Unaccompanied, Unafraid: Refugee Minors Go it Alone
By Christa Street
Fahd Omar left Turkey for Greece under the cover of nightfall, in the company of a lone friend. Others had suggested he stick with a larger group that could keep him safe, but he thought, “No. I’m 16, they’re 20, 21, 23. Somehow they’re just going to take my money and run away.” During the dangerous sea crossing, he feared for his life. “It was really cold,” he said. “The waves were coming over and over.”
Fahd survived and has since become one of over 60,000 unaccompanied refugee minors currently living in Germany. Chances are he’ll live without a parent until he comes of age. While special protections are in place for underage refugees, the German government has recently made it harder for minors to apply for family members to join them in their new home.
Fahd is a gregarious teenager who is quick to smile. Now 17, he says he left Syria with $3,000 in his pocket, and without the protection of his family, in 2015. His father, he says, was an armament specialist who opposed the government of Bashar Assad, while his sister was forced to teach survival skills to loyalist soldiers. Both died in a rocket attack on their car.
Fahd’s mother survived and currently lives in Turkey. Fahd frets about her health and safety, and she would prefer for him to join her in Istanbul. But Fahd has chosen to remain in Berlin. “I care about my education, I care about my future,” he said.
Fahd was penniless by the time he arrived in Germany. He was assigned a bunk in a hostel and immediately began teaching himself German, while embarking on the procedures that would determine whether he’d be allowed to stay, and for how long.
The process can easily take months. By February, 2016, 4,252 unaccompanied refugee minors were living in Berlin, stretching available resources, Martina Kinzel, the city’s youth migration services coordinator, said. Asylum procedures for unaccompanied refugee minors are given priority, and asylum interviews are conducted in a gentler manner. But Fahd still compares the process to a “luck shot.” “You lose hope and you get it back,” he said. “It’s really confusing. You wait, you wait, you wait.”
All underage refugee minors applying for asylum in Germany are required by law to have a guardian before proceeding with an asylum application. There are two types of guardians, private ones and state-appointed ones. Fahd was lucky. In November, one month after arriving in Berlin, he met his private guardian, Thomas Fuhrmann, a journalist.
Fuhrmann largely relies on his own resources and contacts to help Fahd. “It’s a lot of waiting and wasted time if you depend on the government sources,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s the whole idea of this guardianship, that you don’t do the normal, average stuff, but try to help these minors.”
Fuhrmann compares his guardianship role to that of an uncle, very unlike the situation of state-appointed guardians who are responsible for up to 50 minors. “I wouldn’t be able to handle 15, even five would be difficult,” he said. Through a former schoolmate of his wife, Fuhrmann was able to enroll Fahd in a Catholic high school. “The normal way he would’ve wasted another two months of doing nothing because the system is too slow to put these minors directly into school.”
Fahd says he confides in his guardian a lot. “More than I had imagined,” he said. Not all unaccompanied refugee minors have that chance. For the first time in Berlin there is a severe shortage of guardians. Kinzel estimates that as many as 1,000 refugee minors haven’t been assigned a guardian.
The unaccompanied refugee minors who enter into the frustrating and complex asylum process are typically granted either refugee status or subsidiary protection. Asylum seekers granted refugee status are allowed three years of residence. Subsidiary protection, on the other hand, guarantees residence in Germany for one year, and it can be extended for an additional two years.
The difference between the two is crucial. In 2015, 77 percent of unaccompanied refugee minors were granted refugee status under the Geneva Convention on Refugees, according to Diakonie Deutschland, a church charity. Fahd, who entered Germany in August of 2015, was declared a refugee in December. This year, however, the vast majority of underage asylum seekers have been receiving subsidiary protection.
Advocates point to a new set of laws, known as the Second Asylum Package, that came into force in March, to explain what’s changed. The laws suspended the right to family reunification for those protected by subsidiary status for two years. This means that those who today are older than 16 will have very slim chances of getting their families to join them. The government changed the rules for one reason, Kinzel said. In her personal opinion, the government “doesn’t want the kids to get their parents here.”
Typically, the decision on refugee status hinges on the interview required of all applicants. Lawyers like Daniel Jasch, who works for BBZ, a leading counseling center for refugee minors in Berlin, advise against mentioning family reunification during the interview. “You should never say…‘I want to bring my family here,’” he said. “Then you don’t have any chance to get asylum status.”
Some cases are adjudicated on an emergency basis, but Fahd’s situation doesn’t fit this category. His mother does not plan to apply for refugee status in Germany; he says she prefers to live in a predominantly Muslim culture. Fahd is now 17. The first thing he wants to do when he turns 18 is to get a visa so he can visit his mother in Istanbul.
As soon as he finishes high school, Fahd wants to train to become a commercial pilot for Emirates Airline. He jokes about the fancy pilot suit he hopes to show off on Facebook one day in the future. Of Syria, he says that he hopes it will be a better place one day. “We’re going to build it in a more nice way and somehow we’ll be famous after the war.”
On the wall behind him, dried green leaves drape over a black-and-white portrait of his sister. He credits her with teaching him the skills to survive his trip to Germany. Next to the portrait hangs a white canvas with sketches of buildings she drew for him. Despite the fact that he walked with it for over 2,000 miles, the pencil marks haven’t smudged, and the white background remains bright.
Christa Street | firstname.lastname@example.org