On the Ground

Creating Order Out of the Refugee Chaos

Hans Werner Patzki, Oberst a.D., leitet das Fluechtlingswohnheim in Kassel Niederzwehren. Kindergarten: im Gespraech mit Mutter und ihren Kindern. Foto: Heiko Meyer
Hans Werner Patzki is in charge of a refugee home in Kassel Niederzwehren.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The continuing influx of asylum seekers is taking a daily toll on Germany’s political and social stability.

  • Facts


    • Some economists are warning of dire national economic consequences from the recent wave of anti-immigrant violence in eastern Germany.
    • German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy has so far admitted more than 1.2 million refugees into the country in less than a year.
    • Last year the influx into the border town of Passau was up to 7,000 people a day. Now, in winter, it’s only 500 to 1,000.
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Manfred Herrmann could be listening to the shanty singers in Jever’s old town center, a popular holiday resort not far from Germany’s Baltic coast. He probably would have regularly traveled to the sea or to Wilhelmshaven, a place he has learned to love and where he last served as a civil servant in charge of the defense ministry’s data center. But on January 7, the 70-year-old decided against being idle in tranquil Frisia. He left the northwest of Germany and made his way to the other end of the country – to the municipality of Passau.

The city in the southeast of Germany advertises itself with a slogan that could be roughly translated as “infinitely livable.” Passau is also the end point of the Balkan route for refugees from the south who want to enter Germany. Along with the Brenner route to the municipalities of Rosenheim or Freilassing, most of the refugees flood into Germany via these locales. Last year the influx was up to 7,000 people a day. Now, in winter, it’s only 500 to 1,000.

While the German government is trying to stem the flow of migrants internationally, the country’s federal police are trying to control the borders and register the new arrivals. And Mr. Herrmann, the retiree, is now with the authorities as well.

But the smugglers have disappeared above all because the refugees have been bused from Austria to Germany for some time.

On January 7, a friend had called who works in Nuremberg at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, or BAMF. He said the office was looking desperately for workers. Mr. Herrmann showed interest a moment too long.

The next day the tall, lean man, with winter clothes in his luggage, climbed aboard the train to Nuremberg for an interview at BAMF. He didn’t bother to travel the 700 kilometers, or 435 miles, back home again but instead went straight on to Passau. He hasn’t seen his wife since then – but in exchange, he has witnessed three births.

Mr. Herrmann is the office head of the so-called “Passau Processing Line.” Since January 11, he has been building up the initial refugee registration center next door to the federal police office.

He arrives at work daily around 8 a.m., dressed smartly in shirt and corduroy sports coat, and 12 to 14 hours later he returns to his hotel. He has 30 employees as well as 50 helpers from the German military, which ensures that the newcomers, especially the incoming families, are immediately registered with BAMF. Families make up almost half of the new arrivals. The rest of those coming in are further checked by the federal police. There are two other cooperative efforts, in Rosenheim and Erding, a fourth is planned in Freilassing.

People such as Mr. Herrmann are meant to show that no government failure exists in the country. “We help people,” he said. His contract runs until summer. If he likes, he can extend it for two years.

About 520 kilometers away, in the middle of Germany, Hans-Werner Patzki is working to bring order to the chaos of the last few months. Until retirement, the 68-year-old had served as a colonel in the German armed forces. He received numerous decorations for his missions in Kosovo and in Afghanistan. He likes to help, even in retirement, when a need exists. For two years, Mr. Patzki had voluntarily dedicated his time to lectures and to researching the history of the region’s war dead. The next projects coming up were delving into his family’s history and writing a book on the history of air defense.

That had been his plan – until the beginning of September when he chatted with his long-time cohort, Walter Lübcke, district president in Kassel in northern Hesse. Just like everywhere else in the country, chaos was also reigning in Kassel when so many refugees came at once. Mass brawls continually broke out among the residents of the reception center in Kassel-Calden. The violence made international headlines. Mr. Lübcke was looking for a man of action, someone who could be in charge of the reception center, someone with experience.

So Mr. Patzki helped out. The friendly but determined man with the gray hair is familiar with being the leader of large groups in confined spaces. Through his missions abroad, he knows what it looks like in the homelands of many of the newcomers and how to earn respect.

Now, day-after-day, Mr. Patzki works in his barren office in a gray-brown building in Kassel’s Niederzwehren district and sees to it that the 283 residents of the refugee home don’t get into each other’s hair, that they learn German and don’t cause conflicts with the neighbors.

