”Marry a beautiful European girl. I'm planning to do that as well,” Mohammed, a 25-year-old asylum seeker, says to his closest friend as they are drinking tea in the restaurant of one of the hotels turned refugee reception centers in Athens.
His 23-year-old friend listens to him attentively, sipping tea from a plastic cup, then says he's had this plan as well right from the beginning.
Both have signed up for the European relocation program - a scheme adopted by EU member states to address the largest influx of refugees into Europe since World War II - and both are about to head for different European countries.
Holding a beer bottle, a skinny Algerian visitor, who has been in Greece for over nine years, tells the two young men not to dream too much. He himself had the same plan, he says, but it did not work out very well for him.
Such conversations about future plans frequently take place between asylum seekers at refugee reception centers in Greece, some giving advice to others about what should they do.
The stories migrants hear often aren't realistic
As victims of conflict and political oppression, many traumatized young refugees apparently want to put the ugly past behind them and look forward to a new life in Europe and, in their opinion, what better way to do so than getting married to a European girl.
"Many young refugees plan to marry European girls, as they realize this would help them settle in and speed up the process acquiring citizenship," Ahmed, an Algerian who works in a second-hand clothes shop, tells ERR News, requesting that the reporter not mention his last name.
"Those guys also think that way because of the stories they hear in their home countries about countrymen getting married to beautiful Western women without having to pay large dowries, although a lot of these stories are fake. For instance, I heard that one of my countrymen had married a beautiful German girl and became a German citizen, only to find out after I came to Europe that he had married an old woman and broke up with her shortly afterwards."
Immigrants from third countries, especially Middle Eastern and African immigrants, tend to marry women much older than them because marrying partners of their age can be very difficult, and because their purpose is met by any marriage, a Middle Eastern immigrant married to an Estonian woman says.
The man pauses for a second to say aitäh (Estonian for thanks) to a waitress serving him an orange juice, before requesting to remain anonymous because he doesn't want to "deal with the headache connected with the press".
Becoming a citizen may take up to eight years
Less than 10% of the immigrants he knows are married to women of their age, he continues, adding that there are currently more restrictions to acquiring citizenship, even after getting married to an European girl, with new laws being put in place.
Such laws require applicants to live with their wives for years and pass a language exam before being eligible to become citizens, he explains.
Even if married to Estonian partners, those interested in acquiring Estonian citizenship still need to go through the normal naturalization process. The requirements include living in Estonia for eight years, and having a basic knowlege of the Estonian language and constitution.
"After I came here I realized that there were several barriers holding me back from that dream… There is a language barrier, a cultural barrier, and a barrier of religion," Ahmed, 43, says, adding that even after he learned the language, it was still hard to establish strong relationships, "as most girls here don't want to hang around with Muslim guys because of what they hear about terrorism and the woman's subordinate role in Islamic culture."
Plenty of marriages fail because of cultural differences
For his part, father of six Waleed Al-Miklafi, an immigrant who lived in the United States for over 12 years and in England for 3 years, shares Ahmed's thinking that having different cultural and religious backgrounds is a major obstacle facing transnational marriages.
"I was married two times in the States and once in England, but every single marriage ended in failure due to huge cultural differences," Al-Miklafi, 46, tells ERR News.
"While following different religions can be an obstacle between partners, it's the the different cultural traditions and customs which are the biggest obstacle which also made my three marriages fail," he says.
"For example, the wife's main job in our culture is to be a homemaker, and the husband's job is to provide for the family. In the West, it's an entirely different story. Partners here share household chores and responsibilities, including taking care of the children. They also share the burden of all the expenses."
In the age of globalization, the world has become like a small village, where marriage has become increasingly like a contract between two individuals based on love and commitment.
Love still conquers all: International marriages are on the rise
While there are considerable cultural and religious differences, Ahmed and Al-Miklafi both agree that love can still bring down all barriers, but that the intentions of both parties have to be honorable.
Cross-border or international marriages are common in Europe. While the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board couldn't immediately provide statistics on the number of international marriages here, a report published by the Economist shows that the proportion of international marriages rose from about 10% in 1996 to 16% in 2009 in France, and from 1.3% in 1990 to 13.7% in 2010 in Germany.
Some smaller countries have much higher levels, with half the marriages registered in Switzerland being international ones, and around one in five marriages in Sweden, Belgium and Austria involving a foreign partner, the report said, citing calculations by the Italian demographer Giampaolo Lanzieri.
Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn