Asylum-seekers arriving in Germany are to be sent to centers where they will stay until their application is decided, under a plan by the new coalition government. The move is intended to make the process more efficient, but critics are worried that vulnerable and traumatized people may be put at increased risk.
The plan to establish all-in-one processing centers for asylum-seekers (Anker-Zentren) was agreed by the CDU-SPD coalition government in Berlin. The new interior minister, Horst Seehofer, has said he wants them set up as soon as possible, and indicated that the first one could be operating as early as this September.
Under the plan, asylum-seekers will remain in the centers until their application has been decided. Both coalition parties have agreed that the maximum length of stay should be eighteen months. For families with children, stays will be limited to six months. Only those with a good chance of being granted asylum will be allowed to leave the centers -- when, is not clear. Those with poor prospects to remain will be deported, as stated in the coalition contract. It is still not known where the centers will be located.
Freedom of movement
Currently in Germany, asylum-seekers deemed to have good prospects to remain are allowed to live in the community once their application for asylum has been filed. For the first three months, they can't leave the area where they have been granted permission to reside. But after that, they can travel and live freely throughout Germany. Those who are considered to have poor chances of remaining in the country have to stay in reception facilities until their case is decided. If a person's application for asylum is rejected, they are not allowed to work, and they cannot travel until they leave the country.
Public statements about the new asylum centers have provoked strong reactions in Germany and abroad. In January, the acting head of Bavaria's CSU party, Manfred Weber, said the main topic for Europe in 2018 was the "final solution" of the refugee question. The phrase evoked the so-called "final solution to the Jewish question" agreed by the Nazis at Wannsee in 1942 even though he did not use the same exact term. Soon afterwards, Austria's interior minister Kerbert Kickl proposed that asylum seekers be "concentrated in one place", which led to comparisons with Nazi concentration camps.
Refugee advocates warn of integration failure, isolation
Catarina Lobenstein, writing in Die Zeit, says the proposed asylum centers represent a switch from a policy of decentralized accommodation to one of mass concentration camps. According to Lobenstein, those working in similar centers that already exist in the Bavarian cities of Bamberg and Manching -- potential models for the coalition's planned centers -- have long complained about the conditions there.
Lobenstein also suggests that such centers are a recipe for failed integration. Studies have shown that contact with German-speakers, the ability to work and to send children to regular school are the best ways to ensure integration and wellbeing among asylum seekers.
Activists and refugee advocates have also raised concerns about isolation in the centers. Pro Asyl (Pro-asylum), a German non-profit refugee support organization, says asylum seekers will be without access to lawyers, social workers and other forms of support. Bellinda Bartolucci, a legal policy advisor for Pro Asyl, fears there will be less opportunity to appeal against negative asylum decisions. Given the current high rate of success of appeals, this will have a significant impact.
Bartolucci is also concerned about vulnerable asylum-seekers being held in the centers. "There is no guarantee that their special needs and their rights will be fulfilled there," she says. At a time when the German government is discussing the inclusion of the rights of the child in the constitution, "why don't they protect children from other countries too, children who are asylum-seekers?"
Devil in the detail
While the plan for the Anker-Zentren is set out in the coalition government's contract, a public document, there are few details about its precise implementation. Thomas Bauer, head of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, believes even the government seems to have no clear idea at this stage what the centers will look like. He says no one knows yet whether people will be detained in the centers, or if they will be free to come and go. "We hope that, if the kids go to school, they don't go to school within the centers but in the neighborhood, and that they get some language courses where they can leave the centers."
Professor Bauer hopes that the centers will ultimately speed up the processing of asylum-seekers' applications. This means the government's stated maximum period of stay of 18 months should not be exceeded. "If we don't know after 18 months if the person can stay or not, then we should take them out of these centers," Bauer says.