In October, Mr. Patzki had helped set up the first refugee home in Lohfelden, a little community near Kassel with some 14,000 residents. At the time, everything had to be done very quickly. Shelter was supposed to be provided for 300 people from one day to the next because winter was getting close.


Refugees in Hessen DPA
Refugees in Hessen. Source: DPA


With the second center in Niederzwehren, Mr. Patzki had four weeks’ time to work with the senior director of the Order of Saint John, the organization operating the home, to set up rules. Everyone must adhere to them, and no exceptions for anyone. His motto for a peaceful coexistence: “Clear instructions and then keeping to them.” He says it is important that all cooperate and the helpers, for example, not give out something more after mealtimes out of pity.

Before taking up his new post, he took a look at the accommodation in the district. Hundreds of such reception centers now exist in all of Germany. Aid organizations run them. The Order of Saint John operates 128 homes, the Malteser relief agency runs 127 and the German Red Cross operates or takes care of 490 facilities.

Today, BAMF staff members are paying a visit to Mr. Patzki’s center. They check the information about each resident and look to see if the name and country of origin were correctly noted during the first registration. The staffers rectify omissions made during the first months when the flood of refugees was overwhelming the authorities throughout Germany – at the border-crossing in Passau, for example.

Whoever drove to the fairgrounds in summer 2015 either stopped on the right in front of the public pool – or on the left in front of the refugee reception center. Some would sun themselves on the lawn or swim laps in the cool water. The others would sit exhausted and look with an empty expression off into the hot event hall and wait in the acidic-smelling air. The gymnasium served as a police station since there were so many refugees who had left the Balkan route and Austria behind them to find their salvation in Germany.

Their journey had begun in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. For them, their “First Step to Paradise” — as Horst Seehofer, premier of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, the sister party of the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), liked to call the southeastern state — consisted of a barren hall divided into sections and about 20 armed federal police officers who were registering personal information.

At that time, nobody was talking about a systematic registration system and BAMF was nowhere to be seen. As a rule, the refugees had been dropped off anywhere on the autobahn by human traffickers. The asylum seekers waited in the gym until they were sent to the initial reception center in Deggendorf. The refugees had little to fear from the police. The officers were primarily engaged in fighting the traffickers.

Today the federal police control the borders. They commandeered a rest stop along the A3 highway near Pocking and narrowed the autobahn to one lane. A lower speed limit was imposed. The police wave suspicious vehicles out of traffic and direct them to a control area. “Border control! Do you speak German?” “Identification, please.” Police check information via computer, inspect the vehicles and then usually the drivers can continue on their way. But the stationary controls remain a visible sign that something unusual is happening.

Hans Werner Patzki, Oberst a.D., leitet das Fluechtlingswohnheim in Kassel Niederzwehren. Im Deutschunterricht fuer Erwachsene mit Lehrerin Diplom Sozialpaedagogin Jutta Stork und Schueler Losian Askar. Foto: Heiko Meyer
Jutta Stork teaches German to refugees in Kassel. Source: Heiko Meyer


The human traffickers have vanished due to the police controls and random vehicle checks.  The secondary roads are also being patrolled, and trains are being searched. But the smugglers have disappeared above all because the refugees have been bused from Austria to Germany for some time. So no reason exists for refugees to pay traffickers anymore.

“Ninety-nine percent of the arrivals at the border are now being registered,” the federal police say.

Germany’s southern neighbor Austria is providing relief in any case. The country has increased controls on its southern borders and is planning not to accept more than 80 asylum applications per day. After all, Austria wants to maintain the upper limit of 37,500 refugees per year the nation set for itself. This is having a domino effect on Slovenia and other points further south.

Germany’s federal police ride along on the bus trips from the Austrian border to the registration center in Passau and divide the refugees into groups: families seeking safety, men traveling alone, people with falsified documents, and unescorted children.

BAMF takes care of the families, and federal police take care of the rest. Operations have moved from the fairgrounds to a large complex that was once used by a vehicle inspection company. Above the gatehouse at the entrance of the administration building it says “Bundespolizei – Federal police.” On the window hangs a note with “BAMF” and an arrow pointing left to the administrative wing. The police check the immigrants in the former workshop hall, which is as large as a soccer field.

