Persons with refugee status enjoy a privileged position compared to other foreign nationals in terms of family reunification, since they do not necessarily have to cover the cost of living for themselves and their families and they do not have to prove that they possess sufficient living space. In order to claim this privilege, refugees have to notify the authorities within 3 months after the refugee status has become incontestable (final) that they wish to be reunited with a close family member. The application has to be handed in at the embassy of the country where the family members are staying. In addition, the local authorities at the place of residence of the refugee living in Germany should be notified that an application for a visa for the purpose of family reunification has been filed at the embassy.
Persons eligible for family reunification under this provision are:
- Spouses or “registered partners” i.e. partners in a same-sex partnership which has been registered in Germany or is equivalent to a registered partnership in Germany;
- Minor unmarried children;
- Parents of unaccompanied children, if no other parent with entitlement to custody is living in Germany.
If refugees are entitled to family reunification under this provision, the local authorities usually have to declare that they have no objections against the issuance of a visa to the family members. The German embassy in the country where the family members are staying then has to issue the necessary visa.
Parents of unaccompanied minors may only be granted a visa if the child is still underage at the time of departure. This practice has been challenged in courts however, given the fact applications for family reunification often take a long time to process and in the context of a CJEU decision of 2018 which clarified that the date of lodging the asylum application, and not the date of entry of the parents, is decisive for the right to family reunification, meaning that family reunification is still possible if the minor turns 18 before the arrival of the parents. The Federal Administrative Court has requested a preliminary ruling of the CJEU on the matter in April 2020. As of January 2022, the CJEU’s decision is still pending.
If family members of refugees apply for family reunification later than 3 months after status determination has become final, “normal rules” for family reunification apply. In particular, refugees living in Germany have to prove that they can cover the cost of living for themselves and their families and that they have sufficient living space. For family reunification of spouses, a further requirement is that both spouses have to be at least 18 years of age.
One important privilege applies regardless of whether the procedure for family reunification is initiated within the three-month period or at a later date: Spouses of refugees who wish to immigrate to Germany by means of family reunification do not have to prove that they have basic German language skills. In 2021, a total of 15,849 visas for family reunification were issued to beneficiaries of international protection, out of which 9,891 for beneficiaries of refugee protection and 5,958 for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.
Family reunification during COVID-19
The application procedure for family reunification and deadlines were significantly impacted by the outbreak of Covid-19, leading to even longer procedures than previously. Several German embassies stopped processing visa applications entirely or partially in March 2020. On 1 July 2020, the Federal Ministry of the Interior declared that family reunification was possible again from all third countries.  The deadlines to apply for family reunification continued to apply. However, in June 2020 the Federal Ministry of the Interior announced that persons who had been granted a visa for family reunification that allowed for entry after 15 March 2020, but where entry was not possible due to travel restrictions, could apply for a renewed validity of their visa (“Neuvisierung”) within one month. This deadline started to apply from the moment when the respective embassy announces the possibility of applying for the renewed validity. After protests by NGOs, the Federal Government changed this deadline to 31 December 2020 for all applications for renewed validity. After expiry of the one-month deadline, family members had to apply again for a visa. If minors whose parents had applied for a visa turned 18 during the time when travel was not possible, the renewed validity was still granted for the parents’ visa  Covid-19 related impacts on family reunification procedure in embassies continue to apply in 2021. While the number of visas issued in 2021 was higher than in 2020, the overall figure stayed below the 2019 numbers, with a marked difference for family reunification visas for beneficiaries of international protection (15,849 visas issued in 2021, compared to 24,835 in 2019).
Family reunification for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection
In 2018 the right to family reunification was effectively abolished for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection and was replaced with a provision according to which 1,000 relatives shall be granted a visa to enter Germany each month. This means that the privileged conditions that apply to family reunification for refugees do not apply to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection and have been replaced with a “humanitarian clause” which places family reunification at the discretion of the authorities.
