"What does home mean? It means the family, gathering together & happiness. Since we got to Greece, the term home has been ruined, the family is ruined, is scattered."

Many refugee women worldwide are the heads of their household, singlehandedly providing for and protecting their children. Throughout our work on Lesvos and Mainland Greece, we have met strong, resilient women who do not know when they will see their loved ones again. Due to war and a harsh political landscape, they have been indefinitely separated from family members - husbands, siblings, parents, children - across borders.   

Since March of 2016, the closed borders from Greece to the rest of Europe have crushed hopes of swift family reunification. There are over 60,000 refugees in Greece, over half of whom are women and children. So far, only 12% of the 66,400 asylum seekers to be transferred to other countries in Europe have actually left, or are scheduled to leave Greece. 

Photo: Tommy Chavannes, Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Tommy Chavannes, Lighthouse Relief

"We may have escaped the war in Syria, but instead we have entered a humanitarian and emotional war and crisis."

What risks do separated mothers face?

EU policies have a punishing impact on the women left behind. These female heads of household are the protectors and providers for their families. By humanitarian standards they are deemed vulnerable - and in many ways, they are. Female heads of household shoulder the burden of childcare singlehandedly, while trying to navigate the asylum system, obtain goods from distribution lines, feed and clothe their children. They face many risks, including the risk of exploitation. But they are also strong, brave and resolute in their devotion to their families. In order to advocate more effectively for the rights of single female heads of household, it is vital to understand the risks that they face. 

  • A recent Amnesty International report drew from over interviews with over 40 refugee women and girls in northern Europe, reporting that the women interviewed felt threatened and unsafe during their entire journey. Unaccompanied women or those travelling alone with children are especially vulnerable to risks. 
  • Adequate protections must be established to lessen these risks. Guidelines on minimising GBV risks in displacement must be implemented - these changes can include ensuring adequate light near bathroom facilities. 

"Ever since we got to this camp we have forgotten that we are young women, and that we have rights. All these things have been forgotten."


Photo: Lighthouse Relief/Tommy Chavannes

Photo: Lighthouse Relief/Tommy Chavannes

Are there legal protections for families?

Family reunification is a human right. This has been stated by many conventions and protections signed by EU states. Here are just a few of them: the European Convention on Human Rights (1953); the Family Reunification Directive in September (2003); The European Social Charter; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to name a few. 

Separated families and asylum seeking families are entitled to legal reunion under the Dublin Regulation, an EU law first established in 1997.  

"We are now approaching the winter and we do not see how this situation will continue"

What are the legal barriers to reunification?

The women we spoke with are still stranded in Greece. European countries have enacted new laws to reduce family reunifications. Even though there are many legal protections and mandates in place for family reunification, many countries are trying to delay or circumvent these protections.

  • In January of 2016, Denmark recently applied a new law delaying family reunification, in which the waiting period was raised from one year to three. 
  • In February of 2016, Germany approved a two year ban on family reunifications for those with subsidiary protection, as part of its "Asylum II" package. Subsidiary protection is afforded to individuals who have not been granted full refugee status, although they cannot be deported for humanitarian reasons.  It's not just a two year waiting period - after the two years, family members must start a lengthy application process. Since subsidiary protection is not full refugee status, in the meantime, refugees cannot work or go to school, further impairing the ability to assimilate into the host country.  Thousands of Syrian refugees in Germany have sued the German government for their right to be reunited with their families by gaining full refugee status rather than subsidiary protection. 
  • In January of 2016, the Austrian government introduced a bill that would increase the waiting period for refugees to apply for family reunification. 
  • In Sweden, persons eligible for subsidiary protection who have temporary residence permits will not have a right to family reunification. Married couples must be at least 21 to be reunited, and reunification only applies to immediate family members.
  • The Swedish government also states that: “If you have been granted subsidiary protection status and you applied for asylum after 24 November 2015, the possibilities of your family joining you in Sweden are very limited.”

In addition to violating human rights, and agreed upon conventions, denying family reunification has serious consequences for refugees trying to adapt. Imagine trying to settle into a new country without your family - worse, imagine trying to adjust to a new culture with little idea of when or if your spouse and children will join you. That uncertainty does not incentivise assimilation - in fact, it is extremely difficult to put down roots and adjust to a new culture when you are so deeply uncertain about the future. 

