Katrin DÃ¶lz is one of 385 officials in Germany handling cases of asylum seekers. Her days are filled with tragic immigrant stories and the power to change lives.
BERLIN — A young man with a quilted jacket, a red hat and finely chiseled features enters the small office. Mahmoud (not his real name) is from Iraq and is applying for political asylum.
"Are you medically fit?" Asks Katrin Dölz. "Please let me know if you need a break."
Dölz, a tall woman with a piercing gaze, is responsible for deciding his asylum application. She records her questions and the candidate's answers.
Mahmoud, 20, is a Kurdish Yezidi and has only been in Germany for a few weeks. His father had organized passage into Germany for him, his eldest son. Now Mahmoud hopes that his application will be granted and that he will be able to bring his family, three sisters and his parents, to Germany too because they are threatened by ISIS terrorists in a village near Mosul. Two of his female cousins have been kidnapped and have been missing for months.
The fate of this family now rests with 48-year-old Dölz, who has been a civil servant at the Federal Department for Migration and Refugees for 25 years. She was trained as an executive officer when she was a young woman and was then transferred here. "My first thought was, "oh dear,"" Dölz says. "But I have really come to appreciate my work."
Every morning she enters the Berlin building by the back door because hundreds of refugees wait every single day at the front entrance. Most have come directly from their admission camps, which can be found in every German state. They first have to register with the Federal Office, providing a photo and their fingerprints. The data they have supplied is then checked against the Eurostat database. Among the questions they are asked are whether they have applied for political asylum in another state or whether they have committed any crimes.
Once the data has been verified, with a little bit of luck and within a few hours, they can receive their first "passport" that certifies their asylum-seeking status. A few weeks later, they are invited to a hearing that will help decide their fate.
As a country that attracts a large number of refugees, Germany must position itself carefully. The federal republic is a shrinking migration country, and future German pensions will be paid for in large part by immigrants. Nonetheless, the nation is overtaxed by the never-ending stream of refugees. The federal government has just been forced to readjust its estimate of how many immigrants will enter the country in the future, and the number is much higher than previously anticipated.
They estimate that approximately 450,000 refugees will apply for political asylum in the coming year alone, which is twice as many as the year before. The civil servants of the Federal Office decide on every individual application.
Some hearings can take days. And sometimes an applicant will cry in mid-interview. "I've also had to call paramedics in a few cases," Dölz explains. She had to learn how to be thick-skinned, given how tragic some of the cases are. "There are still some cases that are particularly touching, but it is important that I remain strong," Dölz says. "Only when the applicant can tell that I am strong enough to handle what they have to tell me will they be able to open up to me."
A constant state of emergency reigns within the department, outside the building, in front of the entrance, in the waiting room, in front of the dispensing machine. Gesticulating men, crying children, people from Syria, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Serbia and Kosovo are all talking over one another and pacing the hallways. There are only about 200 people on this day. "A relaxed day," Dölz says, as she affixes a sign to her door reading, "hearing in progress — please do not disturb."
Mahmoud's fateful hearing
Mahmoud appears to be relatively relaxed. He seems to know that as a Yezidi his chances of being admitted are good. Next to him his interpreter winks at him in a friendly way and hands him a glass of water. Dölz is asking many detailed questions.
"Do you feel Kurdish or Yazidian?" she asks.
"What kind of man was the human trafficker who brought you to Germany?"
"He was also Kurdish, but from Turkey and spoke several languages."
"From where to where did he accompany you?"
"I met him in Adana in southern Turkey. From there on we spent six days in the hold of a large truck all the way to southern Germany."
"Did you stop anywhere?"
"No, we got bags into which we could relieve ourselves. It was disgusting. When the door was opened the next time, we were in Germany, near Nuremberg."
"Did the human trafficker take away your passport?"
"Yes. He said that he was going to send it home, but it still hasn't arrived."
It was 4 a.m. when Mahmoud tumbled from the truck in a small village near Nuremberg. When Mahmoud's legs had regained some of their strength, he walked to the nearest bus stop and sat down in the bus shelter. That's where he waited for the police, who came to arrest him at dawn. The policemen sent him to the Central Office for Refugees in Nuremberg. The civil servants there distribute them according to a quota system that depends on the capacity and economic power of each federal state.
Two weeks later, Mahmoud found himself in Berlin because the Federal Office branch here is the one that handles most of the applications from Iraq. He is now brimming with hope that he might finally find himself in a country that has laws, and enforces them. "There is no law in Iraq," he says. "Those who have money can eat. Those who don't, don't get anything."
In Iraq, he attended school only until the eighth grade. Then he helped his father to earn enough money to support the family, as is customary, although he would have liked to have completed his education.
Still, Mahmoud was lucky. He got a job as a cook for 500 euros a month. Most Kurdish Yezidi are shepherds. "As Yezidi, we are at the bottom of the heap, and ISIS slaughters us," he says.
The hearing is finished after two hours. The recording Dölz has made will be transcribed later, and Mahmoud will receive a copy. To speed up the process, he relinquishes his right to have the transcript translated into Arabic. Dölz will approve Mahmoud's application for political asylum because Germany recognizes the Yezidi are a persecuted group. If his family can manage to get to Germany, they too will receive political asylum.
The fortunate few
But Mahmoud is an exception in that most asylum applications are denied. Only about a quarter of all refugees are accepted into Germany under the Geneva Conventions, which represents one of the lowest rates in Europe. Many of the applicants who are denied remain in Germany nonetheless, obtaining doctor statements saying they are sick or finding other pretexts to be exempted from deportation, which must be extended every three months. More than 500,000 rejected asylum seekers were living in Germany at the end of 2013.
In April, most asylum seekers hailed from Kosovo, and the numbers have tripled since then. Dölz fast tracks Kosovans because their legal protection is basically zero. Germany considers Kosovo a safe country of origin. That's a relief for Dölz, who would be busy with her current cases for one or two years even without any more new entrants to Germany. The Federal Office has hired another 100 civil servants over the last few months to handle the growing case load.
Dölz often knows even before the hearing whether she will approve an application. But she is not at liberty to disclose the internal guidelines that inform her decisions. The Federal Office doesn't want any stories to leak that would disclose factors that would make it easier for refugees to remain in Germany. "The personally gained impression is quite important." Dölz says. "The applicant has to make their fate believable."
At times, she can see their flight in her mind’s eye, just like a movie. When that's the case, she knows that the applicant isn't lying. It is irrelevant if someone uses an awful lot of words to describe their flight or can remember details. "Someone is not telling an implausible story just because they don't say very much," Dölz says. "It's my responsibility to get the details of a case when they tell me they're being persecuted.’" But sometimes, after a hearing, her head is swimming "and that's when I need a break."