There are more and more asylum seekers in Germany and the immigration office can barely keep up with the applications. Now, soldiers are being called in to speed up the process - though not without controversy.
Normally, the job of the German army's personnel office, based in Cologne, is to try to show young people who are just finishing their national service the charms of a career in the military, and so, to ensure the future of Germany's soon-to-be, non-conscription, professional army.
But now, it is faced with a peculiar and unusual task: In the past week, it has been searching desperately for Bundeswehr employees with experience in administration to help Germany's federal immigration office accelerate the asylum process.
An email has been circulating in which the Bundeswehr has been calling for volunteers, both among reservists and among active serving soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Backhaus, who is responsible for the Bundeswehr's personnel department, confirmed to DW that the immigration office had indeed made the request. "We have extended the search to cover the Bundeswehr's entire personnel," he said, before adding that 1,700 soldiers had the necessary experience.
Twice the personnel, half the processing time
This intensive search has been sparked by a clause in the coalition contract between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats she intends to govern with. It states that asylum application processing must be shortened significantly - to a maximum of three months. That sounds like good news for refugees coming to Germany. The only problem is that the immigration office is barely keeping up with applications as it is.
The number of applications has doubled since 2012, and even though around 130 federal police officials have been helping out for the past few months, it is taking an average of eight months for each application to be processed. And that won't change unless the immigration office gets significantly more staff, the head of the office, Manfred Schmidt, told DW: "We are currently not in a position to accelerate the asylum process significantly."
So, extra personnel is desperately needed. But, are Bundeswehr soldiers really the right people to process asylum applications? Schmidt admits that they will require special training, but he believes that many of their duties are no different than what they encounter in military administration. "Of course we have to see where we deploy our personnel," said Schmidt. "The asylum process begins when a file is created, establishing identity, the first questionnaire." Indeed, the Bundeswehr email calling for volunteers predominantly names administrative tasks, but also "identification treatment."
Asylum application as emergencies?
Soldiers photographing refugees and taking their fingerprints - Bernd Mesovic, of the refugees' rights organization Pro Asyl does not like this idea one bit. For him, it is fundamentally problematic for military personnel to take on civilian duties. "The Bundeswehr can only be used domestically for a very narrow set of tasks," he told DW. "As a rule, that means support for natural disasters and problems with homeland security, and even then the bar is set high.
That shows that it really is an unusual procedure." Germany's constitution stipulates that the Bundeswehr's job description allows foreign missions and can only be used within Germany under very special circumstances.
Schmidt can't understand these reservations at all, pointing out that he already has 14 colleagues from the Bundeswehr's administrative services. And for some time now, regular soldiers who have their Bundeswehr service behind them have taken on jobs at the immigration office. "To that extent it's a bit difficult to understand this discussion if a soldier suddenly takes on a different role in society," he said. For him, soldiers are normal citizens like any other.
Citizens in uniform - without uniforms
Mesovic is also concerned by the demonstrative way the office is looking so desperately for extra staff. "They're giving the impression that they're in such a desperate situation that they have to call in the army - even as everyone is talking exaggeratedly about 'streams of refugees'," he said. On the other hand, he feels encouraged that the issue is being discussed openly within Bundeswehr circles, including Internet forums.
The refugees, some of whom were persecuted in their home countries, will be spared the ordeal of facing uniformed military in Germany. Schmidt says that, just like federal police officers, the military volunteers will do their work in civilian clothes. "Asylum seekers will not be able to tell whether the administrator sitting in front of them is one of us, or one of the Bundeswehr personnel we have trained," he said.