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Temporalities of Refugee Experience in Germany. Diversification of Asylum Rights and Proliferation of Internal Boundaries

Le temporalità dell’esperienza di rifugiato in Germania. Diversificazione del diritto d’asilo e proliferazione dei confini interni
Carolin Leutloff-Grandits


Il consistente numero di rifugiati arrivati in Germania nel 2015 ha causato numerosi cambiamenti nella legislazione sull’asilo e il definirsi di nuove procedure amministrative. Oltre ai motivi umanitari, gli sforzi per l’integrazione – come, ad esempio, l’apprendimento della lingua tedesca, l’inclusione nel mercato del lavoro e la collaborazione con le autorità – sono presi in considerazione e progressivamente inclusi nelle decisioni per la concessione dei permessi di soggiorno o per la loro estensione. Sulla base dell’osservazione partecipante svolta in un alloggio per rifugiati, l’articolo considera come il quadro legale e amministrativo dell’accoglienza umanitaria generi potenti meccanismi inclusivi ed esclusivi che implicano non solo dimensioni spaziali e sociali, ma anche temporali. Tali meccanismi si manifestano nella diversa velocità con la quale le domande di asilo sono valutate, nei diversi titoli (e non-titoli) di soggiorno rilasciati e nel diverso accesso alle misure di “integrazione” che di nuovo influiscono sulla velocità dell’integrazione dei rifugiati nella società tedesca. Queste temporalità costruiscono confini interni differenziali che impattano sulla vita quotidiana e sulle prospettive future dei rifugiati in Germania.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 I use the term refugees not as a legal category, but as a way of describing persons who came to Ger (...)

1The summer of 2015 was marked by a remarkably large influx of refugees1 from war-torn or conflict-ridden countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea to Europe, arriving mainly in Greece and Italy. While these countries were massively overburdened with large numbers of refugees, many refugees moved further north in the hope of finding better living conditions. Using mainly the Balkan route, they were stopped by Hungarian authorities, who threatened to send them back to Greece and other EU countries on the basis of the Dublin III regulation, according to which asylum applications are to be presented and processed in the first EU country they arrive in and where they are identified by local authorities. In this exceptional situation, however, the German chancellor Angela Merkel decided that Germany would receive refugees entering via other EU countries, thus paving the way for a sizable migration movement into Germany, also called the «the long summer of migration» (Hess et al. 2016).

2In 2015, the authorities newly registered about 800,000 refugees in Germany, the highest number since 1993, when a record number of 400,000 refugees arrived in Germany mainly from the war-torn former Yugoslavia. This was controversially discussed in public discourses. While the more progressive segments of the German population were impressed by this humanitarian gesture of Angela Merkel and her slogan “Wir schaffen das” (“We’re going to make it!”), and volunteered to support the arriving refugees, more conservatively oriented segments – among them, majority being voters of Merkel’s own leading Christian Democratic Party (CDU) – complained about a “loss of control” at the political-territorial EU and German borders and regarded the influx of refugees as a threat to both European and German society. In this “heated” situation, the German government soon began to concentrate their efforts on reducing the number of newly arriving migrants in order to prevent the possibility of a second “summer of migration”. With this, they went on to endorse policies followed by various EU countries. This included, among others, stronger securitization of EU external borders via Frontex, closing of the Balkan route in spring 2016 by (re-)building fences at the southern borderlines of various countries of Southeast Europe, among them Schengen borders, and establishing stricter border controls, as well as a deal between Turkey and the EU in March 2016 to keep refugees in Turkey. As it happened, many EU countries also securitized their internal EU borders by erecting fences and by re-establishing control posts, as for example Austria did towards Slovenia.

3In Germany, however, the large number of refugees who arrived in summer of 2015 also effected what Steven Vertovec (2015) has called a «turning point» in the policy of humanitarian reception. It led to numerous changes in asylum legislation and, simultaneously, to new administrative measures. This resulted in a further diversification of legal titles, measures and procedures and established the basis on which residency status and attached rights were to be granted. Apart from humanitarian reasons, it was decided that success of integration efforts, measured especially by success on the labour market, as well as by the extent of cooperation with authorities was also to be factored into decisions on the granting of an unlimited settlement permit or even only an extension of stay of the timely limited residency title on humanitarian grounds.

