German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the weekly cabinet meeting of the German government at the chancellery in Berlin on Nov. 22, 2017. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

It was an agonizing calculation. To get his wife and three daughters to safety, Abed Fhili, 44, left them behind in a Syria suffocating from war. His thinking went: The route through Syria, Turkey and the Balkans is too dangerous. Better to go with just his son, reach a safe country and file for family reunification so the others could follow by plane. 

But three years later and living in a small town in eastern Germany, the closest he has come to seeing his wife and daughters is through video chats on his phone. 

Cases such as Fhili’s are at the center of a dispute that helped torpedo German talks to form a governing coalition last month, and they are a critical fault line in the negotiations to come. On one side: conservatives who say that Germany cannot afford to take in any more of such migrants. On the other: progressives who argue that asylum seekers will adjust much better if they are not separated from their loved ones. 

In a country where policies have traditionally been forged through consensus, there is little agreement on what to do with families such as Fhili’s. The dispute has become fraught with emotion and symbolism, reflecting an even deeper ideological division over how welcoming Germany should be to outsiders. 

Fhili is one of about 113,000 asylum seekers who have been granted what is called subsidiary protection — a legal permit to stay in Germany for typically one year, after which conditions in their home countries are reassessed. Subsidiary protection is different from full-fledged refugee status, which grants family reunification rights for spouses, children and parents of minors.

In 2016, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government passed a law to ban people with subsidiary protection from rights to family reunification until March 2018. About the same time, the German government started giving subsidiary protection, not the refugee status, to an increasing number of asylum seekers from war-torn countries such as Syria.

Stephan Harbarth, vice parliamentary chairman of Merkel’s party and its Bavarian counterpart, says that granting family reunification rights to all asylum seekers would overburden cities and frustrate integration efforts. “Especially if Germany has a more liberal family reunification policy than other countries like Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and Balkan countries, we’ll create incentives that’ll encourage more and more people to come here,” he said.

After Merkel admitted more than 1 million asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016, her Christian Democratic Union vowed to take a tougher line on refugee policy. To limit the number of future arrivals, Harbarth and the party want to extend the ban on family reunification for asylum seekers such as Fhili. 

In coalition talks that followed an inconclusive September election, the CDU was joined in its hard-line stance by the ­pro-business Free Democratic Party. But the third member of the would-be government, the Green Party, advocated an earlier phaseout of the ban.

“Family reunification is one of the most important and best ways of allowing for legal migration,” said Luise Amtsberg, a Green Party member of Parliament. “We always complain that people are coming illegally over the Mediterranean, but in the case of family reunification, we can determine who comes and from where.” 

With the parties at odds on family reunification and other issues, the coalition talks broke down as the Free Democrats walked out — triggering one of the worst crises of Merkel’s 12 years as chancellor.

Since then, Merkel has received a potential lifeline, with the center-left Social Democrats agreeing to talk with her Christian Democrats about a potential “grand coalition” to govern the country. But for the Social Democrats, as for the Greens, family reunification is a sticking point. 

“Experience shows that when someone lives in Germany for long periods of time, their chances of integration are much better when their families are here,” said Aydan Özoguz, who is a deputy chair of the Social Democrats and Germany’s federal commissioner for migration, refugees and integration. 

Özoguz, whose party agreed to the temporary ban as part of the last government, said the Social Democrats acquiesced to the prohibition on family reunifications in 2016 only because German courts were overwhelmed with the cases of asylum seekers and the subsidiary status applied to only a tiny fraction of them.

“But the situation is completely different now,” she said. “I can’t imagine that the Social Democrats would vote to extend the ban.”

One reason that there is so little consensus among Germany’s parties is their divergence on a fundamental issue — migrant numbers. Harbarth and the Christian Democrats cite an estimate that 300,000 asylum seekers will come to Germany if the reunification ban is phased out. But the Social Democrats and Greens say the real number is far smaller — much closer to 100,000. 

Herbert Brücker, the economist who calculated an estimate on behalf of the Federal Employment Agency, concluded that only between 50,000 and 60,000 additional migrants would come to Germany if the government permitted family reunification for those with subsidiary protection. Given that lower figure, Brücker said, the issue may be more a perceived problem than a real one — with people’s thinking tainted by the memory of the sudden crisis in 2015 and a fear that Germany will be caught off guard again. 

“There are fundamentally different perspectives,” said Andrea Römmele, a professor of political science at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Whereas the center-right parties want a clear upper limit on refugees, the center-left parties argue that the government cannot put a limit on people coming to Germany for humanitarian reasons. There isn’t even agreement on which countries are safe for asylum seekers to return to and which are not, Römmele said. 

Some human rights groups are taking cases such as Fhili’s to court, arguing that families and children’s rights are protected under the German constitution, and by the human rights conventions of the United Nations and the European Union. “Children’s best interests have to be respected,” said Sigrun Krause, a lawyer with the advocacy group Jumen. “With the current ban, children will be separated from their parents for three years, in practice. Especially if they come from a war-torn country, there’s no other option.”

For Fhili, the daily worries about his wife and daughters make it difficult to concentrate on anything else. “They want us to integrate into German society, but how can we integrate when our family isn’t here and all of our thoughts and all of our heart is in Syria?” he said. 

Germany probably won’t have a new government before the new year, when politicians have to decide on the fate of tens of thousands of families like Fhili’s. 

Fhili and his 6-year-old son are studying German, and they speak daily with their family in Syria over WhatsApp. “You know, here in Germany, they always say, ‘Wait, wait,’ ” he said. “I’ve waited for two years, and I don’t know what to do. I’m the father for my son, the mother, the sister, everything. No one, not a German or an Arabic person, can live that way.”