This is regulated in Section 36a of the Residence Act, according to which only members of the “immediate family” (spouses, registered partners, minor unmarried children, parents of unaccompanied children) are eligible for family reunification. In order to be included in the monthly quota of 1,000 visa, “humanitarian reasons” shall be decisive, which are listed in the law as follows:
- Long duration of separation of family members,
- Separation of families with at least one (minor) unmarried child,
- Serious risks to life, limb or personal freedom of a family member living abroad,
- Serious illness, need for care or serious disabilities of a family member living abroad.
In addition, welfare of the child and “integration aspects” (e.g. language skills, ability to provide for means of living) may be taken into account.
The monthly quota for visa has not been reached since the introduction of the new regulation for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, due to a complicated procedure involving three different authorities: Embassies or consulates – often in cooperation with IOM – have to carry out an interview with the family members who have applied for visa; then the local alien’s offices in Germany have to decide whether the necessary humanitarian criteria are fulfilled; and then they have to pass on the visa applications to the Federal Administrative Office (Bundesverwaltungsamt) which theoretically should select the most urgent 1,000 cases per month. In practice, this selection does not take place since procedures at the local authorities are lengthy, resulting in less than 1,000 applications per month. As a result, the Federal Administrative Office usually authorises all cases submitted by the local authorities and informs the embassies or consulates that visas may be issued.
Between August 2018 and April 2021, only 20,600 visas were granted to family members of beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, which equals to 62 % of the total of 33,000 visas that the law would have foreseen for this period. In 2021, 5,958 visas were issued, i.e. 50 % of the quota. Around 11,000 requests for appointments at the embassies were pending as of May 2021.  Since it is likely that many persons have asked for appointments several times, the actual number of persons applying for visa for this purpose is likely to be lower.
Difficulties for family reunification are exacerbated by long waiting periods at embassies. This has particularly problematic effects on family reunification procedures of unaccompanied minors (see above). In several decisions the Administrative Court of Berlin, has argued that the right to family reunification (i.e. reunification with one’s parents) ends when the subsidiary protection status holder becomes an adult. The delay in procedures, in particular on the part of local authorities, might put reunification of young persons with their parents at risk. In order to safeguard the right to family reunification, the Administrative Court of Berlin has repeatedly asked authorities to prioritise procedures of unaccompanied minors who were approaching their 18th birthday.
The suspension of family reunification for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection coincided with a steep rise in decisions in which asylum applicants were granted subsidiary protection instead of refugee status. At the same time, suspension of family reunification resulted in tens of thousands of beneficiaries of subsidiary protection appealing against the authorities’ decisions in order to gain refugee status (“upgrade-appeals”, see Subsequent applications and Differential treatment of specific nationalities in the procedure).
The coalition programme of November 2021 underlines in this regard that the restrictions on family reunification for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection should be removed. Minors who have received a protection status should be allowed to bring their siblings, and not only their parents as is currently the case. It remains to be seen if these measures will be implemented in practice.
Ad hoc family reunification programmes for Syrian and Afghans
For Syrian refugees, some regional programmes for family reunification are still in place. These programmes are reserved for first and second degree relatives of persons living in Germany with refugee status or another legal residential status. In contrast to the “normal” family reunification procedures, the family members living in Germany have to act as sponsors by declaring that they will cover the cost of living of their relatives (either from their own resources or with the help of external sponsors). In 2020 and 2021 such programmes were in place in the Federal States of Berlin (until end of 2022), Brandenburg (until end of 2021), Bremen (until end of September 2021), Hamburg (until end of November 2021), Schleswig-Holstein (until end of 2021) and Thuringia (until end of December 2022). The programme in the Federal State of Berlin is also available to family members of Iraqi refugees.
