Photo Gallery: Nearing Capacity

Foto: Christian Charisius/ dpa

The Breaking Point? Germany's Asylum System Struggles to Cope

As the migrant influx continues, the 'Refugees Welcome' high is beginning to wear off. People are beginning to wonder if Germany will really be able to cope with all the newcomers. And the system is already completely overwhelmed. By SPIEGEL Staff

The images were almost surreal. There were people who had just completed a brutally difficult journey, exhausted, but happy. And there was the crowd, lined up on both sides, cheering and clapping as though they themselves had made the trip.

Such scenes have played out across Germany in recent days, and they are more than a little reminiscent of the finish lines at marathons in Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin and elsewhere. The mood was almost festive, euphoric. One could almost forget that the refugees arriving at train stations around the country were not running against the clock. They were running for their lives. The expressions on some faces made it clear that they hadn't yet been able to completely grasp what was happening to them.

The scenes, which included dozens of people holding up signs reading "Refugees Welcome," were quite remarkable. The Germans -- not all, but enough that they are now seen as being "the Germans" everywhere else in the world -- were celebrating the Syrians, the Eritreans, the Iraqis and the Afghans who had made it to their country. And they were celebrating themselves.

It is as though the Germans are standing up and saying: "We are not who you have long thought we were." We are not closed hegemons. We are open-hearted. It was half-truth and half-staged , but it was appealing enough that one could bask in the feeling without pangs of guilt. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, the perennial skeptic, was moved.

But what will happen if the influx of refugees doesn't abate? What will be left when the initial euphoria wears off  and everyday life returns? How will Germans react when the celebratory images of this week are replaced with the reality of housing tens of thousands of newcomers?

The chancellor has made her decision: more help, which likely also means more refugees. Refugees Welcome. It is a position that will be difficult to back away from should the public mood shift, and it is a position she will be judged on in the next election in 2017.

She has already lost one close ally: Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Seehofer, who is also the governor of Bavaria, has invited Hungary's hardline nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to the next conference of his party's state parliament group. Seehofer says the invitation gives the CSU an opportunity to "find a solution together with (Orbán)," but it is also a clear affront to the chancellor. Seehofer says it was wrong for Merkel to circumvent existing EU asylum rules by encouraging refugees in Hungary to continue on to Germany. "That was a mistake that will be with us for a long time. I don't see a way to put the cork back in the bottle," Seehofer says. "We will soon find ourselves in an emergency situation that we will no longer be able to control."

'Uncoordinated Influx'

Meanwhile, Hannelore Kraft, the Social Democratic (SPD) governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, made clear at the beginning of the week that the number of refugees to be expected this year will likely rise from the 800,000 the federal government forecast in August. She also made clear that the effort needed to deal with the influx will be much greater than previously thought.

Just how great that effort might be became clear on Thursday morning during a conference call of all state interior ministries in addition to the federal Interior Ministry in Berlin. As part of the meeting, states indicated how much shelter capacity they possessed, and the results, according to the phone conference's protocol, were not particularly promising. Seven states -- including Baden-Württemberg, Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate -- reported that they had no remaining capacity whatsoever. Bavaria complained of "uncontrolled access pathways." And Schleswig-Holstein lamented the "uncoordinated influx into the reception facilities." The Interior Ministry in Berlin also had an alarm bell to sound: Austria, through which refugees must travel on their way from Hungary to Germany, is beginning to diverge from the joint approach.

The conference call provides a small insight into the immense challenges facing Germany this year and in the years to come. Indeed, the effects are likely to remain with the country for decades to come -- and will have consequences for Germany's identity, its prosperity and for its self-image. Against that backdrop, the question arises: Can we handle the crisis? Or will the crisis handle us?

Either is possible. It could be that Germany, with its gleeful welcoming party, is currently sowing the seeds for problems that the country will face in 2040. It could be that the foreigners will remain foreign, that they will create a new, parallel underclass. Simultaneously, it could also be that Germany is currently solving those problems that would, without immigration, face the country in 2040: Labor market problems, pension fund problems and old-age care problems.

