When I first met 13-year-old Zeyneb Omer, she was shivering next to a smoldering fire, dressed in a thin blue and yellow raincoat. It was a cold, rainy day in March 2016 in Idomeni, where 14,000 immigrants had created a makeshift camp in Greece next to the Macedonian border. In May, Greek police closed this camp, relocating refugees via bus to locations elsewhere in Greece.
She and her 7-year-old sister, Diana, and their father, Ziyad, hoped to reach her mother and brother in the Netherlands. Zeyneb and her family are part of a large second wave of immigrants and refugees who are trying to reunite with family members already in Europe.
Zeyneb’s family fled Aleppo, Syria, in 2014. They didn’t have funds for everyone to travel together, so the family decided Zeyneb’s mother would go first. So last fall, her mother, Zahera, and 5-year-old brother traveled to Europe. “We heard that when women go to Europe, they are better cared for,” said Ziyad through an interpreter. Her mother and brother arrived in the Netherlands in October 2015.
Nearly a third of approximately 54,000 asylum seekers stuck in Greece are trying to reunite with a family member already in Europe, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. That’s 44% of Syrians and 19% of Afghans who are trying to reach family.
Desperate after months of waiting, Ziyad borrowed money to pay a smuggler and brought his two daughters to Greece, where they planned to retrace his wife’s trail to the Netherlands. “I’m not asking for much, I just want a good future for my children, a brilliant future, for them to get educated,” he said.
All that changed this spring when Europe closed the Balkan route, a corridor for refugees traveling from Greece to Germany.
Family reunification is a thorny issue for E.U. politicians. According to some estimates, almost all of the 1.25 million immigrants who requested asylum in Europe last year could bring between four to eight family members. That means up to 4.8 million additional immigrants could make their way to Europe over the next years, according to Migration Watch U.K.
Since 2015, the Netherlands has received more than 47,000 asylum requests. Of those, 13,845 people reunited with a family member who had already obtained a permit to stay in the Netherlands. But new E.U. policies have attempted to slow down reunions.
In the Netherlands, where Zeyneb’s mother anxiously awaits her family, reunification policies have become stricter recently, according to the Dutch Council for Refugees. Since laws changed last November, the Dutch have up to nine months to decide if refugees meet the qualifications for family reunification, as opposed to only three to six months before. Stricter rules were also enacted that required proof of family ties.
The next time I visited Zeyneb, she and her family had moved to a hotel room with help from a local church group in Katerini, Greece. A lawyer helped to arrange the family’s interview at the Greek asylum office, where they registered their request for family reunification. Every day, volunteers bring food and take Zeyneb and her sister for walks around the city. Still, it’s hard for her. She has a lot of responsibility, taking care of her sister. “She’s very young so it’s very difficult for me to take care of her,” Zeyneb said. “My father is helping me.”
More than eight months have passed since Zeyneb and her sister Diana have seen their mother and brother. Their younger brother Mohammad is in school now, learning Dutch, their father said. But their mother is desperate to see her daughters, especially during this holy month of Ramadan, and wants to return to Greece to be with her family.
The family will have to wait at least four more months for Zeyneb’s mother to receive asylum status before she can petition to bring her family to the Netherlands. Then, it can take another nine months for Dutch authorities to approve family reunification.
Zeyneb said she misses her mother so much: “I keep praying that some miracle will happen. I just want to see mom, nothing else.”