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German court approves second-tier asylum for Syrian refugees

A German state court has ruled that Syrian refugees are not necessarily entitled to full asylum, and can be granted a lower-level "subsidiary protection." The second-tier status bars family reunifications for two years.

German authorities are allowed to grant Syrian refugees a version of protection which falls short of full asylum, the Higher Administrative Court in the northern German region of Schleswig ruled on Wednesday.

The decision is the first time an administrative court has confirmed the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) practice of granting so-called "subsidiary protection" to asylum seekers who primarily come from Syria.

Wednesday's decision also goes against rulings made by several lower administrative courts.

One of the points of contention in the case had been whether or not refugees face political persecution, arrest or torture upon returning to Syria. Should one of those factors be proven, the applicant has a right to full asylum.

"There is no evidence" to support claims that the Syrian government suspects those who have fled the country of belonging to the opposition, presiding Judge Uta Strzyz said.

Proof of persecution

The case in Schleswig concerned a BAMF appeal on a previous administrative court ruling which granted a young Syrian woman full asylum status.

Since the German Foreign Office has not been represented in Syria since 2012, questions about the woman's safety upon return to Syrian "could not be answered at all," argued the woman's lawyer Kristin Hanke.

The court did not agree, citing short written statements from the Foreign Office and the German Orient-Institute saying there was "no knowledge" of systematic interrogations against returnees.

Instead, the woman would have to prove that she personally faces persecution should she return. Fleeing the country due to the war did not suffice as a reason for asylum, according to the court and the BAMF lawyer.

Bernd Mesovic, the deputy director of the human rights organization "Pro Asyl," sharply criticized the ruling, saying: "The refugee agency UNHCR has pointed out patterns of Syrians being arrested and disappearing upon their return."

Watch video 12:03

Refugees: Voluntary repatriation

Delayed family reunions

Prior to the Schleswig ruling, numerous courts sided with thousands of refugees who have sued BAMF over their "subsidiary protection" status.

In Germany, around 113,000 refugees - including 94,000 Syrians - have only been granted the second-tier status.

Full asylum protection under the Geneva Convention typically includes permission to remain in the asylum country for three years, which is usually followed by an unlimited residence permit. Refugees also have the right to family reunification.

A "subsidiary protection," on the other hand, only grants a residency permit for one year which could possible be extended for another two years. Families are also not allowed to join for two years, which adds an additional emotional burden for those affected.

For the Syrian woman in the Schleswig case, this means her husband and four children who are currently living in Turkey will not be able to join her in Germany until 2018. She may appeal the ruling which would take the case to the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig.

Initially, Syrian refugees arriving in Germany were granted full asylum on the grounds of their country of origin. However, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government altered the rules with their "second asylum package" which was a response to an influx of refugees in 2015.

The new package limits refugee flows from areas such as Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq and tightens the rules for granting asylum to Syrian refugees.

rs/kl (AP, AFP, dpa, epd)

Watch video 12:06

Refugee children: Alone in Germany

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