It will take many years before it becomes clear in which direction the pendulum is swinging. But if Germany wants the opportunities to win out over the dangers, then that state will have to confront the chaos and do all it can to integrate the newcomers, the majority of whom are likely to stay. And that project will have to begin soon, even if the state is currently having difficulties accelerating asylum procedures, providing therapy to traumatized children and training adults for the labor market.


Indeed, even the very first requirement -- that of finding shelter -- is proving a challenge. Many cities are running out of facilities that can be quickly transformed into asylum hostels. And shelters made of containers, an idea that many have sought to apply, are in short supply, as became clear during a refugee summit held by CDU lawmakers in Rhineland-Palatinate earlier this week. And if they can be bought, the prices are high and the waiting list is months long. By then, winter will long since have set in, rendering insufficient the tents where many refugees are currently being sheltered.

German bureaucracy and building ordinances, not surprisingly, are exacerbating the challenge. "At times, it is grotesque what is being blocked," complains Olaf Kühn, mayor of the small Hesse town of Seeheim-Jugenheim. He relates a case where the banister of a staircase was just a few centimeters too low. Another time, he says, steps were just a tiny bit higher than allowed. But the most common hurdle is fire protection regulations. That was even a problem for three apartments belonging to the protestant charity Diakonie in the town of Mühltal near Darmstadt. The apartments had earlier provided housing to the disabled, but fire protection rules are stricter for apartments housing refugees -- as Mühltal Mayor Astrid Mannes was shocked to learn.

Still, some things are likely to change. As part of the new "German flexibility" that Merkel recently called for, an "expediting law" will be on the agenda of the state-federal refugee summit planned for Sept. 24. Preparatory meetings have already established widespread agreement that more refugee hostels could be built in industrial areas and that noise and proximity regulations could be "modestly relaxed." Lawmakers also want to relax standards that apply to the conversion of former schools or hospitals.

It's not just municipal politicians who are waiting eagerly for such changes. States, which are responsible for reception facilities, are also facing extreme difficulties that could be slightly alleviated by even the smallest change made to the regulations. Recent weeks in Berlin, for example, have seen refugees being forced to sleep out in the open in front of the main reception center there.

The situation in Dortmund isn't quite that bad, but the path to a bed is long. First, those arriving by train are taken to a hall near the main train station, where aid workers are waiting with water and, should it be needed, clothing. But they are only allowed a few hours rest before being bused out to an emergency shelter somewhere else in the state, usually a tent, a gymnasium or an unused school.

A Free Bed

It used to be that refugees arriving at the train station were able to rest for five days at a reception center. But the closest such facility, in the Dortmund neighborhood of Hacheney, only has 350 beds. Today, that is barely enough to shelter pregnant women, families with small children and the sick. Everyone else, those who are assigned to emergency shelters strewn about the state, must be bused to Hacheney to register and then bused back. Not long later, they are relocated to a central shelter before, finally, being sent to one of the more permanent facilities located in a town, provided a free bed can be found.

"It's all worse than a conveyor belt," says Wahed Kabir, the deputy director of the facility in Hacheney. And already this year, that conveyor belt has come to a screeching halt nine times and asylum seekers who had arrived for registration found themselves standing in front of a locked door. The reason: With 1,000 people on the premises, the facility had reached capacity.

The situation may soon become even worse. Merkel's cabinet recently agreed on a procedure aimed at speeding up the repatriation of migrants from the Balkans, who have virtually no chance of being granted asylum status. Part of that plan foresees not distributing such migrants among smaller facilities in towns and villages. Bavaria has already opened a special hostel for such migrants. But other states are simply intending to keep them in normal, central reception facilities for longer. That, though, will mean a shortage of beds for refugees from Syria and other countries whose applications are likely to be accepted.

