Fatima, 62 years old, fled persecution and the destruction of her city of Aleppo, Syria, with the dream of reuniting with her daughter and grandchildren in Germany. She survived the treacherous journey to Greece, but border restrictions in the Western Balkans stranded her there. She died last week in Athens, still waiting to reunite with her family.
As with many of the older asylum seekers we interviewed in Greece, Fatima, a slight woman wearing a flowered silk scarf and delicate gold-framed glasses, deeply desired to have her family around her again.
“I miss gathering in the evening after jobs and school. It will be the best day of my life to gather all my children and all eat together again,” she told me in a wavering voice, through some tears, in December 2016.
She invested much of her life’s work in her children.
International human rights and European Union law supports family reunification in cases like Fatima’s. An EU regulation that sets out which state is responsible for examining an asylum claim, called the Dublin III Regulation, states that when an older person depends on the assistance of a child or sibling who legally resides in an EU country, the “Member States shall normally keep or bring together the applicant with that child.”
Yet when Fatima, who had multiple chronic illnesses, told Greek officials that she wanted to be reunited with her daughter – who had given her much-needed care in Syria – she was told that she could not apply for family reunification but only for relocation. They did not explain why. She did as she was told, but under the EU relocation plan, she could have ended up in any EU country rather than with her daughter. Other older asylum seekers in Greece told us that they encountered the same problem.
Separated from her daughter, unable to return to Syria and her hope of family reunification hampered by a flawed process, Fatima was stuck in Greece. Last week, she died, far away from both her home and her daughter. Other older asylum seekers in Europe have also died before reaching their final destination since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis.
European countries should live up to their commitments on family reunification, and the European Commission should remind them that this should be a priority for older refugees. Otherwise, many more older refugees will pass away without realizing their dream of being united with loved ones.