Anchor centers – the linchpin of Germany’s immigration ‘master plan’. Refugee rights groups decried these one-stop facilities for asylum seekers as mass holding camps where people would be kept for long periods, denied access to justice and cut off from society. The government insisted that they would make asylum procedures more efficient and speed up deportations. Three months on, we visited one of the anchor centers in Bavaria, to discover that both sides are a little bit right.
Autumn has arrived, and baby Luna is dressed up warmly against the chill in a cosy plaid coat, which has little teddy bear ears on the hood. Since she was born seven weeks ago, nearly all Luna’s practical needs – a sturdy buggy, diapers and baby clothes – have been supplied by the NGO in charge here, the Maltesers. But her mother, Precious, bought this cute jacket with her own money.
Luna and Precious share a room with two other mothers and their baby boys in the Anchor Center for asylum seekers in Donauwörth, a small town in southern Germany. They are in a special section reserved for families, which make up nearly half of the 800-plus asylum seekers in the center.
In spite of the demands of motherhood, and having huge challenges to deal with before and since leaving her home in Nigeria, the 21-year-old is resilient and positive. Her dream of achieving higher education has been derailed again and again - in Libya where she narrowly escaped being trafficked into prostitution, and then in Italy, which wouldn't accept her school qualification. Now she's raising a baby alone, not knowing whether or when she will be granted asylum in Germany. And yet she tells us “it’s fine here. It can’t be like home, but you can adjust to everything.”
Neither Precious nor her young friend Success, who is also Nigerian, complain about the living conditions here. But others, like 19-year-old Ibera, say sharing a small room with so many strangers -- up to eight in the men's block -- is not easy.
This former military base, built in the 1950s and already half-demolished, is cramped and comfortless. In the small room Success shares with three roommates, one woman is asleep in the middle of the day. Metals lockers – one per person – a table and chair and a basin in the corner leave hardly any space to move, and no privacy at all.
In the shared bathroom down the hall, there are dirty smears on the walls. A handwritten sign in English and Turkish advises people to keep the toilet clean and warns that “there is a virus.”
In Bavaria, asylum seekers are transfered to whichever of the state’s seven anchor centers is responsible for their country. In Donauwörth, the largest group – more than 530 people – are from Turkey, and then Gambia, with over 220. The third-biggest group are Nigerians, followed by a handful from Somalia, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Mali, Senegal, and the list goes on.
18 nationalities living practically under one roof for up to two years may sound like a recipe for conflict. And there is quite a bit of that. Ibera, who is Gambian, says it’s hard having to mix with people from so many different backgrounds. Anna Lobkowicz, the Malteser’s manager of the center, says the situation leads to “pretty short fuses.”
“If someone pushes ahead in the line at mealtime, it’s going to upset people ten times more than it would if the same thing happened in a restaurant. So things flare up more quickly.”
Deportations: Situation normal
Tensions also run high because some people are in constant fear of being deported, Lobkowicz says. “It changes the nature of living together when one person knows they have a good chance and can look forward to the future, and others are waiting for the moment (of deportation).”
Speeding up the process of deporting rejected asylum seekers was one of the main objectives of the anchor centers. Bavaria, the only state which has fully adopted the model, was going to show that it could be done – asylum seekers could be removed immediately after receiving a negative decision. In reality, it hasn't proved to be this easy.
Ibera tells us that a lot of his friends have been deported back to Italy, where they are now homeless. But the process still seems to be something of a logistical nightmare for the German police and immigration authorities. It can take months, says Frank Kurtenbach, the head of the Donauwörth center, from a negative decision to when police actually put the person on a plane out of the country, if it happens at all. Asylum seekers still have the legal right to appeal a deportation order. And they can - and often do - choose to disappear before the authorities arrive to collect them.Open gates don't equal integration
There’s a fairly steady flow of people coming in and out the main gate of the anchor center. The secure perimeter fence, topped with barbed wire, seems redundant, since everyone is free to come and go as they like. A yellow bus pulls up at the stop over the road and a dozen or so young men get on. It’s a public bus going to town, but it might as well be just for asylum seekers. Aside from a lonely group of Jehovah's Witnesses trying to recruit new members, they are the only people here.
The anchor center sits high on a hillside above the town of Donauwörth, much to the annoyance of the local residents. Many of them don’t like having a large group of foreigners living so close by, and they’ve welcomed the fact that the center is due to be bulldozed at the end of 2019 to make way for housing development.
As well, following a number of recent incidents of police being called to the center in large numbers, and cases of petty crime and bad behavior in the community, the anchor center has lately cast an even bigger shadow over the town.
What locals say
“The things that have come out of there, the crimes and all the unpleasant stuff, they’re unacceptable,” an elderly man from Gosheim, a nearby village, complained. “When everything’s concentrated in one spot it’s not good for the people up there or for the community.”
Another young man from Donauwörth told us: “The ones I’ve met personally are totally fine and totally well-behaved, but on the other hand there are some who just hang out at the station drinking and swearing.”
An older woman – herself a former refugee – said: “When you open up the paper (and) not a week goes by without something negative in there, then the people who used to help (asylum seekers) a lot and were supportive, their opinion changes.”
Lawyers, psychologists and refugee advocates warned that keeping large numbers of asylum seekers in centers isolated from the community could lead to increased violence and would likely widen the divide between refugees and the public. In Donauwörth, both appear to have happened.
Frank Kurtenbach says the situation is improving. Efforts are being made to prevent and better manage the causes of violence. But while the asylum seekers in the anchor center continue to be separated from the community, tackling the problem of alienation and public animosity remains a challenge.
One of the problems they face, Lobkowicz explains, is that integration was explicitly off the agenda from the beginning. “The clear message from the top” was that people should only integrate once they’ve left the center and are out in the community. Oddly, this means integration has to take place by stealth – through informal ties with local clubs, for example. Lobkowicz calls it taking “baby steps.”
Making the best of a bad lot
For his part, Kurtenbach can claim at least one victory. A key to the anchor center concept, that all the authorities dealing with asylum applications would be on site, has meant that things are moving a lot faster. Currently, the average length of stay in the center is around 103 days, a figure he says is quite good.
103 days is almost exactly the amount of time Friday has already spent in the center. We meet him in the workshop, where he’s been helping to build a stage. In Nigeria, he was a mechanic. But in the anchor center he’s not allowed to get a real job. The workshop pays him 80 cents an hour.
Like Friday, all the people we meet love being able to go to work in the laundry, the canteen or the school. They can also take classes in German language and culture. Before she had the baby, Precious says, going to class was her favorite thing.
Five days a week, children up to the age of 14 go to "school" here. The day's classes are over by the time we arrive, but Kurtenbach tells us they are a great success.
The ban on outside employment, 80-cent jobs and the move to school children in the camp, rather than in the community, have all attracted strong criticism from those outside the anchor center. Inside, we have the feeling that people are just keen to have something to do, to help pass the time. When I ask Success what could be improved, she points out that it's not the asylum seekers but the government that has the power to change anything.
Baby Luna and her mum Precious will be long gone before Luna is old enough for kindergarten. It’s almost a shame, because this is the happiest place of all. In this big, bright room, the children are lively. There’s noise and color and no one has to worry about how to pass the time.