Migrant Lives

Her Job Is To Grant Or Deny Asylum To Desperate Refugees

Katrin Dölz 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.

Central Immigration Office in Hamburg
Central Immigration Office in Hamburg
Freia Peters

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.

Delicate matters

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.

"Yazidi."

"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."

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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