Just days after the devastating earthquake and as the first vehicles loaded with relief supplies set off from German airports in the region, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community and the Federal Foreign Office made an announcement in favour of further assistance: families with a Turkish or Syrian background would be able to take in their family members affected by the earthquake on a temporary basis.
A task force was announced and extra staff have been pledged to the visa departments of Germany’s overseas representations. But despite “simplification measures”, the bureaucratic obstacles to visa applications remain excessively high – and effectively impossible for Syrian nationals to overcome.
Anybody wishing to come to Germany will have to show a valid passport. Family members in Germany and elsewhere must disclose their income or bank account details as part of a declaration of commitment, to prove that they can financially support their relatives. The Turkish victims still in the country must prove that they are homeless in the earthquake area, provide evidence of health insurance and then present themselves to one of the many visa processing agencies working on behalf of the embassies. Under the current circumstances, these conditions are effectively impossible to meet in a timely fashion. Who stops to collect their passport when fleeing for their lives as their home collapses around their ears?
So how can these barriers be effectively overcome without breaking any laws valid in the Schengen area or nationally? This is the question that the new task force, but also German civil society, federal states and communities, must answer. The next steps could bring about practical solutions, for instance if the insistence upon Turkish earthquake survivors being able to show a physical passport could be substituted for their identities being confirmed by the Turkish authorities on the basis of existing electronic identification data. What if the financial burden of the family members’ declaration of commitment could be eased by solidarity funds in the cities and communities? What if the extra staff promised to the visa application points could be sent to the stricken area itself rather than to the embassies, which applicants would seriously struggle to reach?
Expecting Syrian earthquake survivors to be able to meet all the visa application formalities AND make their way to a German embassy in Beirut, Amman or Istanbul to apply in person for the “special visa for earthquake victims” suggests a lack of realistic understanding of the situation on the ground. The only feasible route for these people in the direst need – who have so far been left almost entirely to their own devices – would be to cross the border into Turkey and then travel onwards to another host country – but that route is closed to them.
Now that more relief aid is finally able to make its way through extra Turkish border crossing points and into Syria, it should also be possible for the seriously injured and most in need of help to be evacuated back from Syria across the border into Turkey and flown from there to host countries in humanitarian contingents along with their Turkish counterparts. An air bridge to Europe and other parts of the world – as was also made possible for the Afghan local agents.
For emergency situations of this kind, Germany is making provision for a humanitarian hosting procedure under (residence) law, allowing people being hosted in the country to be granted a residence permit for a set period of time.
It could be taken one step further to pave the way for Syrian victims to travel to their families in Germany and elsewhere in the world.
The number of people who can be helped in this way by the announcements made by the country is now in the hands of the task force, which must work as a matter of the utmost urgency to eliminate the immovable obstacles that persist. Civil society, cities and communities are standing by to do their bit, too!
First Published in German on boell.de