On the top of a hostel in former East Berlin, a young man from Niger waves to a group of protesters huddled amid police barriers and “Refugees welcome” banners below. The desperate man is one of 108 refugees whose asylum applications were found inadmissible by the Berlin senate and who, possibly facing eviction, have chosen to camp on the roof as a last resort.
The week-long protests unleashed a stream of heated debates in the German media, and served to highlight the parlous state of refugees in Germany. It also came as the country seeks to reform the benefits it gives to asylum seekers.
Germany has seen a sharp rise in asylum applications in the past year. The number of first time applicants in July was more than 70 percent higher than in the same month last year, totaling almost 20,000 people. Most were fleeing the war in Syria. In July alone, the figure rose by 34.1%, the Federal Office for Refugees and Migrants reported.
The influx has not gone unnoticed. Last month, the German government finally decided to update the Asylum Seeker Benefits Law. Amongst other things, it plans to increase the amount of cash given to refugees, subject to the approval of parliament and individual states.
The reforms come at a time when anti-migrant policies are gaining support in Germany. For example, the Alternative for Germany party, which plays to nationalistic tendencies, has just won seats in the state parliaments of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg.
The new law could be ready as soon as the end of the year, although the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS) believes it could take until April next year.
But the law begs an important question: Will it actually improve the lot of asylum seekers or is it simply a plaster over a bigger problem?
The issue has been festering for a while. Benefits have not been increased since 1993, despite increases in living costs, and two years ago the German Constitutional Court decided that asylum seeker benefits were too low to guarantee them an acceptable standard of living.
But it is only now that the government has taken action. Marina Küchen, a spokesperson for the BMAS, said the delay was down to the ministry’s “thoroughness before speed” policy.
The government is presenting the reforms as good news for asylum seekers, but civil rights groups are not convinced. They say the higher benefits have a catch, namely that they are based around the so-called “Sachleistungsprinzip” – a system that provides users with certain goods rather than giving them cash to buy items freely. This, campaigners argue, affects asylum seekers’ right to an independent life.
“The legal draft is just a minimal solution,” said Marei Pelzer, a lawyer at Pro Asyl, one of Germany’s most prominent organizations for refugee rights.
Access to medical services is another sticking point. On the ground, in the only refugee camp for particularly vulnerable groups on the outskirts of Berlin, the need for medical care appears far more urgent than concern about the regulation of “Sachleistungen” (contributions in kind).
“What I would wish for from a majority of the German government is a change in the way medical care is provided,” said Claudia da Silva, director of the Workers’ Welfare Association. “There are people here who are seriously ill, and who, because of endless bureaucratic processes are not treated as fast as necessary.”
“The legal draft is just a minimal solution”
Others say that complete legal reform is necessary.
“We would prefer a whole new orientation with refugees,” said Günter Burkhardt, financial director of Pro Asyl. “When they first register, they should have access to language classes, integration classes, the employment market. Generally, they need to see earlier integration.”
A study by ProAsyl showed that the number of asylum seekers who can make a claim for private homes has rapidly decreased from 66.1 percent in 2007 to 55.7 percent in 2012. This means that more and more asylum seekers are pushed into communal living spaces.
Accommodation is at a premium. Only last week, the reception center for asylum seekers in Berlin refused to take up more people because it was completely overfilled.
The government also wants to nip the influx in the bud. As the E.U. border control organization Frontex prepares to take control of Italy’s borders from the Italian authorities, Germany appears set to reassert power over its own borders.
On September 10, the Christian Social Union (a branch of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union) said it wanted to protect Germany’s border with Austria to contain the number of asylum seekers entering Germany from Africa via Italy and Austria.
Thomas de Mazière, Germany’s minister of the interior, has also called on the European Commission for more coordination in Europe to help Germany deal with its increasing number of refugees.
But not everyone believes that space is an issue for a country as wealthy as Germany. Franziska Vilmar, spokesperson for Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty International in Berlin, said the country needs to show more readiness in admitting refugees.
“The number of refugees is rising not only in Germany, but globally,” she said. “Compared to what many much poorer countries are contributing in terms of receiving refugees in large numbers, Germany can certainly handle the rising numbers of asylum claims. It is important, that German politicians are also willing to do so.”
However, Ms. Vilmar also pointed out that the German government’s willingness to host the large number of Syrian refugees was an important gesture.
Such benevolence matters little to the roof-top refugee from Niger. He, along with 62 other refugees, have since been rehoused in Berlin. But this is no long-term solution. Where to next for the refugees who have no valid residence permit?
Their fate is as uncertain as Germany’s refugee politics.
The author is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Contact: email@example.com