Couples separated by Europe’s travel bans fight to be reunited

By Megan Specia

Every morning, Marisa Lobato wakes up and checks the news to see if the travel restrictions have changed.

She lives in São Paulo, Brazil, and her fiancé Horst Schlereth, is in Germany. Before the coronavirus put everything on hold, Lobato had planned to go to Germany this spring to prepare for their wedding. Now their daily calls are filled with fretting over when they will reunite.

“We feel completely stuck in this situation,” she said. “I normally don’t cry in front of him, but I cry alone. It’s really a horrible feeling.”

The pair are among a number of separated, unmarried couples who have rallied on social media for changes to the European Union’s travel restrictions, using the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism and #LoveIsEssential. Unlike most married people, they do not have a right to enter the EU to be reunited with their partners.

Now, the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, is throwing its weight behind the cause, urging member states to exempt unmarried people with partners in Europe from the travel ban. But only Denmark and Sweden have adopted any of the recommendations, and couples say even border guards in member states are confused about the regulations.

Late last month, the EU announced plans to reopen travel July 1 to visitors from 15 countries in an attempt to salvage the bloc’s peak tourism season. The United States, Brazil and Russia, among other countries, were notably excluded.

Some of the countries that are still banned aren’t close to meeting the EU requirements for controlling the coronavirus before they can resume travel and could need weeks, months or more to reach those standards.

Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, is an outspoken advocate for the separated couples. Her office said there are no official statistics on the number of people affected, but a Facebook support group for couples separated during the pandemic has around 3,000 members.

While the commission has recommended that member nations allow unmarried couples to reunite, Johansson said, it is up to each country to set its own policy.

“For me it’s important that you have as broad as possible of a definition of a couple that are really a true couple,” she said. “But the exact definition of that is for the member states to decide.”

Many people who want that definition loosened have pointed to the approach that Denmark adopted this month — which allows visitors who can prove they are in durable relationships and test negative for COVID-19 to enter the country — as an example for other nations in the bloc.

Several members of the European Parliament have written letters calling on other European leaders to implement more open policies, and dozens signed an open letter to Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister, urging him to recognize unmarried couples.

“The family of the 21st century goes beyond the official marriage,” Moritz Körner, a European Parliament member from Germany, wrote to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, in one of several open letters he has sent to European leaders.

Until the virus changed everything, Miriam Paffen, who is German, and her partner, Javier, who is Argentine and a resident of Brazil, made trans-Atlantic journeys to spend time together. Their last visit was in December.

“We actually have no idea when we can see each other again,” Paffen said.

Ryann McQuaid, an American living in New York, and her partner Hanna Maes, who is Belgian and lives in Brussels, are in a long-term relationship, but for the past year have been long distance. They typically saw each other every three months before lockdowns derailed their plans.

They have been frantically calling officials, searching for answers to when — and whether — they can be together again in Brussels.

“Everyone we get in touch with will point us to another official,” McQuaid said. “We’ve never had to sort of justify our relationship in that sense before. So that’s also just been very frustrating.”

Border restrictions in countries outside Europe have also split unmarried couples apart during the pandemic. Couples in the United States and Canada have found themselves separated for months by the closure of their countries’ shared border.

A visa delay has prevented Morgan Bretnall, who is based in Britain, from traveling to the United States to be with her fiancée, Stacey, an American living in Puerto Rico.

While U.S. travelers can technically travel to Britain, they must enter a mandatory two-week quarantine, which Bretnall said is unfeasible. The couple became engaged in December.

“Right now, our life is on hold,” Bretnall said. In Europe, some married couples have only recently been reunited after months apart.

Flavia Negwer, a German, and her American husband, Jeff Wong, spent months wondering how to get Wong back to Germany despite travel restriction. He had traveled to the New York area to visit family and prepare for an upcoming move to the United States this fall.

But his trip of a few weeks turned into months when Europe banned nonessential travelers, leaving Wong and Negwer unsure when they might see each other again. Adding to the uncertainty, his German visa expired while he was stranded in the United States.

Last week, after the European Union’s new travel guidelines came into effect, they called embassies, European officials and even the German border police to better understand the rules before Wong attempted to enter the country.

They got no clear answers, but he decided to attempt to return to Germany, anyway.

“I felt like I had a better understanding of the EU guidelines and rules than the officials that we talked to at the border,” Wong said.

He was eventually let in after showing the expired visa that indicated he had lived and worked in Germany for years.