Berlin’s refugee services are becoming a bureaucratic nightmare

People gather among tents at a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin.
People gather among tents at a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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As German office workers break for lunch in Moabit, a bustling neighborhood in Berlin, many anxious asylum seekers are just wrapping up a long, taxing morning at the city’s nearby registration center. They’ve been lined up in the cold as early as four o’clock in the morning, hoping to advance their cases, if only a little—but odds are low and conditions tough.

This registration center, Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (known by its German acronym LaGeSo), is the main choke point of Berlin’s asylum system. This is where asylum seekers must come, day after day, before they’ve finished registering, for any number of reasons: to file their applications for protection, to obtain housing vouchers, to apply for health-care coverage, residency extensions, and other permissions. The process once took just hours, but with at least 62,000 arrivals to Berlin this year, it has been lagging on for weeks, sometimes months. The wait can seem interminable, even nonsensical.

Amar, a Syrian asylum seeker, tells Quartz he had slept on the street for two days to get an appointment, only not to have his number called the day of. “There is something not logical about this,” he says. “And where are we? In Germany, the most organized, democratic country. I don’t know. It’s strange.”

During the wait period, there are few safety nets in place for shelter, food, or medical care. Now, as the Northern European winter closes in, jarring scenes of men, women, and children huddled under umbrellas and blankets on the sidewalk have pushed observers and volunteers to action.

Two weeks ago, Franz Allert, the head administrator of LaGeSo, resigned after 40 lawyers sued both him and Mario Czaja, the German social affairs minister, for criminal charges including negligence, injuries, exhaustion, and cases of hypothermia.

“Berlin is the only city in Germany where refugees have to live under such conditions,” Volker Eick, a political scientist who works at RAV, one of the lawyers’ associations bringing the suit.

Germany expects more than one million asylum seekers in the coming year, more than any other country in Europe. “We really are reaching numbers that, for most countries, are unmanageable,” acknowledges Gauri van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International. “So there needs to be some understanding for this.”

But, she says there are also political reasons for the lack of preparedness in Berlin, including the damaging idea that good reception conditions draw refugees while chaos deters them.

“Then it’s about who has the worse conditions, so that people do not actually come,” she says, pointing to the continual state of emergency on Greece’s shores, or on the Balkan route. Now Germany, often held up as an example for its receptiveness to refugees, is starting to fall short.

“Ultimately we have to see better sharing of responsibilities,” van Gulik says. “We need to see a distribution of people in Europe. There is no way around it. Merkel cannot shoulder this on her own.”

Van Gulik wants to see new legal channels for refugees to come to Europe opened and an effective relocation scheme for asylum seekers who have already arrived. Earlier in 2015, European Union member states agreed to send 160,000 refugees in Italy and Greece to other parts of the continent, but only around 140 have gone thus far.

German chancellor Angela Merkel champions these proposals, but even as she calls on other European countries to step up, she has jammed through a new asylum law that is meant to shrink Germany’s share of refugees. “We want to and we will noticeably reduce the number of refugees because it’s in the interest of everyone,” she said, speaking to parliamentarians from her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, on Dec. 14.

The asylum law hastens deportations, adds two additional Balkan countries to the “safe” list, and substitutes food and other in-kind goods for asylum seekers’ cash stipends—a new layer of bureaucracy for arrivals to wade through.

Minos Mouzourakis, a researcher at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, worries that deteriorating conditions and falling standards in Germany will have broader repercussions. “I think that it definitely sets a negative example and a race to the bottom in standards that other countries have been very eager to engage in as well,” he tells Quartz.

There is little recourse for individual asylum seekers or their advocates to pursue, at the moment. The European Commission has the ability to bring member states to account when it suspects a law has been violated, but these infringement proceedings, like the one opened against Hungary last week, are slow and politically costly. Instead, ministers and heads of state have met multiple times to reach some agreement on new common-asylum policy, one that might reframe the Dublin Regulations, which technically require asylum seekers to apply in the first European country they come to. (Policy that disproportionately affects countries along the Mediterranean Coast, and those which share land borders with Asia and Africa.)

But Mouzourakis says most EU states are resistant to approve new binding agreements. “So far, this hasn’t really been a fruitful effort, and I think the divisions between countries remain deeply rooted,” he says.

So, the lawyers bringing the Berlin case are pursuing a different strategy, trying to make Germany’s court system enforce minimum standards for asylum seekers. But that may also take time. The public prosecutor’s office in Berlin faces no specific deadline to respond to the charges in the lawsuit.

For their part, the lawyers argue that the lack of services constitutes criminal negligence because the impasse at LaGeSo influences every other facet of an asylum seeker’s condition.

For example, Hamdu Brahim, from Syria, tells Quartz he had been in Berlin for four months and still had not received identity card—one of the first and most crucial steps in the asylum process. “The problem is, if they tell you to come to an appointment, you come, and they delay you until the next day,” he explains. During this time, he can only sleep in emergency tents and eat food from volunteers. Should he fall sick, his only access to medical care is one small emergency clinic inside the LaGeSo.

Even this is only a recent improvement, says Zehra Can, a representative for Caritas, the humanitarian organization partnered with the German state that runs the clinic. “We started in August, and there was nothing before,” she tells Quartz. “We had a really, really bad situation without medical things, without food, without water, without anything.”

In Nov. 2015, they finally moved into adequate facilities. With a rotating roster of 18 volunteer doctors and 14 nurses, the clinic treats colds, flus and worse. But there is no psychological screening and there are no services available for trauma.

On one section of LaGeSo’s vast campus, Moabit Hilft, the only volunteer organization allowed to operate inside, distributes clothing, beverages and food. Their volunteers were some of the first to raise concerns about conditions for asylum seekers waiting weeks to register.

“People who are not yet registered still need medical support, still need water, and this cannot be done only by voluntary organizations. This has to be provided by the state.” says Eick.

In mid-October, a second registration center opened, but LaGeSo still reports a huge discrepancy between the number of daily arrivals, which it estimates at estimates at 750, and the 500 it has processed daily. While that gap should lessen with the new center also registering new arrivals, many say the state has not acted quickly enough to increase its capacity.

“Generally speaking the government will always claim that they are overburdened with work,” says Eick. “And that they try their best and they cannot manage, which is already unbelievable, in particular if you think about the image of the Germany and how good they are at organizing.”

Czaja, the senior official in Berlin for social affairs under fire, maintains that the city is doing all it can. “Everyone is free to press charges, but that won’t help improve the situation for refugees,” the minister told local media recently. “The accusation that the administration had consciously provoked injuries and illnesses is absurd. I reject that completely. We’re working everyday to prevent homelessness.”

Eick responds that there are more than enough empty hotel rooms and unused buildings, like the former Ministry of the Interior, to alleviate homelessness—if the will was there. He said allocating more money to support arrivals should be a matter of humanitarian conscience: “As long as they are unable to process them, they should just support those people without any restrictions,” he says. “This is a political decision.”