Prison camps or places of sanctuary? More efficient or restricting asylum seekers' rights? Opinions about Germany’s ‘anchor’ centers remain deeply divided. InfoMigrants visited Bamberg in Bavaria to find out how the center there is working 16 months on.
The town of Bamberg with its 13th-century cathedral, cobbled streets and picturesque town hall perched on an island in the Regnitz River is well deserving of its World Heritage ranking. But on the outskirts of town it is a different story: Here, an enormous former US military barracks, now the site of a so-called 'anchor' (in German, 'AnkER') center for asylum seekers is not about to attract tourists.
The anchor center is technically an "open" facility and the 1,200 or so resident asylum seekers are free to come and go, but surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire, it has the look of a prison. Security guards are on constant patrol, and the sheer size (the grounds cover over 22 hectares) and the long rows of uniform sand-colored three-story blocks give the place a grim, depressing atmosphere.
The people in charge of the facility, cordial and generous to a fault, have gone to a lot of trouble to present it in a positive light. This is not surprising, as the anchor centers remain as controversial as the issue of migration itself.
Many media reports have criticized the isolation and de facto detention, the lack of privacy – there are no locks on the doors –, the lack of access to legal advice and to adequate medical and psychosocial care. But as I discover, not all of the asylum seekers here paint a wholly negative picture.
Hope changes your outlook
Mala* only has to walk a few meters to get to school, but judging by the energy with which she is heading to her German lesson, books in hand, she may be running a little late. For a 14-year-old, she appears confident and capable. Now she's being asked to take on yet another responsibility – to be a translator for her mother, who doesn't speak English. She generously agrees to catch up on the German class later.
The teenager, who is from Iran, has been living in a small apartment in one of the former barracks for three months. She, her mother and her lively two-year-old brother Nelson* share a room, which is partly taken up with three metal bedsteads pushed together. There are very few toys and the walls are bare. It is not a place anyone would want to stay for long.
Stuck up with tape in the hallway is a cleaning roster in Persian. The residents have to do their own cleaning, but it looks like not much of that happens here. In front of the door, rubbish bags are piled up, and the living space is cluttered with junk. The "kitchen" is unusable – all the appliances were taken out when the Americans left in 2014.
34-year-old Selma*, a gracious woman with bleached blond hair and a dimpled smile, doesn't have a bad word to say about the center. "We like it here so much," says Mala in her role as interpreter. Only a few months ago, the family faced much worse conditions. After escaping on foot from Iran, where mother and daughter say they both suffered domestic violence, they were forced to sleep in the open and to share a container with another family in a Greek migrant camp. Worst of all, they fell into a smuggler's trap when they were crossing the Evros river from Turkey and became separated from Selma's husband. A year later, the whole family is in Bavaria, but in two different facilities 200 kilometers apart. They are still waiting to be reunited.
As a pot on a hotplate sends a smell of food through the apartment, Selma and Mala talk hopefully about being able to stay in Germany. "Anything that the government of Germany does [we accept]," says Mala. "They have to make decisions for us and we say 'okay, okay'. We don't want any more from Germany, we just ... don't want to go back to Iran. We just want to stay here and work and study and have a good life. If they let us."
At this anchor center there are more than 260 other Iranians – they are the biggest group of asylum seekers among a total of nearly 1,200 accommodated in this giant facility. The rest come from over 20 different countries, mainly Russia and Iraq, Georgia, Nigeria, Albania and Ghana. Every week on average about 70 more arrive and roughly as many leave again. Some are transferred to other accommodation, while others are deported. In 2019, Bamberg averaged about eight deportations a week. There have been more than 2,630 deportations since the AEO, the Upper Frankonia Reception Center, opened on September 15, 2015.
A blueprint for the country
The anchor centers in Bavaria, and especially the one in Bamberg, have often been called a "blueprint" for what the government hopes will be more such facilities across the country. Anchor (AnkER) stands for Arrival, Decision and municipal distribution or Return (in German: Ankunft, Entscheidung und kommunale Verteilung oder Rückführung). The centers were part of the German interior minister’s master plan for migration, announced in July 2018. There are nine centers – seven in Bavaria, one in Saarland and one in Saxony. At least two others are planned or have been set up under different names.
Asylum seekers who arrive and register in Bavaria are allocated to a federal state according to a system called EASY, which stands for Initial Distribution of Asylum Seekers. If an asylum seeker is allocated to Bavaria, they are given a train ticket to one of the state’s seven anchor centers or their branches (Dependancen). The length of stay ranges from six weeks to 24 months, with those from “safe countries of origin” remaining indefinitely.
The idea of the anchor centers was to combine all the relevant authorities involved in the asylum process – the agencies for migration, employment, welfare, youth, and foreign affairs – as well as accommodating asylum seekers. Non-government organizations like Caritas, Malteser International and the German Red Cross are also present in the anchor centers, providing counseling and a range of social services. The "Dependancen" were created to prevent overcrowding in the main facilities, which are not meant to host more than 1,500 people at a time.
Rejected asylum seekers are sent from the anchor center directly back to their county of origin, or to the EU country responsible for their asylum application under the so-called “Dublin Regulation”. Germany transfers families with children, pregnant women and people with medical conditions under the Dublin system.
While the anchor centers are open, asylum seekers' exit and entry is recorded by security staff. If a person is absent from the center for a week they can be deregistered and have to reapply to the Federal Office for Migration and Refuees' (BAMF) branch in Munich.
