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Those who come to Germany as refugees and apply for asylum must expect a long wait and a lot of restrictions. But there is resistance to these policies and a campaign to change the regulations.
For ten days the 25 refugees who camped in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin protested by refusing to eat. They have now given up their hunger strike, but not their demands. Half of them are currently waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.
The protesters are now housed in a church in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. Some of them had come to Berlin from Bavaria, where they had already demonstrated against German refugee policy. In Hamburg, too, refugees and support groups have taken to the streets. They are all demanding that the conditions for asylum-seekers in Germany be improved.
A life in limbo
A refugee who seeks asylum must be prepared for a long wait. It currently takes about eight months to process an asylum application, according to Katrin Hirseland, spokeswoman for the German Office for Migration and Refugees. Individual cases can go faster - or considerably slower. And the right to live in Germany afterwards is by no means guaranteed. In the first half of 2013, the Office granted a third of the applicants a status which would allow them long-term residency in Germany - the other applications were rejected.
While waiting for the decision, refugees' lives come to a standstill. In the first nine months, applicants may not accept work and, in states like Bavaria and Saxony, they may not even leave the district they are assigned to. In other states, the residence requirement is less strict. But even then, asylum-seekers are usually only allowed to travel within the state.
Greens want to change asylum policy
Very few refugees are granted full asylum status, which means that their personal persecution by the authorities back home is recognized by the state. Most are offered only "tolerated" status in Germany. These are people whose asylum application has been rejected, but who have not yet been sent home by the immigration authorities. This may be because they are too sick to travel, or because the situation in their home country is too dangerous. In some states, tolerated refugees don't get money to live on, but only vouchers which they can exchange for food and hygiene products like shampoo. In addition, they must apply every six months to extend their status. In any case, they are expected to leave Germany as soon as possible. This makes their integration almost impossible.
The treatment of refugees meets with criticism from opposition politicians and aid agencies. "We need to deal differently with refugees in Germany," says Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, the parliamentary co-leader of the Greens. Speaking to a Berlin radio station, she described the residence requirement that discourages refugees from visiting friends or family as "completely absurd." Her party would eliminate the ban on work, and sees support for this in the broader public: "Many craftspeople, for example, say that of course they would have work for people who come here, some of whom are skilled workers."
A different status for Syrian refugees
Green member of parliament Volker Beck is also not happy with how the authorities deal with refugees: "It's important that the agency takes a closer look at the human rights situation in certain countries" before rejecting asylum applications. The Greens want a more generous recognition policy. Beck told DW that the German asylum system is "very strongly marked by a defensive tendency."
Occasionally, the German authorities offer a kind of privileged status to specific groups, such as the Syrian refugees recently invited by the government. The 5,000 people who fall within the quota receive a residence permit for two years and are immediately able to work and travel. However, they are only a small group compared to the more than 100,000 asylum seekers the Office for Migration and Refugees predicts for 2013.
The controversial Dublin II regulation
At the European level, the refugee issue has been on everyone's lips since early October, when more than 300 refugees died off the Italian island of Lampedusa because their boat capsized. Those who made it ashore alive will have to apply for asylum in Italy. According to the so-called Dublin II Regulation, they cannot come to Germany even if they have relatives here. The EU law states that refugees have to apply for asylum in the country in which they arrive.
That's a bad solution, says Marei Pelzer of the refugee aid organization Pro Asyl: "We've critical of the Dublin regulation for years because it has meant that refugees in Europe are shunted back and forth." In this way, governments evade responsibility.
After the Lampedusa disaster, critics of European refugee policy complained that the countries on the external borders of Europe are forced to cope with the refugee issue by themselves, while states in Northern and Western Europe could relax.
Germanytakes the most refugees
But Hirseland of the Office for Migration and Refugees rejects the accusation: "The numbers simply don't support this criticism," she says. "Last year, we had 330,000 asylum-seekers in the EU. Germany took the largest number." Germany saw 77,500 applications for asylum in 2012 - 23 percent of the EU total. In second place was France, then Sweden. All these countries, Hirseland points out, are not on the EU's external borders. And Italy? According to her data, 15,700 refugees requested asylum there, fewer than in landlocked Austria.
But the protests in Germany continue: the refugees from the camp in front of the Brandenburg Gate want to keep campaigning for a new refugee policy and have said they'll resume their hunger strike in mid-January.