Filmon wants one thing: to reunite with his wife and daughter. It is an all-consuming wish, that often drives him to despair. However, standing in the way of this family’s reunion is the big beast of Bureaucracy, with a level of procedural complexity and slowness that dehumanizes everything in its path. This particular Bureaucracy is comfortably located in its European homeland, where it has created a complex system of forms, applications and interviews for those who wish to enter, Filmon included. Two years ago, his wife and 7-year-old daughter escaped from their homeland of Eritrea, travelled by boat from Libya to Italy, eventually arriving in Germany. Since their separation, Filmon has been working towards reuniting with them, by making the dangerous, but cheaper, journey through Egypt to Israel, where he now lives and works for little money in bad conditions.
Nevertheless, there is a real chance that all of this will have been in vain. Like many Eritreans, Filmon does not have a passport, nor does he have any kind of formal ID, birth or baptism certificate, or school records. In Europe he might be considered a ghost; someone who doesn’t exist on paper. However, Filmon is not in Europe yet and he’s not alone in his situation. Many Eritreans find themselves in the same position- stuck in countries that are not their final destination, or where their families are, but without the necessary paperwork with which to move forwards in their daunting fight against Bureaucracy.
The family reunification system allows for close family members to join their relatives, who are legal residents in Europe. It is an essential part of realising the right to family life, which is included in various international legal instruments, including Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Although little spoken about in current asylum rhetoric, it has been one of the main reasons for immigration into the EU for the past 20 years. The mechanism has been a positive tool that allows for better integration, more socio-economic stability and a support network for new arrivals. However, the refugee crisis has seen the doors to Europe closing shut. Although there are common rules established for the right to family reunification [in 25 EU member states], governments have a high degree of discretion when setting admission conditions.
Norway, whilst not party to the EU law on family reunification, has a system which has always been similar to other Nordic and northern European countries. Importance is placed on bringing spouses together and reuniting children with their parents. However, this is subject to conditions, which have become increasingly restrictive in recent years. Currently, spouses and parents who wish for their children move to Norway must have an income of at least NOK 306 700 and not have received any social benefits in the 12 months prior to application. For a newly arrived migrant, who most likely doesn’t speak Norwegian, this is a high threshold. For women, who are more likely to work part-time whilst balancing child-care, if at all, it seems almost impossible.
Even if preliminary financial thresholds are met, there is still the complicated issue of paperwork. Mountains of it. The requirement of being able to prove your life, love and very existence through paper is a wonderfully European construction, which requires the presence of vast bureaucracy. It is rare to meet an asylum seeker who has all the necessary documents that most European countries require of them. There were almost 31,000 asylum applications to Europe from Eritreans filed in 2016 alone, ranking them the 9th most asylum-seeking population. Those who are applying for asylum from Eritrea have escaped a harsh military regime; one designed to keep its citizens within its borders. Therefore, an Eritrean passport has taken on a mythical status. Even for an Eritrean living in the diaspora, acquiring a passport means taking unduly high risks for themselves and their families in Eritrea. There have been reports of relatives of those who have escaped being arrested, beaten and having their land confiscated. Unsurprisingly, many Eritreans living outside of the country don’t feel comfortable with approaching their nearest embassy to ask for their passport or a copy of their marriage certificate.
This brings us back to Filmon. Not only does he not have any of the required documents with which to apply for a visa, he has also been a vocal critic of the Eritrean military regime. For Filmon, approaching the embassy in Tel Aviv carries a great risk for him and anyone that he knows in Eritrea. Some of his friends have Eritrean IDs, which are small, scrappy and barely legible pieces of paper, laminated badly. The photo on the ID is usually such a poor quality that the person pictured could be anyone; the vital information is handwritten in Tigrinya and if you’re lucky, Arabic. Sadly, Filmon doesn’t even have this. Almost every national immigration website, including the Utlendingsdirektoratet (UDI), states the same thing under requirements for the applicant: You must document your identity. You must exist. No ghosts.
By the time I met Filmon in Tel Aviv, he really did resemble a ghost. He was a man who had been separated from his wife and daughter for 6 years, in a country that was openly hostile to African asylum seekers. He showed visible signs of his separation and scars from the journey that had led him to this point. Despite the fact that he had almost no documentation, and a frighteningly slim chance of ever receiving a family reunification visa, he had started learning basic German. He was overwhelmed by the forms that needed to be completed. He couldn’t understand some of the questions or why they were being asked of him. The UDI asks spousal applicants about who proposed, if both bride and groom were present at the wedding and how it was celebrated. These questions are designed around a value-judgement of what a ‘real’ wedding or marriage looks like. You see, Bureaucracy can be judgemental too; it provides little room for recognising the nuanced forms that relationships take throughout the world.
The right to family life safeguards our innately human need to live socially and within a family unit. In the majority of the world, family provides the main or only emotional, financial and physical support. The need to keep a family together becomes a matter of survival. Filmon’s wife suffered emotionally and physically from their long separation, as did he. Their decision for Filmon not to travel to Europe with them was forced on them by necessity - they simply could not afford to pay the human traffickers to smuggle three bodies. Someone had to be earning money to pay for a chance of a safer life, naturally that had to be Filmon. Luckily, this family’s story has a happy conclusion. After years of asylum applications and going through the family reunification process, they are now reunited and living together in Germany. This is in no small part due to the dedicated caseworkers that dealt with his application in Israel, who petitioned and fought for Filmon’s right to be recognised as existing, despite his lack of papers.
Filmon found a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, there are thousands more paperless people like him, trapped in a purgatory between the trauma of the place that they have fled from and the families that they desperately long to see again. These people deserve to be recognised as more than paperless ghosts.
Nastassja White has worked with refugees and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa and Myanmar. She worked as the Relocation Project Coordinator at the African Refugee Development Centre in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is currently studying a Masters in Public International Law at the University of Oslo. She is originally from the UK.
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