Photo: Lighthouse Relief/Tommy Chavannes

Photo: Lighthouse Relief/Tommy Chavannes

"We would like the world to look at us, to notice us."

What can we do?

Collectively, governments and communities must find a real solution that will give peace and stability to people fleeing conflict. Now, more than ever, we must work together to ensure that an already overburdened Greece is not shouldering this crisis alone. Family reunification must be possible. In the meantime, adequate protection must be provided for all refugees, but specific considerations must be taken for single women traveling alone or with children. 

Lighthouse Relief is providing support to displaced women in three camps of Mainland Greece. Many of the women that we meet have been separated from husbands, siblings and parents either in their home countries or already in Europe. 

We aim to provide a support system in this hopefully brief transition time - through our Female Friendly Space, we engage with female residents, offer a safe space for them to go and feel comfortable. Through our Infant and Young Child Feeding program, we engage women and their young children in the Mother and Baby Area, a safe prefabricated unit where women can gain nutritional and breastfeeding support. 

Separated children also need psychosocial support - in our Child Friendly Space, we create a safe environment where children can play, learn and develop emotional coping mechanisms. The time they spend in the CFS also eases the burden on their mothers, who so rarely have respite from their many responsibilities.

Photo: Lighthouse Relief/Tommy Chavannes

Photo: Lighthouse Relief/Tommy Chavannes

What can you do?

And finally, what can we do as individuals and citizens to better advocate for those suffering the impact of harsh political policy? 

  • Learn! Start by learning more about the refugee crisis and how it is impacting families, especially single female heads of household. Learn more about your country’s interpretation of asylum law - each country has its own. If you need reading recommendations, we have a few ideas below.  Find out more about the rights of asylum seekers to reunification, and how they can best go about the process.

  • Organise! Raise awareness by organising events. A few options are film screenings or art exhibitions. Invite decision makers or representatives from NGOs to a panel or roundtable discussion afterward and ask them what they plan to do to increase and ease family reunification. If possible, invite other activists or organisations to collaborate with you at the event. See if you have any allies at schools or other public institutions whom you think you could partner with on raising awareness.

  • Network! Create an inventory of decision makers, EU-level, national and local, and explore your social network to see if you have any contacts to get their attention via email, social media, or by arranging a meeting at the local municipality. To get started, download our template letter to elected officials expressing concern and urging for support for refugees. You can find contact information for the Swedish Riksdag here and the Danish parliament here, for example. National elections are coming up in several European countries this year, including France, Norway and Germany. This means a chance to raise the issue in the political debate.

  • Reach out! Find your friends, allies and fellow advocates within the decision making system. Find journalists near you (radio, print, broadcast media) who might want cover the events you arrange. Write and pitch opinion pieces in your local newspaper or letters to the Editor.

  • Volunteer! Find local organisations that are supporting refugees, either during resettlement in host countries or applying for asylum. In Sweden, you can volunteer with the Red Cross to help with language training and organising activities as asylum accommodation centers. Consider volunteering with an organisation on the ground in Greece (like Lighthouse Relief) to contribute your skills while refugees are in a transitional time.

  • Spread the word! Use social media to raise awareness and to advocate for refugee solidarity and separated families. Share our video to raise awareness about the fear and risks facing separated mothers. When you use Twitter, you can tag national or local politician so that they see the message. Send the office of your local or national politicians an email urging them to take action. If possible, call your elected representative and let them know that refugee resettlement is a key priority for you. 


Additional Reading

The Impact of European Union law on Family Reunification in Greece. European Database of Asylum Law. March 9, 2016.

EU-Turkey Agreement Failing Refugee Women and Girls. Women’s Refugee Commission. August 2016.

“Human rights of refugee and migrant women and girls need to be better protected.” Commissioner for Human Rights. July 2016.

Sexual Violence Against Refugees, Guidelines on Prevention and Response, Geneva 1995. UNHCR.

Guidelines on Family Reunification for National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Platform for European Red Cross Cooperation on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants.  International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 2016.

A Family Reunification Dilemma for the EU, Yermi Brenner, Global Government Forum. March 2016.

ON HER OWN: How women forced to flee from Syria are shouldering increased responsibility as they struggle to survive. CARE France. September 2016.