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Germany

Are Asylum Seekers Getting a Fair Shot?

Fewer and fewer refugees are being granted asylum in Germany. Human rights groups say this reflects unfair immigration practices rather than improved international conditions.

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Asylum seekers fear it: the official German stamp meaning 'expelled'

If the official number of refugees in Germany was an indication of the state of world conflict, Earth would be a very peaceful place indeed. While Germany had 11,000 official asylum seekers in 1998, in 2004 there were just 2000.

But a glance at the newspapers shows this is not the case. Crises continue to rage in Sudan and Iraq; closer to Germany, the political persecution of Kurds in Turkey and the ongoing conflict in Chechnya give hundreds of thousands of people a reason flee their homelands.

'Extreme mistrust'

Yet just 1.5 percent of the 35,000 people who applied for asylum in Germany got it, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

"There is extreme mistrust and tendency toward refusal on the part of immigration officials," said Bernd Mesovic of Pro Asyl, a nonprofit human rights organization for refugees. Germany is shifting the responsibility for refugees onto other countries, and as a last resort, to the country of origin, his group says.

Landesamt für Asylangelegenheiten Asylbewerber mit Flagge

Asylum seeker in Germany

Pro Asyl, Amnesty International, an association of German magistrates and other organizations have examined how refugees are questioned during their asylum application.

"In cases of doubt, the Federal Migration Office decides against asylum seekers," said Wolfgang Grenz, a refugee expert at Amnesty International.

He gave the example of a Kurdish woman who sought asylum on the basis of allegedly having been tortured in her homeland. But the application can be denied on the grounds that the torture wasn't described in detail. "In that case," said Grenz, "the official breached his duty by not asking the person to give details."

Personal interview is key

The personal interview is the heart of the asylum process. After they have fled their countries, most applicants have no hard proof of their political oppression; torturers don't issue "official torture certificates." The decision therefore is usually a subjective one, made by the interviewer who questions the refugee. Is the Kurdish woman's story is true or invented? In many cases, it is a difficult call to make.

Barbara Stolterfoht of the Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband, a leading German social welfare support group, said that officials increasingly assume asylum applicants are not telling the truth and are merely abusing the system. This assumption can even be subconscious, she said, but either way, it is deadly.

Asylanten im Frankfurter Flughafen

People seeking asylum in Frankfurt airport.

"The social climate has developed toward being anti-asylum, even though the asylum seekers are just exercising their constitutionally chartered rights," she said.

According to Pro Asyl, asylum cases are often seen less as individual situations and are instead standardized to the extent possible. The group said it frequently sees cases where officials ask questions in order to elicit answers that fit neatly into prearranged categories, rather than dealing with each individual.

"You can be happy when a report caries five or six sentences having to do with the person's particular situation," said Pro Asyl's Mesovic.

Fair hearings?

Mesovic also said the person's country of origin has enormous influence on the outcome of a hearing. "If officials believe that people aren't tortured in a given country, then that often has more weight than the statement of the refugee who says he or she was tortured," Mesovic said.

The Federal Migration Office denies that is the case. "The hearings are fair and each applicant has the chance to make detailed statements, and to correct and amplify the statements," said a spokesperson.

Flüchtling Frauen in Darfur

Refugees in Darfur

But Pro Asyl and Amnesty say otherwise. In their experience, the groups have said, applicants aren't informed of contradictions in their statements, and therefore forego their legal right to change their statements.

Pro Asyl compared notes taken during hearings that resulted in asylum denials and found that many people were turned down when contradictions in their stories made their reasons for seeking asylum less credible. Yet in the transcripts of the hearings, there was no mention of the contradictions.

Political decisionmaking?

Thus the asylum seekers didn't know which part of the hearing was important in deciding their case. Pro Asyl's Mesovic attributed the practice to a political move.

"The quota of asylum cases that are granted are steered politically," he said. "The Federal Migration Office is doing nothing more or less than carrying out the concept of Interior Minister (Otto) Schily."

For his part, Schily has said he hopes to move the asylum process at least in part to refugee camps in North Africa.

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