Asylum in Deutschland: A Second Battle for Survival

For many immigrants and asylum seekers living and waiting for their asylum cases to be adjudicated in Germany, the third largest refugee-receiving country in the world, the battle and trauma experienced in their home country was just the first. They now face a second battle attempting to survive Germany’s discriminatory practices aimed right at them.

Leading Europe in its immigration policy, Germany has made it their priority to deter asylum seekers from choosing Germany as their destination. They’ve passed several pieces of legislation in the past twenty years that makes living in Germany so unbearable that most immigrants wouldn’t even consider it. The Sachleistungsprinzip legislation is one of the most detrimental.

The Sachleistungsprinzip legislation affects two groups of people during the first 36 months of assuming their particular immigration status: asylum seekers who are waiting for their cases to be adjudicated, and immigrants who have a Bescheinigung—a status that could be compared to permanent deportation proceedings. Holders of a Bescheinigung are asylum seekers who were denied asylum but cannot be deported—either because their home country will not reissue a passport or because they have fled civil war. Those who flee civil war won’t be sent back but generally don’t win asylum in Germany, either.

Asylum seekers and immigrants in the above categories are required to live in designated refugee shelters and are not eligible for a work permit unless an employer writes a letter requesting that they fill a job position. The employer must then prove that no other EU citizen can already do the job. Effectively, very few asylum seekers are able to gain employment.

These immigrants survive only because they do receive some social aid—no more than 207 euros a month per adult. However, the Sachleistungsprinzip, or the principle of benefits in kind, says that asylum seekers should be paid their social aid not in cash but in kind.

Along with drug addicts and former felons, those who fall under the Sachleistungsprinzip are some of the few welfare recipients that the German government doesn’t “trust” with cash. Additionally, their assistance is reduced—they receive only 80% of the standard monthly welfare payment.

Each German state can interpret the Sachleistungsprinzip differently, which means states hold the right to distribute vouchers, chip-cards, food-packages, daily prepared meals, or ignore the legislation altogether and distribute cash. Though political pressure over the past four to five years has dismantled much of the system in Berlin, one of the more liberal areas of the country, chip-cards are still distributed to immigrants by two districts in the capital city. Other German states are not nearly as kind.

Receiving chip-cards instead of cash means that monthly purchases must be limited to absolute necessities. Chip-cards can only be used for approved items in stores that are equipped with computer systems capable of reading the cards.

One of the private companies that runs the system, Sodexho, takes a percentage of every purchase used with the chip-cards, meaning that an increasing number of stores have opted out of the system. Currently, under twenty grocery stores in all of Berlin accept the chip-card, and only two pharmacies. In Germany it is impossible to buy any kind of medicine outside of a pharmacy.

Perhaps even more detrimental than the fact that persons receiving chip-cards have to travel up to 25 kilometers simply to find a grocery store, they can’t use these cards for public transportation to take them there. Chip-cards can’t be used for any kind of service—public transportation, internet cafes, libraries, or, most significantly, lawyers. Since the German government will not grant a state-appointed lawyer for the initial hearing, most asylum seekers lose their hearing and wait for the case to go to court.

According to Peter, finding a pro-bono lawyer for the hearing is not even an option: “It is illegal for lawyers in Germany to work pro-bono. This is according to a law from 1936. In that year, the nazi government took away the right for Jews to work as lawyers. There were many Jewish German lawyers at that time. To prevent them from helping their fellow Jews, the Nazis outlawed pro-bono work. Nowadays, this law oftentimes goes against very poor people, i.e. refugees.”

The blatant racial discrimination that asylum seekers experience in Germany is what a small but committed group of refugee advocates, Initiative gegen das Chipkartensystem (Initiative Against the Chip-Card System), established in 1999, is trying to expose and eradicate (

“[Asylum seekers in Germany] are treated like criminals even thought no on has said they’ve done anything criminal,” says Peter, one of the spokespersons for the Initiative.

While the maximum amount of aid an asylum seeker will receive on his or her chip-card is 207 euros a month, this does not guarantee that every refugee will receive the full amount. Germany’s “Asylum Seekers Benefits Law” states that if a refugee comes to Germany in order to benefit from social welfare, that person can be excluded from the system. This arbitrary distinction is made on the spot by an immigration or social welfare clerk.

According to Peter, “It’s completely legal to actually not give any money to an asylum seeker … and many of [the clerks] are committed racists! Now if you are a committed racist, why work in a place where you are always dealing with foreigners? Yet they seem to … The clerk need not procure any kind of proof other than to say that this refugee is trying to benefit from social aid … I know of a man who is receiving only 70 euros a month. It is simply not possible for him to survive on that. How does he do it without being criminal or working on the black market?”

