“How do you even allow yourself as the government of a country or a union to decide that some people’s holiday plans are worth more than families being able to be brought back together?” said Alix Indigo Holmgaard — pictured above with her family — a Denmark citizen and mother of three who hasn’t seen her fiancé and stepdaughter in the UK since last year.
“I’ve been very supportive regarding restrictions, but my family has been torn apart.”
Prior to the pandemic, Holmgaard and her fiancé, a UK citizen and member of the British Army, would see each other almost every weekend. That “unconventional but very functional” relationship anchored their “international family,” she says.
“Denmark is where we have our house and our everyday family life,” she explained via text message while keeping an eye on her children. “It’s where we cook meals and tuck the kids in.”
But border closures and constantly shifting entry and quarantine restrictions over the last year have dashed that stability for Holmgaard’s family, as well as many others like hers who are spread across different countries and, sometimes, continents.
Increasingly, frustrated families are speaking out via movements such as Family Is Not Tourism.The initiative has gathered more than 20,900 signatures on its Change.org petition to lobby European Union governments to lift entry bans on third-country family members, saying such travel restrictions “[go] against the letter and spirit of EU legislation.”
The petition was deemed admissible for preliminary investigation by the European Commission in February. But petition founder Kristina Henry-Machulskaya told CNN she has not received any status updates since then.
Since March 2020, the European Union has had in place a recommendation for individual countries, or member states, to restrict non-essential travel by third country nationals, a spokesperson from the European Parliament confirmed to CNN in an e-mail.
Member states are then responsible for implementing the recommendation’s content, the spokesperson said.
Andrea Morales, left, pictured with her mother and baby.
Courtesy Andrea Morales
Many families affected by the restrictions say it’s difficult to get much clarity from government officials, with constantly changing rules that make an already complex issue even more confusing.
“The EU ping-pongs back to the national states, and the national states mostly ignore you,” says Yulia Kulikova, a lawyer and mother of three who’s a dual citizen in Russia, where she was born, and Switzerland, where she’s lived for 17 years.
For months, Kulikova appealed to various government officials and agencies in three EU countries where her husband and three children have various citizenship rights — Switzerland, France and Italy — to let her mother visit from Russia after more than a year. Eventually, Kulikova says, Switzerland changed its border restrictions to include baptisms as a valid reason for non-EU family members to enter.
So Kulikova and her husband decided to move up plans for a summer baptism for their six-year-old twins, and after Kulikova obtained a certificate from the Catholic priest who would baptize them, her mother was allowed as one of the five guests in the winter ceremony.
“Some people are already married, some children are already baptized, so they can’t pull out a good reason for a family visit, as funny as that may sound,” Kulikova tells CNN. “But that doesn’t mean they miss their parents less. They miss them as much as we do. And this is very, very unfair.”
In Germany, non-EU close relatives like grandparents are allowed to enter the country for a child’s birth — albeit with extensive paperwork and certifications, including ultrasound scans provided by the expectant parents. However, other countries including the Netherlands and France have much stricter rules that virtually ban entry for all non-EU family members except parents.
What’s most baffling — and infuriating — for many cross-border families are the various entry ban exemptions in many EU countries for business travelers, professional athletes, students, romantic relationships and, soon to come, vaccinated US tourists, while extended family members are still mostly not allowed.
In fact, Andrea Morales, a mother of three who is married to a Dutch man and has lived in the Netherlands for 10 years, claims that the country is in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which outlines the “right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence” for EU citizens and legal residents.
“We are in a country that’s well-known for its commitment to human rights, its respect for human rights, for diversity,” says Morales, who’s licensed as a lawyer in Ecuador, where she was born, and is currently non-practicing in the Netherlands. “It stands for everything I believe in, and it’s doing exactly the opposite to its own citizens, to legal residents. It’s treating us like second-class citizens.”
The Netherlands’ Ministry of Justice and Security, the government agency that makes policy decisions about the ban, did not respond to text message requests from CNN for comment.
Global estimates vary on the number of people living outside their home country. But in the EU alone, more than 3 million first residence permits were issued in 2019 by EU member states, according to government data.
For many of these cross-border and transnational families, prolonged separations from loved ones bring an acute anguish often overshadowed as some parts of the world ease into reopened societies and plan summer vacations.
Social media campaigns by initiatives such as Family is Not Tourism and various offshoot groups, such as the Dutch-centric “Families van buiten de EU, wij missen jullie!” (Families outside the EU, we miss you!), paint a vivid picture of their ongoing struggles.
Photos and videos show smiling babies and toddlers who have yet to meet grandparents. New mothers describe the trauma of giving birth alone, while their partners care for siblings in the absence of eager grandparents who might otherwise help out. Single parents share the challenges of balancing childcare, jobs and school closures without a support system of family.
“It’s incredibly difficult to feel like the entire global society is completely oblivious to the agony we are going through,” Holmgaard says.