Thu | Jan 24, 2019

German computer system spreads burden of refugee crisis

Published:Friday | September 18, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Refugees rest in a former furniture factory after crossing the border from Austria in Freilassing, southern Germany, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015.
AP Refugees rest in a former furniture factory after crossing the border from Austria in Freilassing, southern Germany, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015.
AP Refugees wait on a bridge after police stopped them at the border between Austria and Germany in Salzburg, Austria, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015.


Refugees from Syria and Eritrea lounge on hundreds of cots spread across the concrete floor of a former newspaper printing plant. A few green screens provide basic privacy, and a place to hang washing.

The refugee screening centre in this town just south of Germany's business hub of Frankfurt is hosting almost 700 people - the overflow from a reception system under the strain of thousands of new arrivals every day. Germany has a plan for coping: a computerised system established in 1949 that is being revived to distribute refugees among the country's regions.

The Koenigstein Key, named after the town where it was created, was originally intended for divvying up research funding. Today, it assigns each of the nation's 16

federal states a fixed percentage of refugees according to population and tax receipts. That means the biggest, richest states get the most refugees to shelter, as the newcomers await a decision on their asylum application, and the smallest and poorest the fewest.

The federal state of Hesse, where Neu-Isenburg is located, knows it will get 7.3 per cent of the 450,000 refugees who have already arrived this year, a number that is expected to reach one million by year end. North Rhine Westphalia, in northeast Germany, will get the most - 21 per cent. The federal city of Bremen will be allocated the least, 0.9 per cent.

Finding homes

The system is anchored in Germany's 1992 asylum law, passed to deal with an influx of 260,000 refugees that year. The key is run through a computer system called EASY, developed by the federal migration ministry - a thankfully simple acronym of its German name, which translates as 'Initial Distribution System for Asylum Applicants'. When the applicant's name and data are entered, the programme spits out a new German home. That means many of the people in the Neu-Isenburg camp will be moving on in the coming days to different parts of Germany.

The prospect makes some of them anxious, particularly asylum seekers who headed for Frankfurt knowing they had family there.

"I have relations here in Frankfurt," said Samuel, a 46-year-old Eritrean, who came seeking his cousin. She has health troubles and can use his help; he can benefit from her social foothold in Germany.

"We were raised together, I consider her my sister," he said. "I don't know about this system, but I need to be near her."

Others don't care where they end up. "I'm a mathematician. But I'll clean the streets. Just let us live in peace," said Ahmad, a 43-year-old math teacher from war-torn Damascus, Syria, who arrived with his 10-year-old daughter.

He said all he wanted was a good school for his daughter and a chance for family members left behind to join them. Like other migrants at the centre, he did not want to give his last name because he was afraid of possible government reprisals against his family back home.

Ahmad, like others at the camp in Neu-Isenburg, seemed a little euphoric at the end of his journey, which involved being smuggled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, part of which he and his daughter completed on foot. "I find people as angels here," he said in slightly broken English.

The euphoria may give way to the more difficult and time-consuming reality of seeking asylum. Eventually, refugees who are given refugee status win the right to work and to move, but it can take months or years of waiting, and less than uplifting housing conditions.

The refugee influx will only prolong the wait for the newcomers.

Manfred Schmidt, the head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, resigned Thursday for what the government said were "personal reasons". The ministry had been criticised for backlogs in processing refugees.

Stefan Gruettner, the minister for social affairs in the Hesse regional government, told reporters earlier at the Neu-Isenburg shelter that workers in the local processing centre in Giessen were assigning 600 refugees a week, and were adding staff to try to reach 800 a week.

At that rate, the Neu-Isenburg camp will be in business for a while. Local official Brigitte Lindscheid said that the wait for an EASY decision could be "weeks".