Temporary guests or future citizens?

Michaela Kreyenfeld and Cristina Samper size up the impact on society of blocking family migration.

The question of family reunions is a highly debated issue in the context of the German refugee crisis. About one million refugees have already flocked to the country in 2015. The perspective that these numbers could quadruple as family members follow, has raised public concern. Most recently Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble took up this issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos and recommended the restriction of migration through limiting family reunifications. Only few days later, this suggestion was pushed through when the “Asylpaket II” was ratified.

The role of family reunifications

Looking at the data, there has indeed been a radical increase over the past year in the number of third country nationals who arrived in Germany on the grounds of family reunification. According to the latest Migration Report, published by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), about 50 000 visas were issued between January and September 2015. This is already more than the entire 2014. Particularly strong was the increase in Syrians and among this group the largest percentage who entered the country were children (2/3).

However, would blocking family migration be an effective way of dealing with the issue? Family migration constitutes only a small fraction of the total migration flow to Germany. The definition of what constitutes a family member is narrow: It only includes the spouse, provided that the marriage occurred before migration, and biological children up to 16. Children between 16 and 18 may only be granted a visa on special grounds, such as extreme cases of hardship. Finally, parents of minor children may apply for a visa.

An important aspect in this debate is the large percentage of unaccompanied minors who have migrated to Germany. In Berlin alone there are 7908 minors who are living in emergency shelters, of which around 40% (2994) are under the age of 6. Because of a shortage of guardians for these children, the Family Minister Manuela Schwesig is searching nationwide for 25,000 guardians for under-aged migrants and will invest 10 million Euro in the programme “Menschen stärken Menschen” (Humans encourage humans).

Future citizens or only temporary guests?

In Germany, the family is regarded as the nucleus of society (“Keimzelle der Gesellschaft”) and is under the special protection of the German constitution. Not allowing migrants to reunite with their close family members seems to run against this principle. The position to restrict family migration is defended by the argument that many of these refugees are only receiving a subsidiary protection. This regulation was meant for migrants whose status would be re-evaluated in a year and who would likely return to their home countries rapidly when the conflict resolved. However, most Syrian refugees are receiving refugee protection statuses for a longer period of time. It seems that the German government has not yet come to grips with the question of whether to consider the refugees as only temporary guests or as future citizens. As future members of German society, keeping family members apart only seems to delay the integration process, particularly of the children, into German society.

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