugglers to take Zara to Europe.

HUSSEIN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: Zara says he anxiously waited in an Istanbul hotel for the smugglers, who had arranged for a plane ticket to Belgrade and a fake Turkish passport with the Serbian visa. From Serbia, Zara says he was driven to another country - he isn't sure which one - from where he and three other teenagers sprinted 20 minutes across an uncontrolled border into Germany.

HUSSEIN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says he was scared out of his wits the entire time, and his only comfort was the thought of someday reuniting with his parents and little brother in Germany. But that reunion is now in jeopardy. A new law delays certain refugees from bringing their families to Germany for at least two years, and that can also apply to minors. Stephan Mayer is an MP with the ruling coalition that passed the law. He believes the new measure actually protects children.

STEPHEN MAYER: We have the impression that there is a business model to send first the children and, if they have the possibility to make a reunion with their parents, to get the parents also to Germany. So we want to cut off this business model.

NELSON: Tobias Klaus of the German Federal Association of Unaccompanied Minor Refugees disputes Mayer's claim that a disincentive is needed. He says only 400 parents had been reunited with the 60,000 minors in Germany by the end of last year, even under the old law.

TOBIAS KLAUS: (Through interpreter) Every child needs his or her parents no matter where they are from. These youth have suffered so much trauma being separated from their family and their homeland and all the dangers they face there, and on the journey here.

NELSON: Zara says the German government's decision to delay family reunification has upset his parents back in Syria. He speaks to them and his little brother by Skype when they are able to get close enough to the Turkish border to pick up a Wi-Fi signal.

HUSSEIN: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: Zara says his parents won't be deterred even if the German government tries to make them wait. He says that if left with no other choice, they will go on the same illegal journey their son did more than 18 months ago. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!