First there is the life-or-death journey across the Mediterranean, then the trek through the Balkans with hopes of a fresh start in Western Europe. Not all make it, and many refugee families get separated on the way. For some, though, there is a happy outcome.
Passau, Germany (dpa) – At first there were six of them – an Afghan family fleeing war in their homeland with a dream of starting a new life in Germany. They managed to stay together until their luck changed when they reached the Austrian border.
As Ali Ghazni’s family made their way through more than 2,000 people clamouring to board buses into the European Union, two of them were lost in the crowd.
“She misses her parents,” Ghazni, 34, says in broken English, motioning to his eight-year-old niece Rehana, whose mother and father went missing in the melee.
Also sitting with him on camp beds in a refugee centre in the Bavarian town of Passau are his wife and four-month-old daughter.
It is a common occurrence among the thousands of families now on the move through Europe, fleeing war and hardship in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled countries.
“Everyone has seen the images of the Balkan [migration] route,” Martin Rentsch, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Berlin, says. It is no wonder that, “in these chaotic circumstances,” people get lost.
“It happens constantly and everywhere,” adds Guenter Burkhardt, managing director of the group Pro Asyl (Pro Asylum).
He calls family separations a “real problem”, which often starts on the initial boat trip from Turkey to Greece. Boats capsize or sink, some members of a family are rescued and brought back to Turkey, while others end up in Greece, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
There are also rising numbers of unaccompanied minors who must be taken into the care of youth welfare services.
Rehana and her relatives have spent the last week in the Passau refugee shelter, a transit point for refugees who are then distributed to localities throughout Germany.
But they couldn’t travel onwards after Ghazni’s baby daughter was taken to hospital with a heart problem. She’s better now, but the strains on all of them are visibly apparent.
Despite her fears for her parents, Rehana put on a brave face when she arrived at the centre and won the hearts of the staff at the facility with her few determined words of German. When people ask her how she is doing, she replies “alles gut,” or “all good.”
And this optimism has prevailed now that Rehana and her family have heard back from her parents.
For three days after their separation, Rehana and her uncle and aunt did not know what had happened to her parents or whether they had even made it into Germany. Finally Ghazni made contact with the girl’s mother online and was surprised to hear they had landed in Halberstadt, a town located 400 kilometres away in central Germany.
This town of 40,000 inhabitants is one of Germany’s key administrative hubs for filing asylum applications. The relieved parents are now waiting for their daughter and the rest of the family to join them there.
A few years ago, the prospects of such a swift reunion would have been remote. But today email and social networks are huge assets in bringing separated family members together again.
If people are unable to make contact independently, the German Red Cross’s tracing service is the “main point of contact,” UNHCR spokesman Rentsch said.
This service was set up in 1945 amid vast human displacements in the aftermath of World War II and is today a worldwide network advertised among refugees at initial reception points, Red Cross spokesman Dieter Schuetz says.
One of the service’s strands is the ‘Trace the Face’ project launched in 2013, through which refugees looking for lost family members can publish photos of themselves on the project website. Missing relatives can then contact the Red Cross.
In 2014, this helped to reunite people in 74 cases, says Schuetz, and by October this year there were 114 success stories.
Another organization, Refugees United, has a similar objective with their ‘Refunite’ web app, which already has 405,000 registered users. People can narrow the search by posting information on distinguishing features and other characteristics to help friends and relatives identify missing loved ones.
Even without these projects, Rehana was able to find her parents and can now continue her life journey at their side. While the eight-year-old’s future may still be uncertain, in the meantime, as she says, it’s “alles gut.”