Day 6

Afghan refugees seeking asylum await decision in Germany's controversial anchor centres

Germany has promised residency permits to around 2,600 Afghan refugees, but the asylum seekers have been asked to wait for their cases to be reviewed inside so-called anchor centres. Proponents say the centres can expedite the asylum process, but critics argue they are unsafe and harm mental health.

Proponents say the centres can expedite the process, but critics argue they are unsafe and harm mental health

The view outside the barbed-wire fence surrounding the anchor centre in Bamberg, Germany. The fence and barracks are a remnant of the building’s past as a former U.S. Army base. It's used today to house refugees seeking asylum in Germany as they await approval. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

Most nights, Sayed Habib Hussaini wakes up to the sound of his daughter screaming. Her nightmares began when the family left Afghanistan in August. 

"She's too afraid to sleep alone," said Hussaini, gesturing to his three-year-old daughter Tamana. "Even if you say the word Taliban in front of her, she becomes very upset."

When the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15, Hussaini knew his family had to leave. He had worked with the German military, and taught the language to locals. Now that NATO and their foreign troops were gone, that work put a target on his back.

"I went home right away and burned all my documents," recalled Hussaini. "Photos from my time in Germany, certificates from the military. I couldn't let them find these things."

One week later, Hussaini and his family made a break for Kabul airport. He piled into the car with his wife Zakia, Tamana, and six-month-old baby Mustafa. 

Sayed and Zakia Hussaini pose with their two children, Tamana and Mustafa, inside the Bamberg anchor centre. The family chooses to sleep together in one bedroom, though they have access to an additional one. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

"There was so much traffic on the road. It took us 24 hours to get to the airport, and on the way the Taliban were everywhere. They pulled me out of my car, and beat me with a whip.… Even at the airport, all you could hear were gunshots," he said. 

More than 5,000 Afghans were airlifted to Germany in late August, including the Hussaini family. Germany has promised residency permits to around 2,600 of them, but the refugees have been asked to wait for their cases to be reviewed. 

Upon arrival, Afghan refugees were interviewed by civil servants and sent to reception centres around Germany. What that accommodation looks like depends on where you land. 

The Hussaini family wound up in Bavaria in a controversial facility known as an anchor centre — an AnkER-Zentren in German. Proponents call them the future of asylum processing

Refugee advocates, however, describe the centres as isolated warehouses where asylum seekers are housed in cramped and heavily-guarded quarters. 

Anchor centres designed for faster decisions

In addition to housing newcomers, anchor centres have offices representing every government department involved in the asylum process. 

The idea is to streamline asylum applications by putting everyone in one place. Decisions about residency permits, migrant status and even deportations are all done on site. 

"All necessary authorities are here at the anchor centre in order to make fast decisions. This is better for migrants because they don't have to wait years to know how their life will go on," said Stefan Krug, head of the asylum department in Upper Franconia. 

Stefan Krug, head of the asylum department for the Government of Upper Franconia, stands outside an anchor centre in Bamberg, Germany. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

Anchor centres were introduced in 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. 

The idea was put forward by German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a frequent critic of Angela Merkel's open-border policy. He openly fretted about whether the German bureaucracy could handle the influx of newcomers.

Protests against the centres started almost immediately. Many asylum seekers said they wanted the freedom to choose their own housing, instead of being assigned to remote areas they weren't familiar with. 

Some who had fled war said they were afraid of the security presence and the absence of locks on their doors. Others complained of unsanitary conditions, exacerbated by sharing a dining hall and other common spaces with hundreds of strangers. 

The anchor centre in Bamberg, where the Husseini's live, is a former U.S. Army Base. 

Colloquially known as the Afghan block, this building housed close to 100 Afghan refugees who arrived in Bamberg in August. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

More than 1,000 asylum seekers are spread out in the old barracks — identical three-storey buildings with red and blue balconies. A tall barbed-wire fence surrounds the property and yellow-vested guards are always on patrol. 

"Back in 2015, when this facility was opened, there were many extremist attacks on refugees in all parts of Germany. The security protects people from these kinds of attacks," said Krug, adding that the barbed-wire fence was left on site by the American army. 

Centres have 'no privacy, and a lot of security'

Franziska Sauer studies anchor centres for Bayerischer Flüchtlingsrat, the Bavarian Refugee Council. They're one of sixty non-governmental organizations, which include Amnesty International and Caritas, who want to abolish anchor centres.

"There's no privacy, and a lot of security fences," said Sauer. "The government says it's to protect people, but ... there are a lot of security guards who are racist themselves."

She added that in anchor centres, asylum seekers are crammed into small spaces where the threat of deportation is always imminent. This creates a tense environment akin to a prison, where misunderstandings unfold between residents and guards. 

Two years ago, the Bavarian Refugee Council launched a website called ANKER Watch where residents of anchor centres can submit anonymous reports about their experiences. 

Franziska Sauer researches anchor centres for the Bayerischer Flüchtlingsrat, also known as the Bavarian Refugee Council. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

One asylum seeker described being assaulted by security guards in the canteen area of his anchor centre. He said it started when a guard knocked his drink out of his hands, and made racist statements towards him. He alleges that when he took out his cellphone to record the interaction, the guard took it out of his hand and pushed him to the ground. 

Krug said he was not familiar with this specific complaint. He acknowledged that security guards have been fired from anchor centres for "inappropriate behaviour" and added that all guards must undergo training that covers racism and cultural sensitivity. 

Another asylum seeker from West Africa told ANKER Watch that she felt isolated, because her anchor centre was in a rural area. She wrote that residents of the German town were openly hostile towards anyone coming from the anchor centre — particularly Black migrants. 

"If you're coming from a country where there's war and now you don't even have a space to be on your own, this is very bad for your mental health," she said.

"Many people who arrive in anchor centres are traumatized, and living in these conditions can make that even worse."

'I hope I can make a good future'

Back at the anchor centre in Bamberg, Hussaini moves his fingers through his daughter Tamana's hair. His family sleeps in a single room, despite having access to an additional one. 

Tamana is still scared to sleep alone, but her nightmares are subsiding. The father said he sees that as a positive step — that his family is starting to adjust to life in Germany. 

Sayed Habib Hussaini, right, fled Afghanistan with his family in early August. He now lives in an anchor centre in Bamberg, Germany with his wife Zakia, and two young children, Tamana, centre left, and Mustafa, centre right. (Vanessa Greco/CBC)

When the Hussaini family arrived at the Bamberg anchor centre, they shared their barracks with close to 100 other Afghan refugees. 

Today his family is one of the only ones left. Nearly everyone else has been given permission to move into their own homes. 

He said it's hard to be in limbo, but it's better than nothing. 

"We started to make a good life in Kabul for ourselves and for our children. But everything was destroyed," he said. "I hope I can make a good future for my children in Germany." 


Written and produced by Vanessa Greco.

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