When the anchor centers were set up, the government promised that they would speed up processes, benefiting everyone involved. Stefan Krug, the department manager in Bamberg who has long experience with asylum seekers, says it has worked. "In respect of the cooperation and efficiency of the process, it has been successful," he says with conviction. Krug's colleague, the assistant and deputy to the center's director, Markus Oesterlein, adds that it's hard enough as a civil servant knowing which authority is supposed to deal with what. The move to make it simpler for non-bureaucrats has been a positive step.
But it's not clear that procedures have got faster. In October, the government admitted that in the second quarter of 2019, the average asylum claim processing time had gone up to three months from 1.3 months the previous year. In Bamberg, the current average time is around 4 months. Germany-wide, in the second quarter of the year 2019, the average time to reach a decision was 4.5 months, not including complex cases filed before 2017.
Thomas Bollwein, a young advocate for asylum seekers working with the Bavarian Refugee Council and based in Bamberg, says the claim that the process is more efficient is "a lot of nonsense." "Just because the authorities are in one place doesn't make them work faster," he says. The Bavarian Refugee Council has long been critical of every aspect of the anchor centers, including the very concept. One of its major complaints is that it is not allowed to go into the center without express permission from the authorities. Bollwein says this is an intentional strategy on the part of the government aimed at ensuring that people are denied access to legal advice, thereby increasing the likelihood that their claim for asylum will fail.
The section manager at the Bamberg center, Jürgen Wolf, says this is not true. With due regard to the house rules, everyone, including the Refugee Council, has access to the facility, he says. Wolf also insists that there is no intention to put asylum seekers off or give protection status to the smallest possible number, but to speed up the administrative process. "The BAMF, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, is paying attention to ensuring that the protection rate here is comparable with the average rate in Germany," he says.
No future in Germany
"In the Bamberg vernacular we were known back then as the 'Balkans Center'," says Stefan Krug with a smile. Initially, until around the middle of 2016, Bamberg was associated with asylum seekers from the Western Balkans with little prospect of being granted protection. At that time, the centers here and in Ingolstadt/Manching to the south were called ARE (Arrival and Return Centers), and they mainly took in people from "safe countries of origin" – Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. Today, the largest groups are from Russia, Iran and Iraq, which are not recognized as "safe countries", but many of the others from countries like Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria face deportation under the Dublin Regulation, mostly to Italy.
Prince*, a 26-year-old Nigerian, says he was told that they would "come for him" in August or September. When the police turned up, they couldn't find him. He doesn't know when they will return. "I'm desperately worried about it," he says. "Nobody wants to go back to Italy. That is why many of them don't want to be around at the time the police will come. ...they want to send me back. That is why I resist the deportation and I run."
For Prince, who says he watched people die on the Mediterranean crossing from Libya, begged on the streets in Italy and was beaten up and threatened, the Bamberg anchor center is so bad that "there is nothing in this world" with which to compare it. "[The anchor] center is like a psychiatric home where they keep mad people... and it's like a prison where they keep people who commit crime," he says.
The Nigerian says he has become depressed and traumatized since arriving here ten months ago and he is clearly distressed. He complains of police violence and harassment by the security staff, poor medical treatment, bad food and an allowance (about €100 a month) that doesn't cover his expenses. "I pay my lawyer €50. I subscribe on my phone €10 a month. I buy a recharge card for €10. We are Nigerians, we don't eat this German stuff, we eat our African food. There is one African market here in Bamberg and things are very costly."
"People are isolated from the community through these anchor centers," says Bollwein. "And precisely because they can't work and live at such close quarters with each other, it makes people mentally ill." He recalls an Iranian man who was in good spirits when he arrived. "Two months later he had depression and they prescribed drugs for him, sleeping pills. He sat at the table listening to music, and he only listened (to me) a bit now and then, because he had been so affected mentally."
The problem of mental illness among asylum seekers is one of Mirjam Elsel's biggest concerns with the anchor centers. The pastor, who established a weekly vigil for asylum seekers Bamberg, now in its third year, lists a string of problems "leading to sleeplessness, depression, psychosomatic illnesses, alcohol and drug use and aggressive behavior and attempted suicide."
Mental illness played a role in one incident that made a number of headlines late last year. Wolf is matter-of-fact as he points out the burnt-out building – the damage caused when asylum seekers set fire to mattresses. In November 2019, one of the men was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison, while a second man, who had a very high blood alcohol reading at the time, was placed in psychiatric care. Wolf would like to see the repairs finally done on the building.
But the claim of overcrowding is not supported by the facts as they are presented by Krug and his colleague, Wolf. Whereas in November 2019 one of the apartments had 13 people and four had twelve, the average occupancy was seven people sharing one apartment. On average, each asylum seeker had around 14 square meters.
Wolf says the state government has ordered locks to be put on the apartment doors, a move that will address another major concern of Elsel and the Refugee Council. And as for the food, residents and staff are served the same canteen lunch, and Wolf and his colleagues claim to be satisfied. For institutional food cooked or re-heated for 1,200 people, it could be worse. They can't allow any cooking in the apartments because of the fire risk, they explain, but they have set up some kitchen facilities in containers where residents can cook – though they have to pay for the ingredients themselves.
The bigger problems – the absence of hope and purpose, the inability to work and the lack of access to mainstream education – these things are harder, or impossible, to tackle. Critics of the anchor centers seem unlikely to be won over by the efforts of Wolf and his team. Thomas Bollwein says the only solution is to close the centers down.
Prince keeps himself busy with music and theater in Bamberg, and he is writing a story of refugees, which he aims to publish this year. More than anything, he wants to be allowed to work doing more than just stacking plates in the canteen for 80 cents an hour. But this is not in the government's plan. The anchor centers were set up to expedite deportations – Prince fears he is running out of options.