Volunteers who wanted to help Syrian refugees bring their families to Germany now face huge payments - because a law was changed after they signed their guarantor obligations.
Klaus-Dieter Grothe and other volunteers helping out with the "Flüchtlingshilfe Mittelhessen," an aid organization helping refugees in the German state of Hessen, are what many local politicians would consider dream citizens. They are not only welcoming toward refugees, they are willing to take responsibility. This openness is now coming back to haunt them.
In 2013, the state government established a program that would allow Syrians who had been in Germany for a while to bring their families to the country as well - under the condition that they had proof of sufficient income to provide accommodation and food for their loved ones.
Since not all refugees who wanted to bring their families had this, Grothe, who is a psychiatrist in the city of Giessen, and roughly 30 other volunteers jumped in. They signed an agreement stating they'd guarantee the state wouldn't have to pay for the refugee families coming to live in Germany.
"In some cases, the guarantors didn't actually pay for anything," Grothe told DW. "The Syrian families only needed the opportunity to bring their loved ones and ended up sleeping in a room with five people instead of two or made food for eight people instead of five. In other cases, the guarantors helped out with five hundred or five thousand Euros."
But what was supposed to be a generous one-time gesture to help reunite families is turning into a financial nightmare for the Giessen guarantors.
As soon as a refugee finds a job and stops receiving benefits, the guarantor doesn't have to pay anymore. But for older refugees, that might take a long time.
Until recently, there was an ongoing discussion about whether obligations ended once the refugees that the guarantor cosigned for were granted asylum. That's what Hessen's interior ministry promised Klaus-Dieter Grothe and the other guarantors. But that's not how Germany's Federal Administrative Court decided in summer 2016.
Instead, the judges stated that guarantors who signed for refugees before the clarification was in place are accountable for three years after the family's arrival; everyone who becomes a guarantor after is accountable for five years, no matter the refugees' asylum status.
Job centers in the Giessen area that have been paying benefits to refugees are making use of the updated ruling. Guarantors are now supposed to pay back the benefits refugees they have co-signed for are receiving.
Guarantors made to pay thousands of euros
"Our interior ministry promised us that our responsibility would 100 percent end after the refugees were granted asylum here," Grothe said. "Now the job centers are saying 'Your obligation is still in place and we want the money back that we paid for your refugees!'"
Grothe sounds angry when he's talking about the issue because some of his fellow guarantors are getting desperate. For a Syrian family of four, the costs they are supposedly obliged to meet can reach up to 14,000 Euros every six months.
Since that is not what they signed up for, the Giessen guarantors are now suing. Until the lawsuit at the Giessen administrative court is settled, they don't have to pay. But what they really want is for the state to acknowledge the original promise and take over the payments for them.
Having to pay for a refugee family even after they have been granted asylum is not what the guarantors signed up for
A spokesperson for Hessen's interior ministry pointed out, however, that there is nothing they can do, as it's actually the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that has authority over the job centers making the demands.
"Hessen has implored the federal authorities in charge several times to not demand payments from the guarantors," the ministry stated in an email to DW. "The state regrets that the job centers… are so far not willing to give in."
'A big obligation' to take on
Bernd Mesovic, head of the legal department of refugee rights organization Pro Asyl, believes the Giessen guarantors have good chances of winning their legal battle and getting out of the payments, since they entered the obligation under false impressions in the first place.
He also stresses, however, that the step of becoming a guarantor for a refugee so that his or her family can come to Germany is very risky.
"It's a big obligation these people are taking on," Mesovic told DW. "I tell everyone considering it to think about it really, really hard. You have to be extremely careful in your consideration of what you can afford and what would happen if you lost your job, for example. The obligation won't go away then - you'll still be a guarantor. People have had to file for personal bankruptcy."
Grothe, and the 30 other guarantors in Hessen, hope that it won't come to that in their case.