The new procedure explains why Hesse's central reception facility is overcrowded. Indeed, the state is constantly being forced to open new shelters in other cities and towns. The problem, though, is that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), which has been charged with rapidly processing migrants from the Balkans, doesn't always have branch offices in such towns. And that makes the government's new plan largely worthless.

BAMF President Manfred Schmidt, for his part, has cast blame at the states -- for continually opening up new reception facilities. His agency, Schmidt says, "can't keep up by constantly opening up new branches."

It is the same old blame game. Though in this instance, the federal government and the German states are largely in agreement that BAMF is to blame. "BAMF isn't up to the task," said North Rhine-Westphalian Governor Kraft. A leading SPD politician in Berlin said that the agency "is definitely not a problem solver."

A Quarter Million Unresolved Cases

State and federal officials accuse Schmidt's agency of having dragged its feet for years in the resolution of tens of thousands of asylum cases. He has also been accused of not doing enough to secure additional federal funding to hire more asylum agents.

And the problem isn't getting any easier to solve. There were 150,000 unresolved cases last October. By April of this year, that number had risen to 200,000 and now the total is more than a quarter million. Every month, BAMF adds more unresolved cases to the pile. The result is that those refugees with good chances of obtaining asylum status have to wait extended periods before they can start their new lives and the deportations of the others are repeatedly delayed.

Graphic: Asylum Application Backlog

Graphic: Asylum Application Backlog


Somewhere in these statistics, Tesfalem Beyene, a 31-year-old asylum applicant from Eritrea, can be found. For the last 13 months, he has been sitting in a refugee hostel in Anklam, a small town just inland from the Baltic Sea coast, waiting for his case to be resolved. But nothing happens, even though most Eritreans are granted asylum.

Beyene would like to restart his life, move into his own apartment and find work. He envisions himself driving construction machinery, like he used to, or working in a care home. At the end of August, he finally received a letter from BAMF. But it wasn't the long-awaited decision. "Because of the increased number of asylum applications," the letter read, he would have to continue waiting patiently.

Still, four new application processing centers are to be built soon in Nuremberg, Unna, Berlin and Mannheim, which should speed things up, BAMF President Schmidt hopes. Cases such as Beyene's -- where the outcome is largely clear -- are to be sped up in particular. By the end of 2016, the agency is to make 2,000 new hires, including several hundred people authorized to make case decisions.

But even that is too little, says migration expert Dietrich Thränhardt. "We need to make a much bigger effort," he says. According to his calculations, BAMF decided on an average of 20,000 applications a month during the first half of the year. But even if that number were to be doubled, the number of unresolved cases would continue to grow. To work through the 250,000 pending cases, in addition to handling the new ones to come, Thränhardt says, thousands of new decision-makers, and not hundreds, would be necessary.

'The Situation Is Too Serious'

Such numbers could help explain why Schmidt sometimes seems so despondent. They also, though, provide insight into the deepening conflict between the federal government and the German states. The situation is such that one agency leader is no longer a large enough scapegoat.

"How are things going to end?" groans a refugee official from one of Germany's three city-states. "The Federal Interior Ministry is doing nothing except for sending us new numbers every day." Many state governors are bristling for a fight and are angry at the results of a recent meeting on the refugee crisis among leaders of Merkel's governing coalition. "The money won't be enough," says Torsten Albig, governor of Schleswig-Holstein.

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller is even more explicit. "We don't have any more time. The situation is too serious. The federal government must finally abandon its stalling tactics," he says. The response to the crisis has been too limited, too parsimonious and too tentative, he believes. "In July, we agreed with the chancellor on flexible help from the federal government," Müller says. "Fixed amounts don't help us when the number of refugees is climbing by the day."

