In 2014, thousands of asylum seekers risked their lives trying to reach Germany. Syrians fleeing the ongoing civil war made up the largest group.
On a sunny day in mid-September, a young Syrian student once again put his life in danger: Around noon, Ahmad, as he has asked to be called, calmly strolled up to a wall in his home town, Hama, and smeared angry, bright-red letters across it: "The Syrian Revolution will never be defeated. We will fight until victory."
Ahmad then went to a friend's house for a farewell barbecue: "We chatted and then said good-bye." It was his last day in Syria: The next day he left for Lebanon and a week later he boarded a flight to Germany.
In a draughty cafe in rain-swept central Berlin, the 25-year-old recalls feeling brave, elated even, when he smeared the defiant words onto the wall. Then he shrugs and adjusts his stylish grey woolly hat: Three hours later, the defiant message had been wiped off.
He was not surprised: Hama is controlled by the government and as a veteran revolutionary Ahmad is used to the regime cracking down on any act of opposition.
"Fight until death - or build a future"
Ever since the revolution kicked off in early 2011, Ahmad and a small group of friends had been writing slogans on walls, documenting demonstrations and disappearances - many of their own friends.
Ahmad says dozens of his closest friends have been killed, others arrested. And so, pressured by his parents, who feared their son might be next, Ahmad faced a difficult choice: "I could either fight until death - or I could build a future for myself."
He chose the latter - and applied and was granted a student visa to study a Masters in Sports Sciences in the East German city of Leipzig. He's one of an ever-growing number of Syrians fleeing the death and destruction of the civil war that has been raging in their home country for almost four years. Most seek refuge in neighbouring countries, but increasing numbers are heading to Europe, including Germany.
Majority of asylum seekers Syrians
Only a tiny minority of them arrive on student visas, says Marei Pelzer from ProAsyl, a German NGO that lobbies on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers. The vast majority are asylum seekers.
According to figures released by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees last November, Syrians made up the biggest group of those seeking asylum in Germany in 2014.
From January to November 2014, a total of 155,427 people lodged their initial asylum claim in Germany, an increase of almost 55 percent compared to 2013. 34,144 were Syrians, followed by Serbians (15,282) and Eritreans (12,420).
But the German asylum system is "a class system," Pelzer says: Not even one percent of asylum seekers from Serbia and other Balkan states, many of them Roma and Sinti, are granted asylum, as their countries of origin were officially classified as "safe" last year. This move angered human rights campaigners who say it ignores entrenched racism and discrimination.
Meanwhile, roughly half of all asylum seekers from Eritrea receive asylum - and almost all Syrians, whose applications are fast-tracked. The same applies for Christian or Yazidi Iraqis. While asylum claims can take up to seven months to process, applications by Syrians "are ideally concluded within two weeks," according to a written statement provided by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean
Others arrive on a resettlement program. The German government has pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees, but so far, only some 10,000 have arrived. Human rights groups criticize the programme as being overly bureaucratic and time-consuming.
While it's an important first step, Pelzer says, it's just a tiny drop in the ocean, given Syria's ongoing crisis.
"So the majority of Syrian refugees are still forced to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in order to reach Europe", she explains.
And, she adds, roughly a quarter of those who illegally cross into Germany are subject to the so-called Dublin Regulation. This stipulates that asylum applications have to be filed in the state where a refugee first entered the European Union - meaning that applications are sent back to Bulgaria, Italy or Spain, even if applicants have relatives in Germany willing to provide for them.
Back in the draughty cafe in Berlin, Ahmad puts down his empty tea cup with a thud. Why didn't he file for asylum, rather than wait for a student visa? He shakes his head, emphatically.
"I didn't want any special treatment, just because I'm Syrian." He's determined to make his own way, he says, without any outside help.
Ahmad is planning to stay on for a PhD, once he's completed his Master's degree. But, he says, he knows that even when he graduates in a few years, the civil war will still be raging in Syria.
"Who knows who else will have got killed by then, who else will have been forced to flee the country."