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Refugees Launch App To Help Them Through German Bureaucracy

8 September, 2016
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According to officials, Germany sheltered more than a million refugees in 2015. However, even though the German system is popularly criticized as too lenient, it seems that bureaucracy takes its toll on refugees nonetheless.

In 2015 there were over 1 million preregistrations for asylum, 476,000 claims were lodged with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), and another 479,620 were lodged until end of July 2016. "Given those numbers, it is clear that the capacities at the authorities are stretched which caused a huge backlog of cases that is now gradually worked off. In that context, we are closely working with the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the BAMF to further improve the quality of the asylum procedure," Martin Rentsch, the UNHCR Assistant External Relations/PI Officer responsible in Germany, explained to BECAUSE. And the procedure is far more complex than is popularly assumed.

"I believe that the German people are used to the bureaucracy here; they have no problem with it. But for us, as newcomers, and especially as refugees we see it as a hard system to navigate through and we hope to change it, although we know it's unchangeable," said 23 year-old Munzer Khatab. He is one of the six Syrians behind, "Bureaucrazy," the mobile app aiming to act as a personal guide for Syrians through the bureaucracy embedded within the systems of the countries in which sought asylum. They are all refugees between 19 and 31 years old, from Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia, with economics, management and design backgrounds.

"We are currently working on the mobile app; the biggest challenges that we are facing now are finding a workspace and collecting information," Khatab said. Although they are not officially funded, they started a crowd funding campaign on betterplace.com a month ago, to significant media attention.

The process of registering as a refugee in Germany is not simple. To get the necessary papers, refugees in Germany have to go first to LaGESO, (State Office for Health and Social Affairs) to get accommodation and a health insurance. For issues concerning identification cards, family reunion applications and anything related to them being foreigners, they have to go to Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Authority).

The Federal Labour Agency - the 'job center' - responds to their requests after they get their asylum acceptance; so they help them with renting a flat, health insurance or monthly allowances as well as other facilities. Refugees consider the Bürgeramt ('local public office') the smoothest place to go to because they only need to go there to register a change of address or when they need a new travel pass.

"The asylum system is a protection tool for people fleeing from war, persecution and human rights abuses. Although theoretically every foreigner can file an asylum claim, only those who are in need of international protection will receive a respective status," explained Rentsch.

The residency situation for expats is completely different. UNHCR refers to people as migrants if they choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.

UNHCR's role focuses on legal and policy aspects of the asylum procedure and public information activities. "While we assist within our capacities in individual cases, in particular in the context of admission programs and family reunification, we are not operational to the extent that we run reception centers or large-scale counseling services," Rentsch explained further.

"While we are not part of the asylum procedure itself our colleagues are commenting on draft laws, participate in parliamentary hearings, provide training to the relevant authorities and work closely with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) to improve existing legislation as well as the quality of the asylum procedure," Rentsch said.

In the meantime, Bureaucrazy is trying to make the whole process smoother. It will not deactivate the whole process but it will simplify the understanding of the bureaucratic system for the refugees as well as the newcomers, by translating papers into Arabic and English, with a plan to add more languages for other nationalities. It will let the users fill out the forms in Arabic or English and will reproduce it as a printable German PDF file.

The app will also lay out clear instructions for renting an apartment for example, and it will guide the users through the whole process. A map will also be provided, to tell the users where they have to go and what is the right office that they have to go to according to their requirements.

"Our plan is to have the app running in the beginning of 2017, and we will have the prototype sooner," Khatab said.

They also plan to not just expand in Europe, but in the whole world, "because we saw that there is a big problem in Turkey and Lebanon for example just as it is in Europe, and our plan is to really help as many refugees as we can," Khatab explained.

The UNHCR has no knowledge of Bureaucrazy, but they welcome "the outpouring of solidarity towards refugees by civil society, activists, the countless local initiatives, entrepreneurs and normal citizens over the recent month. There are many ways to exploit [information and communication technologies] for the refugees' cause if it's oriented on the needs of the people concerned," Rentsch commented.

Image: Harald Groven

Tags MENA Because Bureaucrazy app bureaucracy refugees Syria Germany CSR volunteering NGO social enterprise Syrian refugees