4In this article, I unpack the temporal and social dimensions of the legal framework of humanitarian reception and of the relevant administrative procedures that refugees must follow when applying for a humanitarian residency status. For that reason, at the core of the analysis here are practices and procedures set out in this legal framework and the ways in which they impact the day-to-day life and the future of the refugees in Germany, or to use Herzfeld’s terminology (2016 [1996]), to shed light on the «cultural intimacies» of the asylum system in Germany by exploring such a system from the perspective of the everyday life of refugees who deal with administrators and social workers in their attempt to cross the boundaries set by the German state. Against this background, the article argues that borders, as a form of meaningful differentiation and as an inclusionary and exclusionary mechanism on which a social order is based, are increasingly being shifted to the interior of the state.

5Borders are created through complex processes that entail not only spatial and social but also temporal dimensions. In fact, within the newly reformed legal and administrative procedures, the dimension of temporality unfolds at different levels: Firstly, the differences in the speed at which the applications are processed in Germany and in the application procedures set up to accommodate that; secondly, the outcome of the diverse procedures for granting residency rights, which creates diversified time-spaces for different refugee categories; thirdly, in respect of the speed of their “integration” into the German society, which expands or contracts time-spaces for the refugees.

6The article starts with some theoretical reflections on social, spatial, and especially temporal dimensions of the different types of borders and boundaries that migrants and refugees have to cross. In a second section, I will outline the diversification of asylum rights and administrative asylum procedures in Germany from 2015 onwards, which influenced prospects of stay and integration, as well as on the diverse timeframes they prescribed and the time-spaces they open up. Based on my participant observation in a collective accommodation (Gemeinschaftsunterkunft), in a town in the German Federal State of Brandenburg in 2018, in the following sections, I describe the everyday life there, which, I argue, is greatly affected by the administrative status of individual refugees and by the administrative procedures they are required to follow. As various actors – ranging from administrators to social workers and not least the refugees themselves – are involved in the process of application, examination and decision-making for humanitarian residency rights, I emphasise the significance of the notion and practice of “borderwork” (Brambilla et al. 2015; Brambilla 2015) at an everyday level in a refugee accommodation, by migrants as well as social workers and administrators individually negotiate, create or also shift the borders.

2. Theoretical background

7Political territorial borders are complex creations that circumscribe the social and legal order of a nation state. They may also hinder border crossing, or prescribe the speed at which the border can be crossed, and as such, they bear spatial and temporal dimensions. Borders also define the social status of individuals within a social and legal order, which may change as soon as they cross a political territorial border (Cooper, Perkins 2012). Simply speaking, citizens are transformed into foreigners and vice versa as soon as they cross a state border (Berdahl 1999: 4).

8Yet, the reality is more complex. Within the social order where the status of a person may be linked to more or less rights, the status migrants are allocated is determined not (just) at the political-territorial border, but by foreign and public administration authorities. In other words, the political territorial borders of the nation state and the legal and administrative procedures for determining status that in so doing establish boundaries, are closely interrelated. David Newman (2006: 172) writes:

We discovered that these borders are not confined to the realm of inter-state divisions, nor do they have to be physical and geographical constructs. Many of the borders which order our lives are invisible to the human eye but they nevertheless impact strongly on our daily life practices. They determine the extent to which we are included, or excluded, from membership in groups, they reflect the existence of inter-group and inter-societal difference with the ‘us’ and the ‘here’ being located inside the border while the ‘other’ and the ‘there’ is everything beyond the border.

9Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson (2013) employ the concept of «differential inclusion» to describe the stratified rights granted to migrants in immigration countries – be it in economic, social or political realms. They link this concept to labour migration and argue that many labour migrants have only diminished rights in immigration countries – e.g. they have only limited social rights, and/or their right to stay and work in the country is bound to certain sectors, individual employers, and certainly to a certain timeframe. This follows a capitalist logic, according to which the requisite labour force becomes available “just in time” to meet the needs of the labour market that is characterised by transience and temporariness (Mezzadra, Neilson 2013: 183; Altenried et al. 2017: 54). As a result, conditions that would allow migrants family time and enable them to develop a plan for their life are not met. By channelling migration, the individual biographies of migrants as well as their families are often fragmented. This hints to the fact that temporality can be used as a way of bordering and thus also of controlling migrants, and this can be differently measured and experienced.

10Temporality also plays an important role in the modalities of humanitarian reception: asylum applications may take more or less time, decisions about an asylum application may offer different prospects of stay to migrants – from the possibility of integration into the host society to just being on hold or returning to the country of origin. Residency permits, if granted to refugees, are mostly granted only on a temporary basis. Finally, the temporalities linked to the policies concerning humanitarian reception affect the life experiences of the persons in question, as well as what possibilities open up for them to structure and organise family time. This makes it clear that multiple temporalities co-exist: the individual lifetime, family time, and many temporalities linked to the policies and procedures governing humanitarian reception. They are interdependent to the extent that temporalities of humanitarian reception impact on the individual life trajectory and family time. In fact, these different temporalities may also be hierarchically ordered – e.g. decisions relating to humanitarian reception may create turning points and ruptures or even severe crisis for individuals and the waiting time (Janeja, Bandak 2018) involved in going through the procedures may strongly influence the life of individuals (Hareven 1999; Ssorin Chaikov 2017).

