The head of Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), Frank-Jürgen Weise, said on Friday that asylum applications of "little complexity" because they involved individuals from Balkan nations deemed "safe" would be decided "within 48 hours" under fast-track procedures.
Weise and German Interior Ministry undersecretary Klaus Vitt presented the pilot project in Heidelberg's Patrick Henry Village, a former US army residential compound, converted by BAMF into a processing facility for migrants over the past two years.
BAMF, based in Nuremburg, has faced a nationwide clamor in recent months to speed up asylum application procedures, as German municipalities are tasked with accommodating tens of thousands of new migrants. BAMF's current backlog amounts to 360,000 cases.
A thousand each day
In the medium term, Weise said, the Heidelberg center would handle 1,000 applications per day, including medical checks, vaccinations, identification checks and the issuing of tamper-proof identity cards.
Vitt said Heidelberg was the first step in a project to digitalize Germany's asylum procedures by mid-2016, using a nationwide data network. It would store fingerprints and details on each applicant's health, education and work experience.
Project in pre-election setting
Heidelberg lies in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where pollsters point to a tight electoral race on March 13 for the incumbent center-left government, comprising ecologist Greens and Social Democrats.
BAMF's next pilot project is to run in Trier in neighboring Rhineland Palatinate, where elections are due on the same day in March.
Despite the acceleration procedures, every application would be thoroughly checked, said Baden-Wurttemberg's state premier, Winfried Kretschmann, who also visited the Heidelberg facility.
"We'll do it properly," Green party politician Kretschmann said, referring the possibility that lawyers hired by asylum seekers would subsequently appeal decisions through Germany's courts.
Veteran Green laid groundwork
Last year, Kretschmann caused a stir in his own ecologist party by backing changes to Germany's asylum law and drawing internal criticism that German authorities might end up sidestepping international safeguards also anchored in EU treaties.
Kretschmann used his state's swing vote in Germany's second parliamentary chamber, the Federal Council or Bundesrat, comprising the16 states or Länder, to endorse a law change that excludes applicants from Balkan nations listed as "safe countries of origin."
In exchange, Germany's Länder got an extra one billion euros ($1.08 billion) in federal funding to improve migrant accommodation over two years.
EU summit, Berlin forum
The showcasing of the Heidelberg project coincided on Friday with an EU summit on the refugee issue in Brussels, and was proceeded on Thursday by a "citizens' forum" on the same topic in Berlin attended by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.
Weise told the Germany's mass circulation paper "Bild" earlier this week that with extra staff hired he expected his agency's backlog to be processed by late 2016.
He promised that new applications would be processed within three months. One million new migrants were registered in Germany this year, mainly since August.
Latest figures from BAMF show that it decided on 35,422 cases in October, representing a 145 percent jump on the same month last year.
Electoral test for Greens, SPD
Kretschmann, who in October warned that municipalities "don't have a magic wand to create lodgings" for refugees, heads a Greens-Social Democrat (SPD) coalition government.
Its win in 2011 ended 58 years of rule by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) party in the southwestern German state.
In a survey for the news magazine "Stern" looking ahead to the March election, the polling agency Forsa on Tuesday put the Greens on 28 percent and the SPD on 19 percent - totaling 47 percent and theoretically level with the total for three opposition parties in Baden-Württemberg.
The CDU's branch, led by challenger Guido Wolf, remained the strongest single party on 35 percent; the new right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) had surged to 7 percent, and the liberal Free Democrats were on 5 percent, hovering around the threshold required to enter the Stuttgart assembly.
Merkel's conservatives have ruled out any dealings with the upstart populist AfD, even as disaffected conservative voters stray. The AfD's executive, recently restructured to weaken the economic euroskeptic wing that founded the party, now includes figures criticized for making "statements bordering on racism."
CDU leaders distanced themselves from such a scenario at their party's annual conference held early this week in Karlsruhe, another key city in Baden-Württemberg and also the seat of Germany's constitutional court.
Turkey 'safe,' claims de Maiziere
At the Berlin forum, de Maiziere said he regarded Turkey as a "safe country of origin" to which refugees could be repatriated.
"Of course, there are democratic deficits, but Turkey is a NATO country," de Maiziere said.
On Afghanistan, he said - despite the Taliban resurgence - there were safe zones for Afghans who currently formed the "second or third largest group" reaching Germany, mainly thanks to major foreign aid investments in recent years.
Günther Burkhardt, the head of the German organization "Pro Asyl" ("Pro Asylum"), criticized de Maiziere's stance, saying Turkey was not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, which is a cornerstone of EU treaties.
Turkey was not a safe country, Burkhardt said, and criticized the EU's plan to turn back boats bringing migrants via the Aegean to EU member Greece.
Simultaneously, an educational panel of the Robert Bosch Foundation, including Baden-Württemberg's SPD Integration Minister Bilkay Öney, urged German municipalities to ensure that refugee children start attending school no more than three months after arriving in Germany.
Majority of those rejected leave voluntarily
Calls to deport rejected applicants from Germany were put in perspective last week by Germany's monitoring agency Information Service on Migration (Infomationdienst Migration).
It said this year 35,000 persons whose applications were rejected had subsequently left Germany voluntarily. Another 17,000 were actually deported. Normally, a rejected applicant has 30 days to leave the Federal Republic.
ipj/msh (KNA, dpa, Reuters, AFP)