After being granted refugee status in Europe, most refugees are keen to reunite with their families as soon as possible, but family reunification procedures for refugees have become increasingly restrictive and complex in many member states. IRIN spoke to a UK-based Eritrean refugee about her experience.
On the streets of Birmingham, Araya is just another single mother pushing her two-year-old daughter in a pram. In this multi-ethnic city, the only thing that sets her apart at first glance is her sightless right eye.
Araya was born in Eritrea but moved to Ethiopia with her family soon afterwards and spent most of her childhood there until war broke out between the two countries. Her father was imprisoned in Ethiopia, and died there soon afterwards, while the rest of the family – Araya, her brother and sister and mother - were deported back to Eritrea along with tens of thousands of other Eritreans.
The family struggled to fit in to life back in Eritrea. Araya, who was then 14, did not speak the local language of Tigrinya, and her mother, who worked as a teacher, was forbidden from practicing her faith as a Pentecostal Christian – one of many banned religions in Eritrea. She ignored the prohibition and even taught some of her students about Pentecostalism.
“One day the police came to our house to arrest her,” says Araya, beginning to cry at the memory.
“They started to beat her in front of us. I was angry and tried to push them away. They punched me in the eye and it started to bleed.
“They took my mother, brother and sister and left me bleeding…I never heard from them again. I still don’t know what happened to my family.”
Araya suddenly found herself completely alone. A neighbour took her in for a short time but she decided to return to Ethiopia with a friend of her father’s who accompanied her on the dangerous journey across the border into Sudan. There they found an Iraqi doctor who confirmed that she had lost the use of her eye but offered to take her back to Iraq with him where he promised to treat her and send her to school with his own children. Her father’s friend agreed.
“When we arrived [in Iraq], he didn’t treat me, he just made me work in his home – a big house with three floors. I cleaned all of it and I wasn’t allowed to go out. His wife was always threatening to kill me if her husband even looked at me. She looked for any excuse to blame me and sometimes she beat me with her shoes,” recalls Araya, who was to spend the next seven years confined to that house except for occasional shopping trips with the doctor’s wife.
On one such trip, she spotted an Eritrean man in the shopping centre. “I started crying and although we couldn’t understand each other, he knew I was in trouble.” He slipped her a mobile phone and his number. When they got home, she hid the phone in the rubbish bin so that she could call him when she took out the rubbish.
“I waited until the family was asleep and then I called him. He had a friend with him who could speak Amharic and I told him everything. They told me to try to escape the house and they’d help me leave the country.”
One day soon afterwards, the family forgot to lock the door and Araya made her escape. As promised, the two men paid a smuggler to take her across Iraq’s border with Syria where she walked for seven days with a group of Iraqi refugees, until they reached Turkey. She stayed at a smuggler’s house full of other migrants and refugees who were waiting to continue on to Greece. There she met someone who knew a childhood friend of hers from Ethiopia who was now living in Athens. Daniel was the first familiar name she had heard in seven years. She latched on to it and decided to go to Athens to look for him. She didn’t have a phone number so when she arrived in the Greek capital, she went to the Pentecostal church where many Ethiopians and Eritreans congregated every Sunday. No one knew Daniel, but she found an instant community there and moved into a house with some of the other congregants. Every Sunday she returned to the church and one Sunday, Daniel was there. They didn’t immediately recognize each other, but he had heard about the injury to her eye and guessed who she was.
Neither Araya nor Daniel had documents to legalize their stay in Greece, but Daniel had what Araya describes as “a good job” and he helped her get a part-time job with the same employer. She tried to apply for asylum in Greece but never reached the front of the long queue outside the Aliens’ Directorate in Athens.
When Araya and Daniel decided to get married their lack of papers meant they had to settle for a blessing at home. The wedding pictures show Araya in a traditional white wedding dress and Daniel in a suit, smiling into the camera.
Fast forward two years of married life and Araya was pregnant with their first child. She was feeling sick and had stayed at home on the day Daniel phoned to tell her that he had been arrested. It was May 2012 and the Greek government had stepped up arrests of undocumented migrants in the increasingly restive capital. Daniel was taken to a detention centre and Araya lost phone contact with him.
“I waited until September. I was pregnant, I couldn’t work, and I couldn’t pay the rent. I had 1,000 Euros of my husband’s savings left. I used it to pay a Sudanese guy for a fake passport to get me to France.”
From France, Araya crossed to the UK where she had heard that life would be better: “You can practice your religion and if you have a child, they help you.”
She applied for asylum there and received refugee status a month later. But Daniel was still missing. She approached the Red Cross office in Birmingham to help her to trace him, but before they could find him, she heard from a friend in Greece that Daniel had been released from detention and returned to Ethiopia to look for her.
With contact re-established, Araya immediately began the process of applying for Daniel to join her and their soon-to-be-born daughter in the UK through a procedure called family reunion. Legal aid for family reunion applications was cut in the UK in 2013 so Araya, who was living on income support, borrowed money from her local Eritrean community to pay a lawyer £400 ($625) to help her. Gathering the supporting documentation wasn’t easy but she managed to get a certificate from the pastor in Greece who had married them as well as a letter from their employer. After the application was submitted, Daniel had to be interviewed at the British embassy in Addis Ababa.
The whole process took about six months but Araya never doubted that Daniel’s application would be accepted. When the refusal letter came, noting that Daniel’s last name was missing from their daughter’s birth certificate and the evidence proving they had been together in Greece was insufficient, the shock was devastating. “I wasn’t expecting it. He’s my husband and we have a child together.”
Daniel also took the news badly. The stress of being separated from his wife and baby and living in Ethiopia without legal status or a job was making him ill. He suffered from high blood pressure and by January 2015 was so sick that Araya decided to fly to Addis to see him. Daniel met his daughter, who was now nearly two, for the first time and the family spent three months together. Araya could not stay any longer. She was in the process of appealing the refusal and also could not risk losing her income support. Now back in the UK and pregnant with a second child, all her hopes are pinned on a court hearing due to take place in August.
She refuses to contemplate the possibility of another rejection. Now in her late twenties, she is still waiting for her life to truly begin.
*Names have been changed