Handelsblatt Interview The Race to Process Asylum Seekers

Jutta Cordt, Germany's new head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, plans on processing the enormous backlog of applications for asylum by the end of the year. At the same time, her agency will take on two controversial issues: integration and deportation.
Germany's head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, Jutta Cordt, has her work cut out for her. Photo: Alex Kraus for Handelsblatt

In an old Nazi army barrack, a stone's throw from the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremburg, every inch of space is being used to process applications for political asylum.

Even in the large conference room, which still bears a swastika in its marble floor, employees of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees sit bunched together processing the claims. In an adjacent hallway, the newly appointed head of the agency, Jutta Cordt, sits in a spartanly decorated office. She has priorities, she explains, and right now, hanging pictures isn’t one of them.

Ms. Cordt has succeeded Frank-Jürgen Weise, who decided in May of 2016 to step down from the agency's top position by the beginning of the year. Even prior to the refugee crisis in 2015, the agency, known by its German acronym BAMF, had been criticized for dragging its feet when it came to processing asylum applications – in some instances taking up to two years to do so.

We look at all facets of each individual case. Which is to say it’s about both speed and quality. Jutta Cordt, Head of Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees

Which is why Mr. Weise, a former officer in the German army with a background in controlling, was brought in at the height of the crisis in September 2015 to implement badly needed structural reforms in the agency.

For many, Mr. Weise successfully weathered the storm and provided Ms. Cordt with a foundation for working through the mountains of applications. According to Ms. Cordt however, the agency still has a long way to go. By this spring, she plans to work through some 435,000 applications that have been carried over from last year.

Some might see her ambition as opening the door for careless processing. Ms. Cordt disagrees. “We look at all facets of each individual case. Which is to say it’s about both speed and quality. This year, we want to take an average of three months to process new applications, and we will provide both mentoring and quality assurance along the way.”

Human rights organizations, including the Frankfurt-based Pro Asyl, have expressed concern that the agency had split the initial processing of applications and their ultimate approval between different case workers. Ms. Cordt also sees this confusing division of labor as an unfortunate byproduct of an overwhelming number of applications. She intends to make the split a thing of the past – that is, provided there won’t be a surge in new applications, which she does not expect.

Importantly, Ms. Cordt is keen on emphasizing that her expectations have nothing to do with her personal position on an “upper limit” or quota for the number of refugees Germany lets in. With general elections scheduled in September, the issue has been hotly debated in Germany since its controversial proposal by leading members of the Christian Social Union – the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

The idea had briefly gained support by some top members of Ms. Merkel’s own party, including Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière. However, Mr. Maizière soon backed off the idea as critics pointed out that it would violate the German constitution, which grants the right for any person to at least apply for asylum in Germany.

The quota question is something for politicians to discuss. At the agency, we’re obligated to proof applications in accordance with the rule of law. Jutta Cordt, Head of Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees

For Ms. Cordt it's a moot point: “The quota question is something for politicians to discuss. At the agency, we’re obligated to proof applications in accordance with the rule of law.” However, asylum seekers also have the right to contest their rejection.

Currently, the number of such lawsuits filed by asylum seekers is on the rise. Ms. Cordt claims the numbers today remain relatively consistent with previous years: “In 2013 and 2014, the rate of rejected applicants who sued was around 40 percent. In 2015 it was 16 percent and in 2016 around 20 percent. These numbers show that we’re operating within a normal spectrum."

She also insists that many of the lawsuits in question are brought by Syrian refugees who have already been granted “subsidiary protection,” a limited form of asylum that allows applicants whose home countries are embroiled in civil war, or who would face death or torture upon return. This status also provides applicants with an initial one-year visa, which can be renewed. However, they are not granted official refugee status and receive no residency allowance for partners or children or other family members.

Ms. Cordt could face an even more complicated problem in the form of asylum applications by former members of the Turkish military accused by President Erdogan of conspiring against him during last year’s coup attempt. Such applications with will have Chancellor Angela Merkel walking on eggshells, though Ms. Cordt insists that the diplomatic headache alone will not allow her agency to reject them a priori.

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Ms. Cordt appears more concerned with those refugees who have been granted asylum status, and the enormous challenge of helping to integrate them into German society. This begins begins with employment, and refugees without educational or professional qualifications will be competing with Germans for remedial jobs. For this reason, Ms. Cordt highlights the importance of providing programs for potential employers to help overcome the obstacles of hiring refugees. The flip side would be programs allowing refugees with advanced qualifications but no certification to prove their skills.

The key to success, argues Ms. Cordt, is an increase in integration and language courses. To a certain extent this has already taken place: “Today, 55 percent of refugees can start courses within six weeks, with the rest able to tackle these new challenges within three months. The amount of time refugees have to wait for courses often depends on location. There are certainly more offerings in cities than in small towns.”

Still, since the terror attack in Berlin in December, which killed 12 people and injured dozens of others, many politicians appear less concerned with integration than security. Within the CSU, there have been calls to reprocess applications, though Ms. Cordt is quick to point out that by law, her agency can only reopen a case if a security threat comes to light. Also, when it comes to managing refugees already in the country, or aiding in deportation, her agency is not the only player.

That said, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees is often the one held responsible when things don’t go as planned. To aid the agency in its various processes, the government has provided it with an extra €40 million, or $42.8 million, in funding. For Ms. Cordt, however, readmission agreements – bilateral deals with an applicant’s state of origin or countries known to be transit zones –  are a key part of the process.

Down the line, when applications for asylum return to normal levels, Ms. Cordt will also have to figure out what to do with her agency’s approximately 9,000 employees. “For now, I don’t foresee job cuts, even when applications start decreasing. We still have quite a bit to do when it comes to integration, and follow-up applications, as well as generally speeding up processing time. I would say we have our work cut out for us.”

At the moment, increased security along the borders of the Balkan route and a readmission deal with Turkey have slowed down the influx of refugees to Europe. However, a new proposal to establish a “humanitarian visa,” which would allow refugees to enter Europe legally, is currently being proposed by Paolo Mengozzi, Advocate General at the Court of Justice of the European Union. While this would be likely to lead to a moderate number of new applications, many German politicians remain focused on tightening the borders, tracking applicants and deporting refugees who have committed crimes.

This includes the new 10 Point Plan drawn up by Mr. de Maizière and Justice Minister Heiko Maas. The new proposal seeks to establish the use of electronic tags for persons deemed “potential threats,” as well as simplifying the process of placing refugees in custody pending deportation. In meetings between the ministers and state governors to discuss the plan, the increased deportation of Afghan refugees was also on the table. However,  state premiers from the Social Democrats and Green parties are expected to support such deportations only in a small number of individual cases.


Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. Contact the author: [email protected]