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LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - When Mohamed al-Khalaf escaped from Syria and won asylum in Luxembourg last year, his wife and children stayed behind in Raqqa, the hub of Islamic State's so-called Caliphate. Khalaf applied for his family to join him, exercising a right to family life under European law.
But first, Luxembourg officials said, they must see the family's passports and a document, certified by President Bashar al-Assad's administration, to prove Khalaf's wife Ghufran did not have a criminal record.
For Khalaf, it was a Catch-22. "They need paperwork from the regime which is a party in the problematic situation which we, in the first place, are fleeing from," he said.
Such requirements are increasingly common. Six years into Syria's war, tens of thousands of Syrian families trying to be reunited in Europe have seen requests stalled for want of documents that European governments need from the Assad government.
Several families Reuters spoke to, including the Khalafs, said that to get the paperwork required, they resorted to chains of bribery culminating in Damascus.
Under normal circumstances, every country requires those who seek entry to produce documents proving their identity. European officials today say they need the papers for security, and to curb people-smuggling. But refugees, especially those trapped in zones controlled by Islamic State, cannot always obtain government papers.
In 2014, a report from the Red Cross and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles found that most European states require documentation that is hard for people from countries such as Syria to obtain. Since then, many countries have required more, not less, paperwork. States variously call for passports, birth and marriage certificates, proofs of guardianship, documents to prove people lived together, or fresh medical records. Some also expect legally certified translations.
In Germany, which has received more Syrian asylum-seekers than any other European country, around 26,000 Syrian applications for family reunifications are not ready for a decision because of missing documents, Berlin says. A German court in December said Assad's cash-strapped government is probably benefiting from the documentary requirements.
"Family reunification is a human right," said Ska Keller, Co-President of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. "It pushes refugees into the hands of smugglers and on dangerous routes if member states curb their possibility to join their parents or children."
Since the start of 2015, at least 89,000 Syrian family members have reached Germany, Sweden, Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium under rules that allow someone who has been given asylum to bring in spouses and young children. There is no solid data on how many asylum-seekers still want to be reunified in Europe, but increasingly, Syrians are given "subsidiary protection" rather than refugee status. This often limits or eliminates their right to bring in family.
Even those who are eligible often have problems getting papers. This is what Kalaf found.
Luxembourg asked for the Khalafs' exact family link to be proven, and a certified copy of a travel document, as well as a criminal record excerpt for Mohamed's wife. A spokesman for Luxembourg's Foreign Ministry said it accepts alternative solutions if documents are not available and takes "into account the human factors while still respecting the relevant pieces of legislation."
Arnaud Ranzenberger, a Luxembourg lawyer who represented the Khalafs and dozens of family reunification cases, says he has seen systematic delays in every such case he has handled.
"They ask for documents that are very difficult to provide and the file stays blocked as long as we don't provide the documentation," he said.
While Khalaf was trying to get his wife out of Raqqa, jihadist officials there arrested her for lifting the hem of her dress on a wet sidewalk. Then they beat her for wearing perfume. He managed to get the family smuggled out through Turkey.
The Khalafs were lucky. A Syrian friend in Amsterdam put Mohamed in touch with someone in Damascus – a so-called 'simsar' or fixer. For $90 sent by Western Union, he provided proof Mohamed's wife was not a criminal, and the family joined him in December.
Syrians escaping Raqqa have another way out: They can head to Damascus, in the hope of obtaining passports quickly enough to present at a Western embassy.
In peacetime it was a six-hour drive from Raqqa to Damascus. By last year, the journey took five days, through land controlled by warring factions, bribing officials at checkpoints along the way. Another Syrian mother and her baby daughter who escaped Raqqa said this seemed their only option.
Houriya al-Ahmad wanted to join her husband Younes in Austria, and was determined to travel legally. Officials in Vienna said the 22-year-old needed to prove her identity at the embassy in Beirut. But she did not have a passport.
Austrian officials tried to help, offering the family DNA tests, an option the Red Cross says is used by about one in 10 applicants in Austria. The tests cost 200 euros each, which is repaid if the results are positive. The total cost for the Ahmads would be 600 euros.
That was too much for the Ahmads, who did not know it could be refunded and decided Houriya's only chance was to go to Damascus. "Bullets flew over our heads," Houriya recalled of the stretch of road outside Aleppo. "I tried to avoid danger by running quickly, with Reem in my arms."
The family applied for passports with the help of an old school friend. A normal Syrian passport cost 4,800 Syrian pounds ($9), said the friend, lawyer Malek al Wardi. Last year he charged the Ahmads the equivalent of $300 for two, he said, adding fees had gone up sharply. The government in Damascus did not respond to requests for comment, but its website now shows the fee for a passport issued at a consulate abroad has jumped to around $400.
Austria's federal asylum office, which declined comment on specific cases, said it has no exact rules about which documents it requires. "We have to be able to check what kind of family ties we're dealing with and identity papers are an advantage in this," a spokeswoman said.
Austria said its rules are in line with EU law. The Ahmads learned last month their application had been granted.
The European Court of Human Rights has recommended states use "flexibility and humanity" when dealing with family reunification. Official guidelines say asylum applicants should be allowed to prove their identity in other ways including interviews, family photos and videos.
"Applications from refugees cannot be rejected, or refused to be received or examined, for the sole reason of missing evidence," said Thomas Huddleston of the Migration Policy Group, a think tank funded mainly by EU. "This would be illegal under EU law."
The European Commission also declined to comment on specific cases, referring to its family reunification directive. This says any application should include documentary evidence to prove applicants do not threaten public policy or security. The Commission also said states should take into account evidence other than documents.
But some EU states have introduced more stringent documentary requirements.
Cyprus recently started asking for original documents instead of copies, according to the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), which is funded by refugee NGOs and the European Union. Cyprus also requests that documents be officially translated into Greek or English by the Public Information Office of Cyprus.
Hungarian authorities require all documents to bear an official stamp from the authorities that they are originals, as well as an official stamp from the Hungarian consulate. All documents have to be translated into English or Hungarian.
Spain also asks for documentary proof the applicant and older relatives lived together in the country of origin and the family depended on the applicant. Belgium requires a medical certificate, and a fresh extract from the criminal record of the applicant's country of origin.
Syrians in Europe who win permission to bring in family members can obtain special papers allowing people in. But these aren't easy to get hold of, as another family found.
Hayat Elwees saved up from her $60-a-month job in a camp canteen in Jordan to pay $195 for basic identity documents so she and her eight children could join her husband in Austria in January 2016. Austria agreed to admit them, but the ID they held was not enough to board a plane.
The Red Cross said it sent three emails to the Austrian ambassador in Amman seeking help with travel documents for the family, but got no reply. Vienna declined comment on the case.
In the end, the family raised $3,600 in private loans to pay for passports from the Syrian embassy in Jordan.
($1 = 515.0000 Syrian pounds)
($1 = 0.9174 euros)
Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin, Daniel Dickson in Stockholm, Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels, Stine Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Tuomas Forsell in Helsinki, Dasha Afanasieva in Ankara and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Edited by Sara Ledwith