One half of the hall is still empty. Five federal policemen are puttering around there, armed with a cordless screwdriver, putting together wooden beams. They are taking care of the “sustainable solution” in the hall, as the police say. Instead of the two processing areas separated by temporary dividers in one half of the hall, there are supposed to be five permanent areas eventually.

Each area consists of three boxes. One is for the initial questioning, in a second, the asylum seekers are searched for weapons, and in the third their personal information is recorded for FastID, the digital library of fingerprints, that also searches for matches with the German Federal Criminal Office’s data bases.

The line of questioning follows: Why is the refugee in the country? Where does he or she want to go? Those who have come for economic reasons or want to go to Sweden, for example, will be sent back to Austria. That is the agreement made between Germany and the neighboring country. A number in double digits are affected by this daily, police say. There soon could be more if Chancellor Angela Merkel does not succeed in finding an international solution to the refugee crisis. In that case, everyone entering Germany without a passport will be immediately sent back to Austria, according to Thomas Strobl, the CDU vice chairman.

Thanks to digital registration, at least everything is going faster. Last year a refugee used to be there for at least a day before moving on; now, according to the federal police, it is a maximum of 12 hours. This is an example of results achieved thanks to the policies the coalition government is working on painstakingly in Berlin. Still, no one besides the police is being given access to the federal police’s data.


Less Refugees at the End of the Year-01


This is where Mr. Herrmann comes into play again. He is sitting in a building that once belonged to an insurance company. There are three rooms with desks with cameras and fingerprint reading devices. There are 12 registration desks where his employees are relieving the burden faced by first-response reception centers by immediately collecting the data. Before, every refugee was able to travel unregistered through the country. Now the data is flowing into the BAMF system. And that, in turn, helps refugee home director Mr. Patzki 520 kilometers away.

It used to be that a bus would suddenly pull up in front of a first-response reception center. Today Mr. Patzki knows who is coming hours before a bus stops in front of the green security gate. He knows how many Syrians, Afghans, men, women and children are expected. That is important since it makes it easier for him to assign rooms and ensure there is no conflict.

When the refugees arrive in Niederzwehren, they go first of all into a room with orange-green beer tent furniture. Then they are given a piece of paper with the house rules. They are important to Mr. Patzki: Be on time, clear away trash, no alcohol, men and women are equal. Ms. Merkel recently declared: “If someone doesn’t want to be given food by a woman in a reception shelter, then there just won’t be any food that day.” That has long been the rule at Niederzwehren.

Every resident has a colored dot on a plastic card that stands for the time the person is to come for meals: Red, green, yellow, or blue. Whoever comes late, gets nothing. The system has an advantage for Mr. Patzki. In this way, he notices when a refugee no longer comes. Then there is also no more money.

Whoever breaks the rules has to sit down in the room next to Mr. Patzki’s office. He and a worker from Order of Saint John remain standing in the whitewashed room. They then read the person the riot act. In that way, the resident is supposed to realize that it is a serious matter. The method appears to be working. One person who had already been dismissed from two homes because he was a troublemaker but now lives in Niederzwehren is behaving himself, Mr. Patzki reports.

But much more important than an iron hand is the fact that the administration is now being digitalized, allowing for better control. Since the end of January, the asylum seekers are supposed to be being given a forgery-proof identity card, “under which the information is recorded in the core data system,” according to Klaus Vitt, the junior federal interior minister. The identity cards are a crucial part of the BAMF IT system christened “Maris.”

Soon the system will be coping with 4,000 user terminals, and in the medium-term, 8,000. Then the BAMF employees will have secure access – also from within the initial registration and initial reception facilities. Later, the goal is to be able to have administrative courts also connected to the system. Mr. Vitt expects the number of user terminals will triple. The ID system is being upgraded accordingly.

At the moment in Passau, BAMF employee Mr. Herrmann is able to register 600 people a day. In the waiting area, in which maps of Germany and Europe are hanging, perhaps 30 people can sit on benches and 150 can rest in the dormitory before moving on – perhaps to Kassel and Mr. Patzki.

Mr. Herrmann wants to be able to issue refugee identification cards by the end of February. To do that, he not only needs a safe to store the documents, he also needs space. At the moment, he must share his office with two soldiers and an assistant. Rolls of toilet paper are stacked up in the staff room. Recently a local authority complained fire safety rules weren’t being observed.

Despite the progress being made, there still remains much to do to bring order to the disorder.


Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the authors: delhaes@handelsblatt.com and d.heide@vhb.de

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