Grace*, a 29-year-old single mother from Ivory Coast | Photo: Benjamin Bathke
At 6:30 am on a sunny and mild Friday in November, roughly 50 policemen raided the 'anchor center' for asylum seekers in the German city of Schweinfurt. They primarily inspected the quarters of male migrants on a random basis and conducted ID checks. When the approximately 20 police vehicles left four hours later, the officers had found two asylum seekers who stayed in the center overnight "illegally." Police also pressed criminal charges in nine cases, most of them for expired or invalid temporary residence permits, police told InfoMigrants upon request.
"I was asleep with my brothers when they arrived," Zi Yao Noufou from Ivory Coast explained. The twentysomething, who shares a room with four other asylum seekers, said police searched his room for 30 minutes. "Police doing like that is good, but for my life, my head — they shook me. It's the first time I see police like that," he said. At the end of the raid, Zi and around 40 other residents of the anchor center went outside to see whether someone got deported. Although nobody had to leave this time, the mood during the raid was tense.
The stated goal of these inspections, which happen every two to three months without prior notice, is to stop drug use and drug trafficking.
Three German states, including Bavaria, recently turned nine reception facilities into so-called anchor centers, where asylum seekers are supposed to stay for up to 24 months while their applications are being processed — and they either receive asylum or get deported. The facility in Schweinfurt is currently the temporary home of about 750 asylum seekers, most of whom hail from Nigeria, Somalia or Ivory Coast.
There's a fairly steady flow of people coming in and out the main gate of the anchor center. The perimeter fence, equipped with cameras, seems redundant, since everyone is free to come and go as they like - provided they have valid identification.
The anchor center sits on the outskirts of Schweinfurt, a port city of 53,000 in Northern Bavaria on the banks of the Main River. Originally built as barracks for the Wehrmacht under Nazi Germany, it housed American GIs from 1945 until 2014. After it became a reception facility for refugees in June 2015, it is now one of seven anchor centers in Bavaria.
During the second half of 2015 — the height of the 'refugee crisis' — more than 16,000 people arrived in Schweinfurt. On the busiest day, the facility had to cope with 400 newcomers. Presently, four people arrive on an average day.
At first glance, the anchor center looks peaceful. "It's pretty calm most of the time," one of the 33 guards said. However, they need to call the police about once a week. The same guard also said that tensions arise primarily within groups of the same nationality, not between different ones, and that the most common problems are related to alcohol and marijuana.
According to police statistics, 800 police operations took place around the anchor center last year, although that number includes traffic accidents and other incidents unrelated to the anchor center. In October, for instance, police arrested eight people on the property after a number of physical assaults that included two stabbings that left one asylum seeker and one Armenian from Frankfurt seriously injured.
But it's not only assault, disturbances and property damage that kept Schweinfurt's police busy in 2018: More than 370 asylum seekers were supposed to be deported, according to Germany's trade union of the police. However, only 15 percent of deportations were actually carried out. This is due to many reasons, including the fact that those rejected asylum seekers to be deported to another EU country ('Dublin cases,' see last chapter) are generally informed about the date of their deportation. (German law forbids giving advance notice of deportations to home countries.) Last year, about two in three deportees were not present at the anchor center when the police showed up.
Still, deportations happen on weekly basis and are "expected to continue," anchor center manager Alexander Warkotsch told InfoMigrants.
Toluwani Akinbambo, who fled from Nigeria with his wife and children, first came to Germany in late 2017. Raphael, his youngest, was born here. His other child, Israel, is now two and a half.
Toluwani is not happy with the living conditions in the anchor center, especially the lack of privacy. "Police, housekeepers — anybody can come into your room at any time," the 27-year-old told InfoMigrants. "There's no privacy. None. We're nobody." He also criticizes the support for children, and that he cannot work outside the center.
During the raid, Toluwani said, police took the audio equipment he bought from the pocket money he received, "for security reasons."
"Producing music is what used to keep me busy," said Toluwani, who plays guitar and keyboard. "When I look at the sky in the morning, I wonder: 'What I'm going to do today?' Around six in the evening, when it's dark, I often think: 'There was nothing for the day.'"
In December 2017, Toluwani and his family had their asylum interview. Over a year later, they are still waiting for the results.
"70 percent chance you have to go, 30 percent chance you can stay — this does not give me encouragement," he said with a sad face.
A bright spot is that Toluwani is one of the very few of the 750 residents who is currently employed at the anchor center. For 80 cents an hour, Toluwani and 35 of his peers work an average of 20 hours a week picking litter, handing out food or doing people's laundry.
A family of four like the Akinbambos receives around 321 euros in cash per month, a sum that is supposed to ensure a "sociocultural subsistence level", according to the local government.
