The latest one-stop processing center for asylum seekers, or 'anchor center', has begun operating in the town of Lebach in the small German state of Saarland. The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, sees it as a successful model for other German states to follow, but they remain to be convinced.
"Very impressed" by such a "relaxed and calm atmosphere", was the interior minister Horst Seehofer's reaction as he attended the official opening on Monday of the newest of the so-called anchor centers.
"One sees a lot in the course of one's political life, but I've never seen anything like what I saw today."
The center in the town of Lebach in Saarland is the ninth to begin operation. There are seven others in Bavaria, and one in Saxony in the east.
The Lebach center had previously been an asylum seeker reception facility managed by the charity Caritas. After nearly sixty years, local residents are mostly accepting of the foreigners in their midst, and that won't change, says Saarland's interior minister, Klaus Bouillon.
"Our center, which runs perfectly, will stay the way it is – open and accessible to everyone."
Bouillon has described his state as a Syrian colony, as it is home to thousands of migrants. "We have many families, and barely any problems," he said, adding that the number of offenses committed in Lebach is significantly lower than in Saarlouis, another town in the state.
Anchor center concept becomes a reality
The so-called anchor centers - an acronym for arrival, decision, and return - are a key part of Horst Seehofer's migration reforms unveiled earlier this year. Their aim is to accommodate asylum seekers in one place during the entire procedure, from their arrival until their asylum application is decided and they either relocated to another part of Germany or deported. With all the relevant authorities being on site, the process is intended to be faster and more efficient.
The federal government and the state administration in Saarland agreed to convert the Lebach reception center to an anchor center in September. The first eight anchor centers in Bavaria and Saxony began operating on August 1.
The nine anchor centers
Lebach, Saarland - The newest anchor center, converted from an asylum seeker reception center. Currently accommodates around 1,100 people.
Dresden, Saxony - Described as being in a "trial phase".
Bamberg, Upper Franconia, Bavaria - Maximum capacity 3,400 people.
Schweinfurt, Lower Franconia, Bavaria - Due to close and relocate in mid-2019 to the former Conn barracks in Schweinfurt district.
Deggendorf, Lower Bavaria - Former transit center. The center made headlines in winter when 150 asylum seekers went on a hunger strike over cramped conditions and poor standards of food and hygiene.
Donauwörth, Swabia, Bavaria - Due to close at the end of 2019. Formerly a military barracks. Accommodates over 500 asylum seekers. Residents have staged riots in the past.
Zirndorf, Middle Franconia, Bavaria - Accommodates 500 people.
Regensburg, Upper Palatinate, Bavaria - Capacity 1,200 people.
Manching, Upper Bavaria - Opened in 2015. Previously held 5,600 asylum seekers.
'Never intended as mass accommodation'
The states are free to decide how the anchor centers operate. Seehofer has consistently said they should not hold more than 1,500 people and it was never about "mass accommodation". Some critics have described the centers as mass holding camps and expressed concern they could lead to violence.
Bouillon hopes that the new system will facilitate speedier deportations. He agrees with Seehofer that this should be the responsibility of the federal police and will save the state some €180,000 per year, according to Bouillon.
Saarland will also receive around 50 additional federal police, according to some reports. However, the head of the state's police union, Roland Voss, has warned this would create legal problems, as deportations remain the responsibility of the state police force.
Certain changes to the current system are clear – one is significant extra federal funding to the charities running the center, Caritas, the German Red Cross and Diakonie. The federal government will provide an additional €500,000 to fund such things as sport and language courses, a violence counseling center and new childcare facilities.
Other changes will include the following, according to the Saarbrücker Zeitung:
Identity checks will take place at the very beginning of the asylum procedure, and data will be immediately shared with national and international databases.
- If a person who is due to be deported has no valid documents, such as a passport, it will now be the responsibility of the federal authorities to seek relevant documents from that person's country of origin to allow them to re-enter.
- The Saarland authorities are considering replacing key-locks with a chip-card security system to prevent unauthorized entry, for example by migrant smugglers.
- Courses in German culture and language will be extended from 50 to 300 hours, and new courses in local values will be offered in asylum seekers' native languages.
- All asylum seekers, including those deemed to have a poor chance of being granted asylum, will receive medical checks. The federal government will cover the annual costs amounting to €40-50,000.
After an 18-month test-phase it's expected to become clear whether the Lebach anchor center project has succeeded in cutting asylum procedure times – currently about 2,3 months on average, according to official German migration office statistics – and increasing deportations. So far this year, 146 people have been deported from Saarland, while 108 further attempted deportations failed.