11The temporal dimension of borders also directly affects the physical body, which registers the emotions generated by the refugee experience (Donnan et al. 2017). As various scholars have already outlined, the duration of the waiting period during which the outcome of the asylum process and the course their future life will take might be experienced as hopeful or frightening (Griffith 2014, 2017; Brun 2015; Khosravi 2014, 2017). Migrants may experience the timeframe of the application procedure also as stressful and busy, as they need to meet a multitude of demands in the prescribed timeframe, and at the same time they may feel powerless, overwhelmed, or just stuck. A negative decision may then also be experienced as traumatic or even life threatening, as it creates an unwanted turning point in the applicant’s life and a possible forceful repatriation. A positive decision may be experienced as a prospective start, as the opening of a new road for one’s life. This also makes clear that concepts of time may be linear, progressive, or cyclical, not least with ruptures and return points, and that time may run fast or slow, or may come to a halt (Fabian 1983).

12The concept of a linear, progressive time plays an important role in the “integration” of refugees. Linked to conceptions of modernity, this concept underlies Western constructions of a less advanced or even timeless global southeast (Wolf 1982; Todorova 1997; Said 2003 [1978]). In Western hegemonic discourses, migrants from other, so-perceived backward countries, moving to Western countries, are seen as “bearers” of a regressive culture and thus a threat to the body politic of the nation. The possibility of so-perceived “uncivilized” strangers adapting to “modern” and “civilized” lifestyles and values to become a part of the national community is seen as a gradual process, which might even take place over generations. According to Mezzadra and Neilson (2013: 155):

The question of how long a migrant remains migrant – which is to say of how long the migrant remains an object of difference and hence a target of integration – is intimately related to the question of temporal borders. Such temporal borders stratify the space of citizenship […], elongating and fracturing the empty, homogeneous time assumed by theories of assimilation” (Ibidem: 164).

13Hence, within the process of applying for and granting residency for humanitarian reasons, temporal boundaries become a tool for categorizing migrants, for “disciplining” them and re-evaluating their integration efforts and economic purpose.

3. The diversification of the German asylum system and its temporal boundaries

14In order to understand the complexity of the German asylum system, it is important to know that there are four main (and many more sub-) categories of residency titles granted on humanitarian grounds, which frame the duration of their residency permit and offer different entitlements. These are the refugee status according to the Geneva Refugee Convention and the refugee status according to the German constitution, the subsidiary protection, and the temporary ban on deportation. Additionally, there are three administrative status categories of refugees still awaiting their asylum decision or whose asylum claim received a negative decision, but who cannot be “returned” for humanitarian or personal reasons (BAMF 2019a; Will 2018: 2).

15Migrants who are awarded refugee status according to the Geneva Refugee Convention or the German constitution – in 2016, these were 256,136 persons, a number that fell in 2017 – receive a three-year residency permit in Germany, with the possibility of extending it – either on the basis of a still-valid asylum claim, or based on proof of the ability to make a secure living in Germany and of attaining the required German language proficiency. Those who are awarded subsidiary protection – in 2016, these were 153,700 persons, a number that rose in 2017 – receive a one-year residency permit, which can be extended for up to two years in case the applicants’ claim for humanitarian protection is still found to be relevant. Those who receive a temporary ban on deportation (Duldung) – in 2016, these were 24,064 persons, a number that increased in 2017 – mostly receive a one-year residency permit, which can be extended as long as protection claims remain valid (BAMF 2019b: 12). As there is the possibility to bring action against the decision, many legal proceedings were still pending – in early 2017, these were 372,443 cases, which were, however, reduced to 68,246 cases in the end of 2017 (BAMF 2019a: 21-28, BAMF 2019b: 13-14).

16The differential humanitarian status categories and the attached residency permits of refugees in Germany go together with a different set of rights and entitlements, like social transfer payments and individual housing rights (as opposed to a collective accommodation), the right to family reunion and the right to employment. Asylum-seekers with pending decisions, as well as holders of the status of temporary suspension of deportation (Duldung) receive benefits in accordance with the Asylum-Seekers’ Benefits Act2, which are generally lower than those granted asylum or those who receive a subsidiary protection, and the benefits are generally rendered in kind rather than in cash. Until 2016 and partly thereafter, they were excluded from integration measures, the right to family reunion and access to the labour market (Frings 2008; BAMF 2016).

