In 2002, Germany's venerable Humboldt Foundation introduced an award for the country's "friendliest immigration office." It's about to be issued for the third and last time. The burning question is: Did it help?
Immigration offices: not the most welcoming side of Germany
Berlin is hosting a somewhat double-edged award ceremony on Wednesday. In an ideal world, this prize shouldn't really have to exist. But unfortunately for Germany's thousands of would-be immigrants, long-term visitors and even guest academics, the nation's civil servants appear to need a little more motivation than a mere "employee of the month" contest.
Hence the "Germany's Friendliest Immigration Office" award -- a prize that has, apparently, ushered in a new climate of healthy competition among paper shufflers.
Not surprisingly, it was a project dreamt up by a collection of the country's finest minds, the Humboldt Foundation, a non-profit scheme for the promotion of international research cooperation. It enables highly qualified scholars not resident in Germany to spend extended periods of research in the country.
Being nice pays
Three years ago, the foundation realized that sometimes money talks - and if it can't actually buy you a residence permit, it can at least buy a gentle rejection rather than a barked refusal and a door slammed in the face.
"Five years ago, one in six of the reports we were getting from our scholars referred to the problem of xenophobia in Germany," Wolfgang Frühwald, the president of the Humboldt Foundation, told DW-RADIO. "We were extremely alarmed to hear that so many of our young colleagues had encountered this sort of problem."
The annual three prizes for "Germany's Friendliest Immigration Office" are worth a hefty €25,000 each. If that isn't enough to put a twinkle in the eye of the notoriously sour-faced staff manning the dingy desks at the country's most dreaded bureaucratic institutes, then the Humboldt Foundation's project has all been in vain.
But according to Frühwald, the financial incentive has proved highly effective, even though he's quick to point out that the award was only offered to departments responsible for student registration. And compared to the routine hostility dispensed to applicants from developing countries, academics seeking restricted residence permits in Germany are given red-carpet treatment.
And the winner is...
The latest recipients of the award are offices in Leipzig, Aalen and Düren. Improvements include children's corners, readily-available information leaflets and a more efficient, digitalized system that reduces waiting time. Friendly, flexible and cooperative staff are further plus points, with positive personal interaction cited as a major advantage.
"It's hardest for the largest registration offices, for example in Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich, which have huge turnovers" Frühwald said. "In Wismar, say, you can create a more personal environment than in Frankfurt, where hundreds of people are standing in line."
One condition of the award is that the authorities submit a detailed plan outlining how the funds would be spent. According to Frühwald, municipalities often pledge to provide further financial aid if the immigration office manages to win the prize, which suggests the Humboldt Foundation's scheme has served as a successful leg-up to better treatment from the local authorities -- helping to tackle both the problem's symptoms and causes.
"In three years, the award has made people aware that dedicated immigration offices contribute to a positive image of Germany which helps attract the best international researchers and students to Germany," Frühwald said. Now that the foreign students have been taken care of, the next step will be improving the treatment of all the other applicants.