Berlin's Office for Refugee Affairs has invited in media to show how things have changed since Germany opened its doors to asylum-seekers in 2015. Experts on the tour criticized the government's new anchor center plans.
"We can do this — but it's a hell of a lot of work." Sascha Langenbach, the affable press spokesman for Berlin Office for Refugee Affairs (LAF), said on Thursday, completing the line that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had uttered two and a half years ago at the height of what has been referred to as Europe's refugee crisis.
Langenbach was speaking during a media tour of the LAF reception center in Berlin, organized by the journalist information service Mediendienst Integration under the title "How Well Do the Asylum Procedures Work?"
It was a predictably well-attended event, given that immigration is still a media obsession in Germany — even though the number of asylum applications has returned more or less to pre-2015 levels (222,683 in 2017, compared to 745,545 in 2016).
That is still plenty of people, Langenbach was keen point out. Between 650 and 750 new arrivals still pass through this Berlin reception center every month for initial registration, identification, and administration proceedings — sometimes as many as 60 a day.
New efficiency, new security
"We're friendly, but not naive," Langenbach said, before explaining that the police and state prosecutors, to whom any suspicious cases could immediately be referred, also had offices in the building.
There are also new technical possibilities to ease identification — all the new arrivals have their photos and their fingerprints digitally recorded and data that can be immediately compared to international police databases to "fish out" criminals, as Langenbach put it.
Meanwhile, new "language-biometric" software can now be used to recognize specific Arabic dialects — in case, as often happens, people arrive without documents. Langenbach insisted that one favorite tabloid story — that a single asylum seeker could claim benefits under different identities at different offices — would be "technically impossible" in Berlin.
Despite the occasional high stress — "Not everyone who comes here is friendly," Langenbach said — the drop in pressure was evident throughout the tour. The spokesman bounced down the endless carpeted but well-lit corridors, greeting acquaintances as he walked through waiting rooms more or less full of people from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Georgia, Moldova, Vietnam and a number of West African countries. There are also social workers available to look after people who need special protection, such as pregnant women, the disabled and those struggling with mental health afflictions.
The building, which once belonged to the Berlin state bank, was hastily re-purposed at the end of 2015, and there was evidence that the mountainous workload of late 2015 and early 2016 had taken priority over refurbishment. The old bank's lobby, with the cashier's desks now abandoned, has been filled with hundreds of seats, much like those in an airport waiting lounge — which is fairly fitting, since new arrivals are bussed here across the city every morning from the large shelter at the former Tempelhof Airport.
On Thursday, the number people waiting here was limited to around a dozen or so, many of them children sleeping on the airport seats. It was, as many of those who took the tour noticed, a stark contrast to the chaotic and occasionally life-threatening scenes outside Berlin's State Office for Health and Social Affairs building (known as LaGeSo in German) in the north of Berlin in 2015, when hundreds of people sometimes had to stand in line for days, and were dependent on local charities for food. Indeed, those scenes were the reason why the city's LaGeSo authority was rebranded as LAF in 2016.
"I was fairly impressed," said Werner Schiffauer, a social anthropology professor and chairman of the Migration Council, which recently investigated conditions in first-reception centers across Germany. "It's a significantly different atmosphere than at the LaGeSo — the whole process is efficient."
The anchor center plans
Despite the positive spin, there have been enough news stories in recent months to show that the conditions in Germany's asylum seeker homes are not good. A violent incident at a large home in Ellwangen, in southern Germany, attracted particular attention and right-wing populist excitement — around 150 asylum seekers confronted police to help a Togolese man facing deportation.
Bernward Ostrop, advisor for refugees and migration law at the church-associated charity Caritas, talked about health problems that develop among people who end up sitting in such a home for months while they await asylum decisions. "And they don't feel safe — there are often no private rooms, for fire safety reasons," he said during a panel discussion after the tour.
And deportations themselves are not always easy. It is common for asylum seekers to swap rooms to avoid them, which means that when police arrive — usually at night — to pick someone up, they often have to wake dozens of people at a time. Not only that, if deportees indicate they are going to resist deportation on the flight itself, police often refuse to carry them out — because there have been cases when people tied up on planes have died.
All of these points were raised on Thursday as objections to the solution currently being proposed by Germany's new Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, who wants to create more mass anchor centers, where asylum seekers are forced to live while their hearings and procedures are being processed.
Read more: When refugees want to work in Germany
To Ostrop and Schiffauer, this will exacerbate all the problems associated with mass migration under the guise of "simplifying" the process. Anchor centers, many of those who work with immigrants agree, will force people with little prospect of finding work into illegal solutions. Ostrop said that making unemployed female migrants live in the same place would be an ideal situation for mafia organizations to find women to force into prostitution.
"Large shelters cannot be set up humanely," Schiffauer told DW. "The biggest danger of the anchor centers will be that it will create more so-called illegal immigrants. For many people, disappearing into illegality gives them the chance to act for themselves, to be independent, and not be reduced to a passive existence. The second problem is the growth of mafia structures, because those people will be able to exploit the illegal immigrants."