17When several hundred thousand migrants arrived in Germany in 2015, both the parliament (Bundestag) and the federal assembly (Bundesrat) quickly issued new laws to reform the existing asylum legislation. The aim of the new laws was not only to speed up asylum procedures and enable fast integration of those with a “good prospects” to remain, but also to ensure a speedy return of those whose applications had been declined. Two fast lanes were created on the basis of the Act on the Acceleration of Asylum Procedures (unofficially referred to as Asylum Package I) of October 2015, as well as on the basis of the Asylum package II of February 2016 (BAMF 2016: 46; BAMF 2019a).

18Asylum seekers “with good prospects to remain” – a category which has remained legally undefined, but which is, in administrative practice, based on the applicant’s country of origin – are given priority to ensure quick decisions. Furthermore, these applicants receive the right to take part in language courses and professional training even before the decision is issued. This measure serves to accelerate the process of language learning in the hope that this would facilitate faster integration into the German society and labour market (Will 2018). New applicants with “bad prospects” of remaining, i.e., nationals of countries which were designated as safe countries of origin (among them Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, which received the “safe” designation in October 2015), are excluded from attending state-financed German language and integration courses and are not allowed to take up regular employment. Furthermore, they undergo shortened asylum procedures. In fact, these applications shall be decided within a week and the time limit for appealing a negative decision shall be shortened to an additional week. Migrants whose applications were rejected are expected to either return voluntarily within three weeks or are to be deported directly from the reception centres. However, many asylum claims represent “complex cases” and are required to be examined without time limit, meaning that application procedures in these cases take considerably longer than those in the two “fast lanes” and many applicants are not included into integration measures during the time in which their asylum decision is pending (Will 2018: 5).

19With the Integration Act of August 2016, the new policy regarding humanitarian reception became increasingly bound to performance-based conditions (Dünnwald 2017: 199; Altenried et al. 2017; Will 2018). According to this policy, the possibility of receiving a settlement permit for an unrestricted period of time (Niederlassungserlaubnis) after a minimum of three years became bound to demonstrating successful “integration” efforts into the German society, which needed proof of a certain level of German language proficiency, cooperation with the administration, as required by the application or appeal procedures, as well as the ability to generate secure livelihood and to contribute to the social welfare system by paying the obligatory social security and pension insurance. Furthermore, for refugees with good prospects to stay, participation in integration measures is not just voluntary but, rather, compulsory. A poor attendance at German language courses or no attendance at all could effectively result in a cut in entitlements. However, the Integration Act also grants persons with “exceptional leave to remain” a chance to prolong their status as soon as they embark on a vocational training. Upon successfully completing the training and finding a job, they could even gain their residency permit.

20The Integration Act thus appeared to open a pathway for anyone willing to integrate. In practice, however, refugees encounter considerable thresholds, as some have to wait for years to be able to attend a language course, and some do not meet the requisite conditions (age, health, education or a combination of all those reasons) to successfully complete the “integration measures”. Taking up Mezzadra and Neilson’s reflections (2013: 164), the new refugee management

leads to an overlapping of multiple lines of inclusion and exclusion, blurring the boundary between them and destabilizing the existence of a unified and homogeneous point of reference against which the position of migrants can be ascertained. On the other hand, the stratification and multiplication of systems of entry, status, residence, and legitimacy, coupled in a seemingly contradictory ways with new kinds of demands for loyalty and homogeneity, foster processes of further diversification and bordering of migrants’ subject positions.

21After the crossing of political-territorial borders, refugees also encounter legal and administrative hurdles that group people along multiple social, legal and temporal lines. These legal and administrative requirements can affect status and create hierarchies among refugees as well as shape their future perspectives.