Meanwhile, the federal government in Berlin is disappointed in the states. "Now is not the time to complain. It's time to roll up your sleeves" and get to work, says Ole Schröder, a state secretary in the Interior Ministry. He says that SPD complaints about a coalition agreement made on the watch of Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who is also head of the SPD, and Hamburg's SPD Mayor Olaf Scholz are the height of hypocrisy.

The anger on both sides is more than just bravado. But no matter how intense the differences between Berlin and the German states become, the decisive battle in the refugee crisis is being fought elsewhere: in Brussels. For the first time, Germany opened the door for refugees in Hungary. But if the majority of EU states continue to keep their doors locked, Germany's "Refugees Welcome" project is in trouble.

A New Cold War

On Wednesday, Denmark suspended train connections with Germany in order to prevent asylum-seekers from traveling through the country on their way to Sweden. The political signal was clear: Even if Germany has softened to the plight of refugees in Hungary, Denmark is not going to play along.

According to an internal European Commission paper from the beginning of July, the EU executive expects an additional 2 million Syrians to leave their homes by the end of this year. Greek diplomats fear that more than 100,000 refugees are planning to head to Greece from Turkey in the coming weeks. On the Greek island of Lesbos alone, there are 18,000 refugees hoping desperately that they will soon be able to continue their journeys. They are sleeping in parks and on the streets -- and they don't have enough to eat and drink.

Most are hoping to make it to Germany. Which is why Germany is hoping to establish a quota requiring refugees to be distributed among all EU states.

Many countries are continuing to reject the plan, despite European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's emotional speech  on Wednesday in which he accused some EU member states of being too selfish in the crisis. The Committee of Permanent Representatives in Brussels -- made up of ambassadors from each member state -- is deeply divided. On the one side are those countries in favor of a quota, like Germany, France and Austria. The other side is made up primarily of Eastern European countries like Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. East vs. West: One Western European diplomat even referred to it as a "Cold War."

A Chance of Integration

Juncker and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, would like to obtain a decision on the quota as early as Monday at a meeting of European interior and justice ministers. "Monday is an important meeting and, because voluntary commitments don't appear to be enforceable, we should agree on a quota. We don't have to wait for European heads of state and government to do so," Bettel says.

There's a reason for the haste. EU leaders generally make their decisions unanimously, but within the circle of interior and justice ministers, those seeking to block a proposal can be overruled. And if that doesn't work? Then two hopes would be lost at once -- the idea that Germany's burden could be shared. And that the refugees have a realistic chance of integration in the country.

Quickly providing a roof over people's heads alone isn't necessarily going to win hearts. Successful integration hinges on what happens over the longer term in the schools, on the labor market and through the efforts of social workers. In all of those respects, the number of refugees cannot be permitted to get so large that the integrative momentum crumbles -- when it comes, for example, to helping return stability to the life of a minor who has been traumatized and has fled on his or her own to Europe. A related and urgently needed law will go into effect on Jan. 1 that will make it possible to distribute young migrants among all German states. This group, too, has grown so large that major cities like Berlin and Munich are no longer able to care for all of them.

In 2014, German youth welfare offices were responsible for a total of 10,400 children who fled their country without a guardian. But this year, Munich alone has already registered 6,000 children and youth, with most coming from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia. The German states have pledged to provide care for these children based on youth welfare policy standards, but it's a big promise and one that is already being broken in thousands of cases.

'Can You Really Call that Child Welfare?'

Some 700 youth, for example, are currently being cared for according to "bare minimum standards" at Munich's Bayern-Kaserne military barracks, laments Andreas Dexheimer, the social education worker with Diakonie, the social welfare organization of Germany's Protestant churches, in charge of social services at the refugee center. He says that youth are only transferred to social care homes or homes for curative education after it is determined where they came from, how old they are and their name. In those facilities, each social worker is responsible for caring for a maximum of five youth. But in and around Munich right now, social workers are caring for an average of 10 youths each, with the number rising.