In 2021, several Federal States (Berlin, Bremen, Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia) decided to put similar family reunification programmes in place for family members of Afghan refugees.  However, in the case of Thuringia, the Federal Minister of the Interior refused to authorise such a programme in September 2021. Decisions regarding the programmes of Berlin, Bremen and Schleswig-Holstein were still pending in January 2022. The new Federal Government announced plans to set up a humanitarian admission programme on its own initiative in December 2021. 
No exact figures are available on the number of visas or residence permits granted to family members of refugees for family reunification purposes. In 2020, 3,900 residence permits were granted to Syrian nationals for the purpose of family reunification, compared to 12,790 permits in 2019.1,339 such permits were granted to Iranian nationals (2019: 1,913) and 834 to Afghan nationals (2019: 1,151). However, these figures include both cases of family reunification with refugees and with persons who have a residence permit in Germany for other reasons. More recent statistics are not available.
 Section 29(2)(1) Residence Act.
 CJEU, Case C-550/16, A und S / Staatssecretaris van Veiligheid en Justitie, Judgement of 12 April 2018.
 Federal Administrative Court, 1 C 9.19 – Decision of 23 April 2020.
 Sections 27(3) and 29 Residence Act.
 Section 30(1)(1) Residence Act.
 Section 30(1)(3) Residence Act.
 Reply to written parliamentary question by Clara Bünger (Die Linke), 20/894, 2 March 2022, 44.
 Section 36a Residence Act; Section 104(13) Residence Act.
 In 2020, the number of visas granted was especially ow with 5,311, compared to 12,000 visas that should have been granted according to the monthly quota, see Tagesschau, ‘Viele Angehörige müssen warten’, 20 January 202, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3H0EwMM.
 Reply to written parliamentary question by Clara Bünger (Die Linke), 20/894, 2 March 2022, 44.
 By way of example, waiting times were 24 weeks at the Beirut embassy and over one yar at the Islamabad embassy as of April 2021, see Federal Government, Response to parliamentary question by The Left, 19/30793, 17 June 2021, 8.
 Appeals or other legal measures in family reunification cases have to be directed against the German Foreign Office which is responsible for issuing the necessary visa. Therefore, the Administrative Court of Berlin is the competent court of first instance for family reunification matters.
 An account of a case in which a 17-year-old Syrian could only be reunited with his mother following a „last-minute“ court intervention can be found here: Pro Asyl, Aus der Praxis: Familiennachzug – Zustimmung in letzter Minute, 2 January 2020, available at https://bit.ly/39VrQp9.
 Administrative Court of Berlin, Decision 38 L 502.19 V, 16 January 2020, available in German at: https://bit.ly/34NRMC0; Decision 38 L 442.19 V, 26 November 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3cDid0d. For an overview of jurisprudence on this subject, see German Red Cross: Nachzug zu subsidiär Schutzberechtigten, besonders Minderjährige vor Eintritt der Volljährigkeit: Fachinformation des DRK-Suchdienstes zum Familiennachzug (FZ) von und zu Flüchtlingen, February 2020, available in German at https://bit.ly/2wuFwK8.
 Netzwerk Berlin Hilft, ‘Berlin & Bremen beschließen Landesaufnahmeprogramme für Afghanistan – mit Defiziten’, 29 December 2021, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3rLdHFS , Ministry of the Interior of Schleswig-Holstein, ‚Innenministerin Sütterlin-Waack: Schleswig-Holstein bereitet ein eigenes Landesaufnahmeprogramm für Menschen aus Afghanistan vor’, 17 August 2021, available in German at : https://bit.ly/3KyI1fv
 Refugee Council Northrhine West-Phalia, ‘Thüringer Landesaufnahmeprogramm für Afghanistan gescheitert’, 9 september 2021, available in German at https://bit.ly/3rKSCeG
 The permits include permits for family reunification with German nationals (121 for Syria, 289 for Iran and 138 for Afghanistan in 2020), see BAMF, Migrationsbericht 2020 der Bundesregierung, December 2021, 271, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3nTDv1J.