4. Navigating multiple time-spaces within a refugee accommodation in Brandenburg

22The status assigning functions of administrative boundaries and their social, spatial and temporal dimensions can be well grasped by shifting the focus to everyday life within a collective accommodation where refugees are given shelter upon their arrival and where the duration of their stay is relatively long. For the purpose of this article, as indicated above, I concentrate on a collective accommodation facility in a town in the federal state of Brandenburg, which was opened in late 2015, at a time when all refugee facilities in Germany were crowded in the wake of the high influx of refugees in the “long summer of migration”. At that time, many refugees who could not be placed in already existing refugee accommodations were accommodated in emergency shelters, e.g. in sports halls, while at the same time, new shelters were beginning to be feverishly constructed – be it by doing up vacant or abandoned buildings, or by constructing new temporary shelters. The accommodation in question is a mix of the two latter forms, with a building that had been initially constructed for other purposes before it was re-designated as refugee accommodation, and a new building in lightweight construction that was erected rather quickly around a common yard and a playground. In a way, this structure mirrors the temporariness of the situation of the residents of this accommodation, as has already been described elsewhere (see also Agamben 1998; Oesch 2019). In 2018, the wear and tear that occurred over the two years were already noticeable. Still, the makeshift refugee accommodation was better than many other collective refugee accommodations, as it offered private living space with bathroom and kitchen facilities, which refugees had missed at emergency shelters or at a first-arrival centre, as well as other collective accommodations.

23The structure and materiality of the refugee accommodation is also reflective of the admission policies that impact the lives of these refugees in Germany more generally. As with most collective accommodations, it houses a centrally located office for the social workers and an office for the security personnel at the entrance. Furthermore, fences are used to spatially divide the facility from the outer world – in this case, from a small, green, and rather homogenous residential area housing families. The fence is meant to create a safe zone for refugees, but it also enables better control of the space and its inhabitants, as well as the people entering and leaving the accommodation. The fence demarcates two socially divergent residential groups living in two different time-spaces: the refugees, on the one hand, not yet fully “integrated” into German society, and the inhabitants of the neighboring settlement on the other, whereby interaction between the two groups is minimal to non-existent.

24In 2018, within the refugee accommodation, behind the façade of a homogeneous group of refugees, the profile of the residents, however, was very diverse. In line with the varying size of the flats within the accommodation, refugees lived in diverse household and family constellations, ranging from one to eight persons of all ages, among them, babies, children and the elderly. Besides that, the residents were from different countries: Afghanistan and Syria, Iran, the Russian Federation, Palestine, Morocco, Eritrea and others, and thus they spoke a wide range of languages – from Arabic to Farsi, Dari, and Russian. The level of education of the residents differed and covered a broad spectrum. Very few, not exceeding single digits, had a university degree and again there were some who had never learned to read or write and could be considered formally illiterate. Most came with basic school education of up to eight years and many had not been familiar with the Latin alphabetical system prior to their arrival in Germany. But also the time of arrival in Germany and the duration of their stay in this accommodation varied. Some, who had arrived in late summer or autumn of 2015, had been placed in an emergency shelter first, after which they were assigned the said accommodation after it opened in December 2015. Others arrived only in 2016 or 2017 and were initially placed at a first reception center (Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung) or at another collective accommodation, before they were transferred to this facility – partly also because they were deemed especially vulnerable, for instance, owing to an illness, or they needed private space for raising their small children.

25Differences in the country of origin and times of arrival were also reflected in the types of the residency permit or other forms of administrative statuses, ranging from asylum to subsidiary protection to a ban on deportation, and to a preliminary residency permit, as the claim was still being processed. As explained in the previous section, the legal status determined and impacted the duration of their residency permit, access to social entitlements and integration measures, like language and integration courses or the possibility of a job training, as well as access to the labour market, and, finally, also their prospects to remain. In fact, various residents with good prospects to remain and with privileged access to integration measures had already moved out of the collective accommodation into a private one; other families from so declared “safe countries of origin” who had received a rejection of their asylum claim had already (forcefully or “voluntarily”) returned to their home countries. Among those staying on for a longer duration were often families whose decision was pending, those with short-term residency titles or those with a negative decision, but who could not be repatriated for humanitarian or personal reason, while those who had newly arrived would possibly soon move out again.

26Differences in the entitlements, and the future perspectives they opened up, further fragmented the residents and created a variety of parallel time-space trajectories: for those with more rights and entitlements who could proceed “faster” towards the state-defined goal of integration, the collective accommodation was an “in-between station” before securing regular housing and “better” future prospects. For those who did not know when and how the administration would decide on the course their life would take, or those who had fewer rights and who could fulfil the integration goals set by the state only at a slower pace, the refugee accommodation was a “liminal space”. For some, this accommodation also likely represented their “final station” in Germany prior to being repatriated, as their integration is not foreseen by the German state. In effect, differences in entitlements and future prospects divided people into status groups characterised by different temporalities. This led to further fragmentation and formation of hierarchies within, sometimes resulting in a lack of solidarity and generating envy among the residents of the collective accommodation.

5. The importance of “being on time”

27As refugee accommodations become what Mezzadra and Nielson (2013: 150) call «zones of temporal holding», they also become distinct from the outer world in time and space. Its time-space is structured by the daily rhythms and practices that have evolved to cater to or fulfill the aims, processes and procedures laid out in letters sent to refugees, which are overwhelmingly from the public administration following the legal and administrative orders of refugee admission policy of the German state.