"Can you really call that youth welfare?" Dexheimer asks before answering the question himself. "No, the system has been collapsing for the past year and a half." Meanwhile, Klaus Honigschnabel of Munich's Inner Mission, likewise a Protestant social services organization, adds, "It's as if the ocean were being emptied out and all the water has to be captured in a test tube." It isn't money that's the problem, either. "Working together with politicians is going very well," he says. The problem is a lack of workers.

The market for social workers in Germany's metropolitan areas is virtually empty. Yet hundreds are needed to address the youth issue alone. If you add to that the remainder of the refugees, then thousands of social workers are required. But there aren't any and there won't be a fresh supply of social workers available anytime soon.

Even the 10,000 positions the federal government is creating in the Federal Volunteer Service won't do much to alleviate the situation. What are needed are real experts equipped in dealing with youth suffering from serious psychological problems, not volunteers keen to help.

Daniela Schneckenburger, the head of youth welfare in Dortmund, is sitting in her office on the eighth floor of city hall and trying to bring order to the almost uncontrollable chaos. By the end of the year, she estimates that 1,400 unaccompanied refugee children will arrive in her city, almost four times as many as last year. Currently, the city is taking incoming youth as far away as the state of Lower Saxony if there is a bed free. "We want to manage this and we will manage, but nobody knows how," says Schneckenburger, who admits to moments of pure despair. Even youth welfare offices are running out of personnel for dealing with the situation. In Munich right now, each guardian is required to take responsibility for 60 unaccompanied young refugees. Even the best of good will and good intentions by all the volunteers isn't enough to tackle the problem. Ultimately, it's the professionals who will have to step up to the plate -- in schools, too.

Putting German Schools to the Test

Take the example of Schifferstadt, a town in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. At the Nord Elementary School, students in class 4D recently conducted a test of bicycle riding skills that involved navigating an obstacle course. Only one boy required assistance from the teachers to get on his bike. He began wobbling and then fell over, scratching on his elbow. Teachers at the school must now determine what the 10-year-old is capable of doing, but also what he can't do. It may be that the next few days are less painful, but they certainly won't be easy.

Ibrahim came to Schifferstadt with his mother and two siblings, and school attendance was mandatory upon his arrival. "That happens overnight," says school director Merten Eichert. The government ministries and teachers are facing a unique challenge: They have to absorb thousands of refugee children within a matter of days whom they hadn't even known about before departing for summer vacation.

They must now teach them German and slowly integrate them into normal classrooms. They also have to be incorporated into meal planning as well as the day-care and recreational offerings of all-day schools. At the same time, they have to help these children overcome the horrors they have escaped in their home country.

During her work on her doctoral thesis, Munich psychologist Seval Soykök came to the conclusion that 22 percent of Syrian refugees aged 14 and under suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. An additional 16 percent suffer from other psychological effects of the terrible things they have experienced. Teachers told Schifferstadt principal Eichert that some refugee children had reacted to a fire drill as though a bombing raid had begun.

'We'll Have to Wing It'

It's a massive task for the schools. Is it too big? In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone, 10,000 more children showed up in classrooms this year than expected. And that doesn't include those who are still in reception centers or who only just arrived by train from Hungary. "We can't plan for the future," says Sylvia Löhrmann, the state's education and research minister. It is estimated that one-third of all refugees are under the age of 18.

"Immigrant children are not a novelty for us," school director Eichert says calmly. He says the schools will just be fuller now. But he also adds that the "range of the students abilities will also widen, creating a more difficult teaching environment."

Educational professionals are thus warning against putting three or more refugees in a single class. Stefani Droll, the head of the Koblenz's Integrated Comprehensive School (IGS) says the refugees provide an excellent opportunity at German schools for both sides. During this school year, IGS Koblenz took in 11 children from Syria and two from the Balkans. They receive new queries from interested people every day. Droll says that the education levels Syrian children already have assure they will be successful learners in German schools.

