The European ‘migration crisis’: Families split and reconfigured across divides

The European ‘migration crisis’: Families split and reconfigured across divides

Vicki Squire

Family reunification policies in Europe are notoriously limited in terms of which family members count as worthy of re-uniting. While parents are permitted to reunite with their children of up to 17-years of age, an 18-year old does not qualify for family reunification with their next of kin. Moreover, extended family membership – once recognised as the norm in Europe – does not count under contemporary reunification rules. Instead, the nuclear family has emerged as a norm to which people migrating are forced to comply. As a so-called refugee or migration ‘crisis’ storms Europe and people escape violence and conflict in whatever ways they can, families are thus split and reconfigured in new ways.

In examining the effects of ‘crisis’ on families on the move, this article focuses not simply on the limits of European family reunification policies, but also on the various ways in which these are experienced, berated, negotiated and contested by people who are not able to unite with members of their family on arrival to a Europe in ‘crisis’ having been separated through flight. The splitting of families is an important theme that is predominant from our research for the project Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat. There are various dimensions to this that are explored here, with emphasis both on the production of separation through crisis as well as the ways that family conflict can provoke flight and thus involvement in Europe’s ‘migration crisis’. In addition, our findings also point to ways in which people deal with such separation through extended family formations. Rather than simply limiting family reunification, European policy thus creates a situation in which people who seek to reunite under ‘crisis’ conditions in effect reshape the meaning and experience of familial relationships.

Our research is based on over 250 in-depth qualitative interviews with people who recently arrived to Europe, or planned to undertake the journey. Interviews were carried out during two phases, the first in autumn 2015 in Kos, Malta and Sicily, and the second in early summer 2016 in Athens, Berlin, Istanbul and Rome. One of the findings in common across all of the sites is that migratory experiences are commonly marked by family separation. Men and women often travel alone or in small groups in separation from other family members, both across the central route from Libya or Egypt to Italy as well as across the eastern Aegean route from Turkey to Greece and on toward Germany. Even people who travel in family groups are often separated from other family members. For example, in Greece we spoke to many women travelling with their children to meet husbands or other family members who had already reached EU states after passing through the Balkan route. Sometimes mothers and/or fathers were travelling to meet with children who had travelled before them, and sometimes they had left behind some children while travelling with others.

There are many stories that we could tell here about the splitting of families, and gender features heavily in this. One particularly memorable example is that of a 29-year old Syrian mother of four who we spoke to in Athens in summer 2016, who was travelling with her husband and three children to meet her eldest daughter in Germany. She explained the challenges that the family had faced on the journey and how her daughter in Germany – only 10-years old – had encouraged her to travel so that they could reunite in Germany despite her mother’s fears of the dangerous boat crossing. She had been separated from her daughter for around nine months and was deeply distressed about the long wait that she had to endure:

Where is the humanness? This is what I want to understand. Where is the humanness in this issue? She’s 10-years old and you know that I’m in Europe. You have the ability to solve this. It [family reunification right of entrance] is a paper. They speak about humanity and humanitarianism and cooperation. Okay, but where? I didn’t [experience] any of this. Nothing. Nothing.

Describing how her daughter went ahead to Europe with her uncle after the family had fled to Lebanon in 2012 and then Turkey in 2015 following the bombing of their home, the Syrian mother explains that the family had to “resort to debt and smuggling” to escape “killing and suffering”. Her frustration with delays in facilitating family reunification in Europe is one shared by many people we spoke to. In particular, this affected many mothers who were stranded in Athens in 2016 due to the closure of the ‘Balkan route’ and delays to the processing of claims in a Greece facing multiple crises (including a financial crisis).

We also spoke to young adults who were trying to catch up with other members of their family who had made it to Europe already, or who had decided to go it alone given the difficulties of family reunification with parents and siblings due to their age. For example, one 20-year old young man from Syria explained that his whole family had their asylum claim and residency accepted in France, but that he and his elder brother could not join them due to their age. He was travelling alone in order to continue his education elsewhere. This separation of families according to age is devastating for many. We spoke to one 47-year old mother from Iraq who was “fleeing from death” with her two younger children to meet with her three adult children in Finland. She says:

We consider the mother to be the most important person. And we heard that here, a woman has rights. … I should be re-unified with my children. … A woman has rights, as a sister or wife or worker…she is half of society, and is at the basis of society. Especially the mother. The mother raises everyone else, sister, brother, even husband.

Indeed, the divisive, and gendered, effects of the ‘migration crisis’ on families comes through in many ways in our research. People spoke about broken families who had become scattered and lost, about “many cases of divorce” that occur when couples are separated from one another, and even about parents becoming separated from their children within Europe due to poor camp conditions that young people flee if they are able.

Some of the people we spoke to left their homes as they could not feed dependents by remaining where they were, while others escaped warfare that had left family members dead. However, our research highlights that it is not simply crisis that prompts family division, but that family division can also prompt escape for many people in already unstable conditions. For example, a 35-year old Christian Eritrean mother born in Ethiopia who had fled war with her children and become a refugee in Sudan explained how, on getting re-married and having further children with her new husband, she experienced conflict with her parents-in-law in Sudan. This led to her flee from her husband to Europe, to avoid the forced religious conversion of her children. Yet it is not only women who experience gendered norms that provoke movement. For example, we spoke to a man from Ghana who fled social and familial ostracism on discovery of a serious illness that can be associated with – though is not necessarily a result of – sexual promiscuity. In cases such as these, it is not so much that crisis leads to family division but rather processes of family division embedded in gender norms provokes a situation in which escape – even to conditions of so-called ‘crisis’ – appears to be the only option.

Despite the many distressing stories of family division that we came across during our research, there were also many cases in which people we interviewed speak about family formations in new ways. A memorable example here is a 28-year old Syrian young man separated from his family, who describes how he seeks to meet a friend who will consider him as a brother or son, and reflects on a woman with whom he was a ‘road companion’: “I was her protector, I was her guard. The one who wants to look after her… are in Germany. …She is now part of her family. I’m her family”. Again, gender plays an important role here, but this time in reconfiguring family relations in new ways under conditions of ‘crisis’ and flight. Later discussing the ways in which elderly people were taken care of over the young on the difficult Balkan route in 2015, this young man explains that as a younger person he would not complain because: “They are our families”.

What this case alongside others suggest is that, despite the many stories of split families that the so-called European ‘migration crisis’ involves, there are also ways in which this serves as a condition for the formation of new relations akin to those of a family. As one 20-year old young man from Syrian poignantly said to one of our interviewers: “I consider you like an older sister of mine… I speak to you from the heart, I treat you like an older sister”. Such kin-like affiliations may not be equal in terms of emotional intensity to longstanding family ties and they by no means counter-act the pain of family divisions. Indeed, numerous people we spoke to strongly contested European policies and keenly felt their divisive impact on family relations. However, it is to say that familial relations extend in multiple ways – not only across space (as families stretch across multiple sites) but also across kinship divides (as people form familial-style ties with new people who they meet en route and on arrival). Whether such ties are lasting and, indeed, positive for those in flight is a question for further research.


Vicki Squire is Reader in International Security at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick. She is author of The Exclusionary Politics of Asylum (2009), The Contested Politics of Mobility (2011), and Post/Humanitarian Border Politics Between Mexico and the US: People, Places, Things (2015). Dr Squire is Principle Investigator of the Economic and Social Research Council project, Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat, and tweets @vidkowiaksquire.