28Most of the letters refugees receive from the public administration contain information about procedures involved in receiving or maintaining the asylum status, about the (status of) social transfer payments or about language and integration courses, and in select cases, even offers of private accommodation – issues that reflect the individual situation the refugees in question are in and that determine their future. As letters are centrally delivered to the office of the social workers on weekdays, from where residents are requested to pick them up during the regular opening hours of the office, some residents nervously wait in the front hall for the mail to arrive, and nearly all check the office on workdays to find out if they got a letter.

29Residents rely equally on the support of social workers to translate the administrative and partly also juridical content of the letter into more simple words. Language barrier is not the only issue. Often refugees lack the knowledge of the administrative processes involved in the realm of humanitarian reception and social entitlements in Germany. Social workers also help residents to evaluate the need for action. In fact, letters often include the request to provide proof of documents and other information, or an appointment in the department of social services or the Job Center. Refugees need to deal with these requests usually within a certain timeframe – and often rather soon. This is why social workers advice refugees to open letters directly upon delivery – at best in the social worker’s office – so that the social workers can read the letter in time and advice their clients accordingly. Other refugees just pass on the letters to the social workers of their own accord, thus assigning the first reading of the letter to the social workers, without even trying to make sense of it at first hand, and social workers then try to explain the need of action to them. In case of more complex administrative requirements, refugees often need another appointment with one of the social workers, in which they provide the documents and social workers fill out the forms for them – thus depending on the office hours of social workers as well as on their often busy schedule, which leaves little time for individual residents. In fact, in Brandenburg, and likely also in other federal states of Germany, one social worker supports in average 50 refugees within a collective accommodation. In rare situations when time within the office is less pressured – more likely in the morning hours – social workers may take the time to assist refugees with filling out the forms fully or partially by themselves. That way, although it may take much longer than if social workers were to complete the forms on behalf of the refugees, social workers see an “educative” and “self-empowering” component to enabling refugees to master these requirements and becoming more self-reliant. However, if refugees lack basic German language knowledge and cannot read or write the Latin alphabet, that kind of training is useless, and social workers just fill out the forms by themselves.

30Still, collaboration and a certain degree of self-initiative are sought to be inculcated in the processing of the letters. As soon as the necessary form is filled out and the information needed is provided, many refugees visit the administration, which has public opening hours twice a week, on the earliest possible account to hand over the letter in person. For that, they must reckon with travel as well as waiting time, and just responding to the administrative request may take up the entire day. As it may be a stepping stone towards a positive decision for a humanitarian status rights or other entitlements, refugees and social workers alike may perceive the task of successfully submitting the filled out form as valuable labour. But some refugees also fail to provide the documents in question or to provide them on time, or miss an appointment. This delay or failure to make the appointment, while to a certain degree expected, cuts into time in many ways. For that, new appointments may be needed and social workers or administrators may admonish refugees and may apply more pressure on their clients to meet the administrative demands. The consequences for a failure to provide documents in a timely manner are often negative and, for instance, could result in a reduction or postponement of payments. This is why a number of refugees experience the administrative procedures as threatening and partly react with feelings of fear, withdrawal and depression.

31More generally, given that the refugees have to maneuver through a maze of administrative procedures and forms, the support of social workers and administrators is indispensable (see also Auyero 2012). And although many social workers have difficulties to fully understand the complexity of the situation they undertake to support, they are also put in a position to discipline the residents and partly “evaluate” the quality of their collaboration and integration efforts (see also Oesch 2017). Some refugees may thus be seen to have made “good progress”, while others have “taken a turn for the worse”. As the quota for proven success in passing the examination of language and integration courses or a work assignment are still low, this judgment of the social workers may be based on what they perceive as “good” or “bad” habits, tendencies or manners of their clients. The negative list may include irregular attendance of language courses, being caught in public transportation without a ticket, or a too demanding or too impolite behavior of refugees when dealing with social workers and bureaucrats. In this way, the refugee camp and the situation that refugees are in establish a specific time-space, which is embellished by procedures in which refugees, social workers and administrators are the main actors – however, with different power sharing. The more the refugees internalize the norms and roles they ought to fulfill, and the more they comply with what is expected of them, the better they may be evaluated by social workers and administrators (see also Foucault 1979[1975]). The evaluation may be taken into consideration for issuing a positive or negative decision for certain entitlements, e.g. the possibility of moving out of the collective accommodation and into a private flat. Being on time, and being put on hold, or even signs of “regression” are important variables within this process.