As Peter sees it, the German State intends to criminalize asylum seekers and refugees: “The first privately owned prison opened last year in Hessen. Basically, when a prison is privatized, this means that a company involved is interested in more money, which means more prisoners, which requires more crime, which means more criminalization.”

It just happens that Sodexho Deutschland, one of the main contract-holders for the chip-card system in Germany, stands to gain from the policing of asylum seekers. They cater food internationally for private prisons and refugee camps.

Sodexho USA has similarly dirty hands. According to the Associated Press, in April of this year, Sodexho USA “agreed to pay $80 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of black employees who charged that they were routinely barred from promotions and segregated within the company” (

This is the same company that, according to the company’s official website, “proudly serves as the official food service provider for the US Marine Corps” (

Germany makes it difficult for asylum seekers to survive legally in Germany, and it’s happy to say so. In the transcripts from the parliamentary debates during the formation of the Sachleistungsprinzip, deterrence was stated as the legislation’s primary objective.

In the late eighties Lothar Späth, former Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, explained the blatantly racist policy of deterance like this: Die Buschtrommeln sollen schon in Afrika signalisieren: Kommt nicht nach Baden-Württemberg, dort müsst ihr ins Lager” (The African bush drums should already signal: don’t come to Baden-Württemberg, you’ll be forced into a camp there).

One of Germany’s tactics is to spread propaganda from its embassies in poor countries. The German Embassy in Malawi, for example, runs films and spreads printed propaganda to show Malawians that life in Germany would be horrible.

If immigrants affected by the Sachleistungsprinzip do survive the harsh conditions while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated, there’s no guarantee they’ll have won their asylum case.

Up until 1991, Germany had an asylum law written by the Allies that treated political asylum as a right. This was in response to Germany’s dark history when German refugees were denied asylum in Britain and Switzerland and were murdered upon their deportation back to Germany. Under old aslyum law, the State had to prove why an asylum seeker was not a legitimate asylee. Since 1991, the State now assumes that asylum seekers are illegal, and an asylum seeker has to prove why he has a legitimate case.

In the past, every asylum case was examined individually. Now, Germany simply looks at an asylum seeker’s country of origin and will accept or reject a case based on what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports about that country. Overall, the tendency is not to grant asylum.

Germany also has a policy similar to the United States that requires asylum seekers passing through a “secure third state” to apply for asylum in that country before applying in Germany. Given that Germany is almost completely bordered by secure states, few people are eligible to apply.

Says Peter, “There is a joke that the only legal way to apply for political asylum in Germany is to come by plane and then jump off in Germany with a parachute.” Even if an asylum seeker has a plane flight layover in a secure state, they are legally obligated to apply for political asylum there.

An expansion of “secure third state” members has made it even more impossible for asylum seekers to apply, and easier for the German government to be let off the hook. This expansion has started to include states that, from the point of view of an asylum seeker, are hardly secure. For example, Turkey will soon be considered a “secure third state,” even though thousands of Turkish Kurds have fled Turkey to settle in Germany.

Despite the horrible conditions and the hoops asylum seekers have to jump through in order to apply for asylum, asylum seekers continue to choose Germany as their destination. According to data from the UNHCR (, Germany remained the third largest asylum-receiving country in 2004. Most of these asylum seekers are from Serbia-Montenegro, The Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iraq.

Unfortunately, says Peter, “the German government wants [asylum seekers] to spread the news to their home [that conditions are bad] or simply go back. But many would rather be imprisoned here than shot there.”

The Initiative gegen das Chipkartensystem is trying to improve the situation for immigrants and asylum seekers affected by the Sachleistungsprinzip in two ways: first, with direct action and second, by pressuring politicians for legislative change.

The group provides direct services to refugees who come to their office on Thursday nights. They ask supporters who aren’t dependent on chip-cards to exchange some of their regular grocery money for chip-cards of equal value. The result is that refugees have access to cash and supporters with more financial flexibility simply buy their groceries with chip-cards. Peter himself has been shopping using the chip-cards for several years, as a way of demonstrating that refugees should not be treated as second-class citizens.

The Initiative has also been working to dismantle the chip-card system throughout Berlin by holding demonstrations, sending letters to representatives, and holding shopping actions—direct actions where supporters take their chip-cards to stores and buy their groceries all at once. They create long lines of chip-card users and use the hustle and bustle to raise public awareness about the Sachleistungsprinzip.

Due to the work of the Initiative, other advocacy groups, and policy makers, Berlin has only two districts, out of a total twelve, that still use the chip-card system. This means that only around 900 refugees are still receiving chip-cards in the city of Berlin, down from about 16,000 in 1999.

The Initiative gegen das Chipkartensystem hopes that Berlin, as the capital city, will send a message to the rest of Germany that the chip-card system is a racist and discriminatory practice that they won’t stand for.