TOGETHER AGAIN

Plan helps families split by conflict reunite in Germany

Since 2016, the Family Assistance Programme has helped over 280,000 victims of conflict in Africa and the Middle East. Debuting in Kenya this month, it eases and expedites the visa application process

In Summary

• The programme assists migrant families reunite with their loved ones in Germany

• It eases and expedites the visa application process, a key hurdle for most refugees

Poorly sheltered somali refugee in Bulla Bagti of Daghahley refugee camp
Poorly sheltered somali refugee in Bulla Bagti of Daghahley refugee camp
Image: FILE

With a smile on her face, Zuleka* (not her real name) says she is excited to see her husband after nine years apart.

The last time their two children saw him, the son was only five years old and the daughter four. 

"My husband left Somalia in 2010 after security issues, someone had threatened his life and he decided to flee for his safety," she said.

 
 
 
 

After he left, Zuleka faced many challenges in Somalia, including raising her two children on her own and trying to get reunited with her husband.

From Somalia, her husband came to Kenya via road before travelling to Kampala.

 "He stayed briefly in Kampala before moving to Sudan and finally Libya," she said.

In 2012, he arrived in Libya, where he was arrested and detained for eight months.  Most African migrants end up in Libya detention centres, trying to flee conflict and poverty for a better life in Europe.  Thousands of migrants are held in dire conditions in government-run detention centres across Libya.

According to reports by the BBC, migrants pay smugglers to go to sea but are caught and put in detention camps. They bribe their way out, escape or get sold to traffickers by guards. They may also try and raise money to pay smugglers and try the sea again.

Last year, Zuleka's husband initiated the reunification process after settling and landing a job in Germany. 

BRIGHTER FUTURE 

 
 
 

Amina* last saw her son three years ago after they were separated trying to flee conflict that had broken out in their Somali homeland.

He was only 12 years old, when he went missing. She would occasionally receive unconfirmed information of her son's whereabouts. However, she was unable to get into direct contact with him.

During an interview with the Star, Amina says her son went to Libya after fleeing Somalia, though she cannot confirm how he got there. He was arrested and detained in Libya for about six to seven months.

Asked if her son faced the ordeals migrants go through in Libya, she broke down and was unable to continue with the interview.

The Star, however, learned that he safely arrived in Germany by sea, where he initiated the reunification process with her. It took her a while to get the necessary documentation to travel to Nairobi for the process.

Zuleka and her two children are in the process of DNA testing to prove their relationship. The family, who moved to Nairobi in July last year, reside in Nairobi West and have been in regular contact with their father. 

"He got a good job in Germany and he sends us money for upkeep regularly. I am so happy that we will finally be reunited," she said. "My hope for the future is renewed."

Amina, on the other hand, is in the initial stages of visa application, and she is hopeful that she will soon see her son again. 

THE REUNIFICATION PROCESS

The Family Assistance Programme, launched this month in Nairobi, is an initiative funded by the German government and implemented by the International Organisation of Migration.

Since its inception in 2016, the programme has assisted over 280,000 beneficiaries. It offers a regular pathway for migrants in vulnerable situations.   

The German Embassy in Nairobi serves applicants from Kenya, Eritrea and Somalia. Majority of the applicants are of Somalia origin. 

Project coordinator Eleonora Servinor said, "Families that have been separated face many obstacles in the reunification process, leading to prolonged separation, which negatively affects the ability of migrants in destination countries to integrate and thrive." 

Some of the obstacles faced by families include high financial and evidentiary requirements, restrictive eligibility criteria, lack of information and support, as well as logistical barriers.

Due to these challenges, families have fallen victim to misinformation and exploitation by visa brokers and smugglers. 

The programme, however, empowers families with information and visa-related services in their native language, including Kiswahili, Arabic, Kurdish, Tigrinya, Amharic, Somali, Dari and Pashto. 

IOM Kenya acting Chief of Mission Ferdinand Paredes said, "We serve between 60 to 100 people per day and utilise a sophisticated, tailored case management system, which enables programme staff to track and record every interaction with beneficiaries."

Adding, "The system is securely accessed by the German Federal Foreign Office, enabling real-time monitoring of programme activities."

German Ambassador Annett Gunther said the programme offers reunification services to families at no cost. 

"The people who come to Germany have mostly escaped situations of conflict and turmoil and, on their way, have been separated from their families. The programme assists in expediting and easing the visa application process," she said. 

For families to be reunified with their loved ones in Germany, contact has to be made by the migrants after being granted refugee status in Germany. 

Parents who wish to be reunited with their children must travel to Germany before the child attains the age of 18. 

"In some cases, processing time takes so long that minor children become adults are no longer eligible for family reunification," Servino said. 

Applicants are asked to provide documentation that proves relationships with those in Germany, including birth and marriage certificates. 

Short deadlines to apply for reunification means potential applicants only have three months to gather required documents. 

"The time of processing takes about six to nine months, but the waiting time may be longer since we are only allowed to process 1,000 visas per month," she said.  

Though the visa application process is free, applicants incur transportation costs to Germany. IOM, however, offers special interest rates and sometimes NGOs provide assistance funds to them.

Other costs incurred by the families include DNA testing, document translation and verification and costs for obtaining the required documents. 

SOLUTIONS MOVING FORWARD 

The IOM has called upon governments to implement elements that dignify the family reunification process. According to a document seen by the Star this can be achieved by bringing onboard staff from multicultural backgrounds. 

"Staff responsible for processing applications and assisting families should receive up-to-date training on family reunification rights and procedures," the document reads.  

"The training should include country-specific cultural awareness, so that bona fide family relationships are recognised."

With language being a key barrier to reunification, families should receive information in their own language on the status of their application and have access to legal advice. 

Further, obtaining travel and other documents is challenging, especially in countries of origin where conflict, instability or political repression exists. 

"Governments should take measures to facilitate the logistical aspects of family reunification, such as travel and access to embassies or consulates," the document states. 

As with the case of Somalia and Eritrea, where the German embassy is not present, family members may have no choice but to cross international borders irregularly to reach the nearest embassy. 

"It is particularly important to provide travel assistance to vulnerable migrants, such as unaccompanied minors and those requiring medical support," the document reads. 

To promote transparency, national governments should publish information regarding the right to family reunification and related data. This includes the average processing times for each country of origin. 

Host governments have also been encouraged to take measures that will prepare migrant families for their arrival and successful integration into their societies. 

"This includes integration training, covering language courses and information about rights and responsibilities in the country of destination," the document states. 

"Requirements related to the income level, accommodation and health insurance of sponsors are often impossible to meet, especially since the sponsors have often only recently arrived themselves." 

It also urges that the definition of family should be sufficiently broadened not to limit non-formal life partners and non-dependent family members, where appropriate.