6. Living in-between the time-space of the collective accommodation and individual and family time-spaces

32Apart from waiting for and responding to letters from the administration, residents spend their days diversely. Nearly all children from the age of three and older attend the kindergarten or school, along with children from the majority society, and return mostly in the afternoon. The possibilities of integrating adults into societal life are, however, more diverse. Some already attend a language and integration course, while others wait for their chance to attend such a course. Some are not able to make use of that right, e.g. women with babies or small children, ill people or elderly. Except of professionals who are engaged in refugee work, like the social workers, administrators or teachers, many adult residents have hardly any contact with Germans. Women with under-aged children structure their days mainly around household activities. Most women who establish a single household withdraw into their flat and hardly go outside. Men and children, on the other hand, often spend much more time in the outdoor area of the refugee accommodation, which springs to life once children return home. The afternoon is also the time when the office of the social workers fills up with visitors, as children are back from school and ready to accompany their parents in order to translate for them.

  • 3 In August 2016, the right of family reunion was paused for applicants who had only subsidiary prote (...)

33The life of especially the adult residents is furthermore affected by the impossibility of synchronizing the different temporalities of family members and dear ones who they left behind in their home countries or during flight and who they often have not seen in years but for whom they care and fear and whom they also integrate into their present and future plans. There is, for example, the single mother with a toddler, who had left her older children with relatives “at home”, or an elderly and ill man who is separated from his wife and hopes to bring her over. However, he has to wait, as he has the status of subsidiary protection, which is a status category for which family reunion had been put on hold until summer 20183. A notice about the death of a close relative who remained at home (or fled to a neighbouring place) may, for example, lead to depression – thus also bringing the ability to “integrate” on hold – e.g. learning a new language – and changing imaginations about the present and future. While these connections and the life trajectories of dear ones abroad are important for the residents, they are not easily noticed by the social workers and especially administrators, who largely focus on the individual as well as the locally established household.

  • 4 In Germany, upon arrival, refugees are distributed to different federal Länder according to a certa (...)

34Some residents also have family members in Germany. But these family members often live in a different federal state to which they were assigned by the German administration4 and where they are obliged to remain for a certain period of time. They rarely visit, as travel is costly and also because social workers limit the number of guests who can stay with their relatives and acquaintances in the refugee accommodation, as well as the number of nights. However, occasionally, a family also celebrates a life-cycle festival within the refugee accommodation, like an engagement or a wedding, suggesting that life is not on hold for everyone, but must go on; this is especially the case for those young adults whose parents are around, albeit with insecure futures. In fact, those who are with family use the waiting period involved in securing a residency permit or an entitlement to spend time with family.

35Residents – especially those who came in 2015 or early 2016 – are partly also disillusioned because the integration into the labour market appears to be very difficult – and often in contrast to the high expectations they had set. While many have the right to take up a paid work, very few took up regular wage labour because they lacked the necessary knowledge of the German language. In fact, jobs which are mediated within the Job Center are tied to demonstration of language abilities on level A2, and many adults need years to attain that level, not least because numerous refugees had waited months or even years to receive a decision about their status and often had no access to official language course in the interim period. Again others failed the language test due to a lack of education, lack of time management and learning strategies, as well as depression, or other mental problems resulting from traumatic experiences. They thus have to repeat the course. Some also gave up on learning German or visit the course increasingly irregularly, as they are frustrated and have lost motivation. Imran, for example, a 45-year-old family father of five children aged 8 to 22, only had a four-year school education and could not read the Latin alphabet. He was not able to progress, so that he finally gave up on it. Those who quit a language course – for different reasons – are notified by social workers and administrators that their absence will have negative consequences for their chances to remain in Germany. The few who have taken up paid work are either those who managed to achieve good German language skills and the Job Center was able to direct them to employment opportunities, or they were able to find a job on their own initiative without involving the Job Center and the barrier of the language test.

36Among those granted a temporary suspension of deportation rather than a humanitarian protection title, some do everything in their might to enhance their chances of receiving a title via integration attempts. Others who got a negative decision on their asylum claim completely give up on such attempts, having lost their belief in being allowed to stay on in Germany, and expect to be forced to leave sooner or later. A father of three children, aged three to eight, has taken the smaller children out of the kindergarten after some problems had occurred there, and he had also quit his job he had found himself. Since then, the whole family is stuck within their refugee accommodation, and it is difficult to know when and what kind of path will open up for them, and where it will lead them. They have received a negative decision on their asylum claim and it is likely that they will be sent back, but as they have no papers, it is difficult to know when this will be, so that all they can do is “dwell” in the present.