Under German asylum law, foreigners can only obtain an official work permit under certain conditions after three months in Germany. Currently, not a single asylum seeker in Schweinfurt is allowed to pursue a regular job outside the center —
a circumstance many residents complained about vehemently.
Single persons are currently entitled to 98,60 euros per month. In addition, every asylum seeker receives in-kind services including food, clothes and local public transport. The recent announcement to replace the remaining cash with additional in-kind services was not received well among the residents, especially among those whose application for asylum was rejected: They have to hire a lawyer if they want to appeal the decision, which means they have to pay several hundreds of euros and, for some, travel to Munich at their own expense.
A major reason for switching from "pocket money" to in-kind services, according to anchor center manager Warkotsch, is to reduce "secondary migration," meaning the onward migration of migrants who are already registered in other EU countries like Spain, Italy or Greece. In those countries, the level of care is presumably lower than in Germany. "The goal is to keep the service at such a level that we don't create additional pull effects," Warkotsch told InfoMigrants.
Before coming to Europe, Toluwani from Nigeria worked five different seasonal jobs for "landlords" in Libya. He's no exception: Several asylum seekers in Schweinfurt spent months or even years in the African country on the Mediterranean Sea, which some described as "hell on earth."
Moussa* from Ivory Coast spent three years in Libya. He was promised crossing in return for domestic labor.
"When they see black, they see money," the twentysomething said. "If you don't have money, you can kidnap a black and tell him: 'Call your parents and send me money.'"
"Some people died like that," Abdul Salam from Somalia, who spent several months in Lybia, added.
After three years of being "treated like a slave," Moussa says, his "master" put him inside a car and took him to an "Arab man." "In the nighttime, the man took me to the sea, and then I crossed."
It's been seven years since Moussa left Ivory Coast, but he still doesn't feel like he's arrived.
"I need peace," he said wearily.
Warkotsch, the anchor center manager, described the local population's attitude toward asylum seekers as "curious, but distant."
"One would expect a little more empathy from the general public, especially since many of them had similar experiences in the past," Warkotsch said, referring to the large share of Schweinfurt's population with a migrant background. Almost every other local has Russian, American, Turkish or other foreign roots.
Valentina Wagner, a nurse of Russian descent in her mid-thirties, says that especially older people, long-time locals and Russian speakers feel reserved towards asylum seekers who come from a different cultural background.
"Back in the day, the German-Russians and the Turks were the foreigners. But they're all integrated now," Wagner told InfoMigrants. "Today, one sees many new foreigners on the streets. Some of us need time to get used to them," she said.
Wagner also thinks the language barrier makes communication difficult as most newcomers don't speak German. She's hopeful, though, that cooperation will be "easier" and, perhaps, "more cheerful and kinder" a decade from now.
Michael Schirtschenko, a 33-year-old machine operator from Russia, says Schweinfurt doesn't need more refugees. "We should first integrate the ones who are already here," Schirtschenko, who came to Schweinfurt 15 years ago with his parents as a so-called late repatriate, told InfoMigrants. "If the newcomers cannot be integrated, they should be sent home."
Schirtschenko also voiced concerns about the public safety of women, children and teenage girls like Milana Braun, a 17-year-old German Schweinfurt native. Braun thinks it's "cool" that Schweinfurt and Germany help asylum seekers. But ever since she had to call the police when an asylum seeker groped her on a public bus two years ago, she has been avoiding riding the bus and walking around town by herself.
"Asylum seekers often whistle, make stupid jokes or hit on me when I'm at a movie theater," Braun told InfoMigrants. To her, the tendency of young male migrants to walk around town in groups is "intimidating and frightening."
Most asylum seekers in Schweinfurt will probably not be allowed to stay in Germany. There are two major reasons why their prospects are poor. First, the so-called protection rate — the sum of all positive decisions on asylum applications since 2015 — for the countries of origin represented at the anchor center is comparatively low: Somalia (40.9 percent), Nigeria (13.9), Ivory Coast (10.1), Armenia (5.2) and Algeria (1.9 percent). To put things into perspective: a protection rate above 50 percent is considered "good," and the number for Syria is 81.5 percent.
Second, many residents are so-called Dublin cases, meaning they first entered the EU through countries like Italy or Greece. Since these member states are responsible according to the Dublin regulation, asylum seekers will eventually be transferred back to these countries. The procedure, however, often stalls and asylum seekers live in a state of limbo for up to two years.
Chuks, a male asylum seeker from Nigeria, says people mutilate themselves to avoid being sent back. "Because of Dublin, some people jump through windows, dislocate their legs or get fractures on their body because they're afraid being taken and brought back to Italy," he told InfoMigrants.
"When police takes someone back to Italy, you feel pity for him," he said with a somber mood. "Sometimes you cry so hard because you think about your life, too. When people are hurt, it hurts you, too."