People granted refugee status in Germany are allowed to bring their spouse or partner, as well as children under the age of 18, into the country under family reunification laws.
But for many of those from Eritrea, who make up the biggest group of African refugees in Germany, this is proving difficult.
In 2019, German embassies in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya received 1,645 visa applications from Eritreans for family reunification — as Germany’s Embassy to Eritrea doesn’t have a visa office, Eritreans need to lodge their visa applications in one of these neighboring countries.
Only 48% of these were approved, according to a response to a parliamentary question asked in Germany’s Bundestag by Die Linke, a socialist party.
A major hurdle is that German consular officials are “systematically suspicious” of marriage certificates issued by churches in Eritrea of being forgeries, said Ulla Jelpke, a member of German parliament for Die Linke.
Germany’s Foreign Office, however, says it has no choice but to reject such certificates.
“Due to the variety of document formats that exist, there is no reliable way for German embassies abroad to verify the formal and textual accuracy of Eritrean religious marriage certificates,” it says in a written response to the parliamentary question.
This forces refugees, or their spouses, to turn to officials in Eritrea, a state renowned for persecuting its citizens, to register the marriage and issue documents recognized by the German government.
“These are unbearable requirements that need to be changed as soon as possible,” Jelpke told DW.
Eritrea’s appalling human rights record
There are many reasons Eritrean refugees are often reluctant to approach their own consular authorities.
The country is viewed as one of the world’s most repressive nations. President Isaias Afewerki used the threats of conflict with Ethiopia to justify his authoritarian rule, marked by the suspension of independent media, the quashing of dissent and its infamous national service, where many spend years suffering forced labor and physical abuse.
Despite the signing of a peace accord with Ethiopia in 2018, this situation hasn’t changed.
Germany’s Foreign Office is itself critical of the Eritrean regime.
“Democracy and the rule of law are not guaranteed, the political system is repressive. There is no free press and the civil society is marginalized. Human rights are severely restricted,” says a Foreign Office report.
By the end of 2018, more than 507,000 Eritreans had fled their country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — a little under 10 percent of the population.
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report on Eritrea 2020, “leaving the country without permission is illegal and individuals trying to flee risk being shot, killed, or arrested.”
The long arm of that state means that those Eritreans living abroad fear approaching consular services because of the threat of reprisals against their families at home.
On top of this comes the threat of the so-called diaspora tax. All Eritrean citizens living abroad are supposed to pay 2% of their salary in tax to the government back home.
“If someone goes to the [Eritrean] embassy in Germany to get documents, the person isn’t physically threatened. But it can happen that pressure is put on relatives at home, or the person is forced to pay the … diaspora tax,” Eritrea expert Nicole Hirt from Germany’s GIGA Institute told DW.
When asked by DW, Eritrea’s embassy to Germany said its citizens are expected to pay what they called a “solidarity contribution” and confirmed that Eritreans can’t receive certain state services if they don’t pay the tax.
The German government doesn’t see this as an issue.
“The levying of the reconstruction tax by Eritrea does not violate German law and does not appear fundamentally unreasonable,” the Federal Government writes in its response to the parliamentary question.
It added that the Eritrean embassy in Berlin didn’t collect this tax, something that critics don’t necessarily believe.
Declaration of repentance
Eritrea’s embassies are also said to force its citizens living abroad to make something known as “declarations of repentance” in which they admit their escape was illegal and they accept that they will face punishment if they return to Eritrea.
Germany’s Foreign Office also considers this unproblematic.
“The Federal Government has no evidence that the signing of the so-called declaration of repentance would fundamentally worsen the signatories’ legal position or that their relatives would be exposed to reprisals in Eritrea.”
Eritrea’s embassy in Berlin told DW the declaration is an Eritrean immigration authority form used to prevent illegal migration and signing it would not automatically result in punishment.
However, in 2016, the then UN Human Rights Commissioner for Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, warned that the declaration of repentance gave Eritrean authorities a “blank check” to violate the rights of returning refugees.
Long waiting times
Refugees and their families sometimes face far more mundane problems. Simply getting to see a consular officer in the region takes patience — the average waiting times for an appointment are 14 months in Nairobi, 13 months in Addis Ababa and ten months in Khartoum.
“These endless waiting times need to be urgently shortened,” politician Ulla Jelpke told DW.
But this is unlikely to change for the time being.
“The Foreign Office is keeping a close eye on waiting times and responding to persistent appointment bottlenecks as quickly as possible with organizational measures and staff reinforcements,” it says in its written response.
However, improving the situation in the short term might be problematic.
“Conditions specific to the situation abroad can make the expansion, rental or purchase of new real estate more difficult or delay it; the assignment of qualified personnel who may still be undergoing training requires longer lead times than domestic hiring,” the Foreign Office added.
For Eritrean refugees and families, this means they are still waiting — and hoping.