37Others, especially those from countries with a higher probability of a positive decision, are more successful. When important milestones are reached – when, for example, a family whose decision was still pending received the administrative decision that they finally got the status of subsidiary protection, the family paused to cherish the success in reaching a goal they had set. The family invited family members dispersed in Germany after getting a positive message about their humanitarian protection status. They spent the weekend with joint prayers and celebrations withdrawn in their flat in the collective accommodation, as these positive sentiments may not be shared by others, but might rather evoke envy. In fact, while some manage to pursue the integration path and are able to synchronize individual and family time, and possibly move out of the state of temporariness materialized within the collective accommodation, the situation of others is based on an enduring situation of temporariness and fragmented time-space.

7. Conclusion

38Reflecting on the reformed asylum system in Germany and looking at how it affects the everyday life of refugees in a collective accommodation in Brandenburg in 2018, it became clear that migrants encounter manifold legal and administrative hurdles long after they have crossed the political territorial borders and arrived in Germany. In fact, migrants, for a rather indefinite time, meet various legal and administrative boundaries which seem to unfold only after they have crossed the geopolitical line. On the basis of the system of humanitarian reception, the status-ascribing functions of political territorial borders are shifted from the edges of the nation state to the inner realm – to the administrations and other locations where the status of refugees is negotiated. The duration of their administrative procedures, the residency status a refugee might receive and the legal rights attached to the residency status are however very diverse. They divide refugees into various groups, which underlie their diverse experience of temporalities and future possibilities. In fact, based on the length of the procedures and the status refugees receive, as well as their personal situation, some refugees move towards “integration”, but at different speed. Others may not move at all, they are stuck. Again others are even moved in the opposite direction, towards (forceful) repatriation. Based on the “differential inclusion” (Mezzadra, Neilson 2013) of refugees by the asylum system, refugees live in different time-spaces and future visions, even if they share the same accommodation. This individualizes their stances and undermines notions of common identity and solidarity.

39The different social positionings of the individual refugees (and their families) and the legal and administrative boundaries they encounter, and which they might cross or not, are also marked by a regime of practices that unfolds within the refugee accommodation and that has its own temporal dimensions. For many, waiting is a central component of the day, as the legal and administrative hurdles they meet force them to wait for a decision of their asylum claim, the possibility of attending a language course or submitting an application for a flat. With that, refugees are slowed down, their agency is restricted. At the same time, refugees are often also in a rush, as they need to fulfil administrative tasks within the set time limit. Applications for status and welfare become central and dictate the rhythms of the day, and sometimes even need speeding. In order to cross the hurdles, refugees are forced to comply “with the state” by trying to fulfil the manifold requirements and, if necessary, to (re-)apply for their status in a short time. For that, refugees also engage social workers and administrators who support them in meeting the requirements (and who partly take over the responsibility for them), while at the same time disciplining, educating and evaluating them. What is similar to all is a certain time structure, which is prescribed by the shifts of social workers and the opening hours of their office, but which may be felt differently by the refugees, depending on their differential position within the asylum system.

40Refugees, however, also seek to align the temporalities built into the system of humanitarian reception with their own life course, as well with that of their – often internationally dispersed – family members. While some may find it easier synchronize their individual and family time with the outcome of the legal and administrative procedures, others are exposed to ruptures that lead to conditions commonly referred to as disorientation and depression. In fact, while the state often disregards the family – at least as soon as living on the other side of geo-political borders, it has yet to be further explored in which way the temporalities of border crossing relate to and impact on the individual, the family, and the society at large.

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1 I use the term refugees not as a legal category, but as a way of describing persons who came to Germany for humanitarian or personal reasons in order to find protection. This also includes persons whose asylum claims have been rejected but who have not returned yet.

2 See for the text of the Act: (last accessed 04.11.2019).

3 In August 2016, the right of family reunion was paused for applicants who had only subsidiary protection until spring 2018.

4 In Germany, upon arrival, refugees are distributed to different federal Länder according to a certain quota system (BAMF 2019a: 12). Thus they cannot choose their place of residency according to their own wishes.

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Carolin Leutloff-Grandits, «Temporalities of Refugee Experience in Germany. Diversification of Asylum Rights and Proliferation of Internal Boundaries»Archivio antropologico mediterraneo [Online], Anno XXII, n. 21 (2) | 2019, online dal 31 décembre 2019, consultato il 25 février 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Carolin Leutloff-Grandits

Viadrina Center B/Orders in motion Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt Oder

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