At the same time, she warns, "that only works up to a certain threshold." She says it's easy to integrate two students in each classroom but beyond that it gets difficult.

'Initial Costs Are Enormous'

Vocational schools are being particularly challenged and overwhelmed. Many refugees are arriving at the doors to these schools in order to prepare for working life. "The young refugees are motivated and want to learn German," says Herbert Huber, the chairman of the Association of Vocational School Teachers in the state of Baden-Württemberg. "But integration requires considerable time, money and effort." He says that if you include preparation courses and the actual professional training, then the time it takes for a refugee to complete everything is five to seven years. "The initial costs are enormous," says Huber. "And politicians are doing too little to explain this."

For vocational schools in his state alone, his organization is calling for 200 new teaching positions per year. Meanwhile, the national association of vocational school teachers is calling for 20,000 such positons across the country, not including social workers and interpreters. If you estimate that each position will cost at least €55,000 per year as the Education Ministry in Baden-Württemberg does, then it quickly becomes clear that the government is facing billions in costs.

The same also applies to the labor market authorities -- the only difference being that they have a little more time to prepare than the schools do. Under current rules, refugees are allowed to start working after three months, but only if an EU citizen is not interested in the position. Most end up being the responsibility of the Federal Labor Office. And it takes months before the job center is responsible for making welfare payments.

If you go by the current official forecast that 800,000 refugees will come to Germany this year -- one that is already considered by many to be out of date -- and that as many will arrive next year, then the Federal Labor Office will require an estimated 3,300 additional staff members. But as with almost all figures these days, this one too will likely be obsolete in a matter of weeks, if not days.

'Early Intervention'

The hope of many at the job centers, but also their greatest burden, is that public opinion in Germany won't shift. There is no single argument that can quiet skeptics as quickly as the one that Germany urgently needs workers. Many expect the job centers to quickly help refugees find work so that they won't have to rely on state welfare payments in the first place.

Still, the Federal Labor Office is no different from the rest of the government's agencies in the sense that its staffers know very little about the refugees who have arrived. They know their ages, their gender and their nationality -- assuming the information provided is correct. But they know little else. That's why the agency has sent people into the refugee accommodations in order to learn more -- like the languages spoken by the refugees, what kind work they would like to have and the skills they might bring to those jobs. The pilot program, called "Early Intervention," has been tested in nine cities since 2014 and will become the national standard in January 2016.

The aim of the project is to help prevent disappointing both refugees' and German expectations. But the early results have been sobering. In an analysis for the Federal Interior Ministry, the Federal Labor Office wrote that, of the 850 refugees who participated in the project, only 65 found work immediately.

The most common problem is insufficient knowledge of German. When asked what they would do to remedy the situation, Labor Office staff said they would like to see German language courses offered to all from the moment their asylum procedures start and not only at the point when refugees are given residence permits.

So what will happen to Germany and its refugees? Will the majority opinion hold, or will it begin to shift? The country still has 2.8 million unemployed. What happens if these people start to believe that they are being passed over for jobs in favor of refugees? And what happens if, when they get asylum protection, the refugees start competing with locals for apartments in the low-price market in major cities, for which the demand is already highest?

On Monday, many conservative parliamentarians returned to Berlin after visits to their electoral districts. "Normally, all we hear is praise for the chancellor," says one CDU politician. "This time, there was quite a bit of skepticism mixed in."

It was the fear of having begun something that can no longer be stopped -- and the unpleasant feeling of not knowing where things are heading. One thing is clear though: Regardless how the refugee crisis proceeds, it will definitely continue.

By Melanie Amann, Matthias Bartsch, Jürgen Dahlkamp, Markus Dettmer, Jan Friedmann, Christine Haas, Veronika Hackenbroch, Horand Knaup, Peter Müller, Conny Neumann, Maximilian Popp, Cornelia Schmergal, Barbara Schmid, Fidelius Schmid, Andreas Ulrich and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt