HEIDELBERG, Germany — At the center of Europe’s refugee crisis, Germany is drowning under a backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum requests. But this picturesque city on the River Neckar could hold the answer: a fast-track system that rules on who gets to stay — and who doesn’t — in as little as two days.
The program being rolled out on a former U.S. military base here aims to bring a dose of German efficiency to the task of coping with Europe’s largest wave of migrants since World War II. Germany alone saw 1.1 million newcomers in 2015, with thousands more arriving each week.
The program puts state and federal bureaucrats involved in assessing applications largely under one roof. Candidates then go from table to table, effectively creating a refugee assembly line with benefits and risks for asylum seekers, depending on where they come from.
For those from countries with high acceptance rates — largely Syrians, but also Iraqis, Eritreans and Afghans — the new system is eliminating months-long waits spent in crowded processing centers, granting them faster access to state benefits. But for groups with low acceptance rates — principally ethnic Roma and others coming from Balkan countries — it could mean rapid-fire rejections and speedier deportations.
If successful, the program could be rolled out to more German states in the coming months.
“The long procedures, which can take months, even years, are a big problem. So this is generally a good thing,” said Bernward Ostrop, a German lawyer who represents asylum seekers in court. “But I am afraid that it will also lead to too-rapid rejections of people from West Balkan countries.”
The project kicks off at a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing mounting skepticism over her open-door policy toward migrants. According to a newly published survey commissioned by the newsmagazine Focus, almost 40 percent of Germans asked said the chancellor should step down for what they consider a far too welcoming stance.
In an effort to appease critics and to stem the influx, the German government recently took steps to tighten asylum rules. On Thursday, Merkel’s governing coalition, following months of internal dispute, reached a deal on a new legislative package aimed at stemming the flow of migrants. If approved by Parliament, it would bar accepted refugees from bringing in close relatives for a period of two years. The government also plans to declare a number of nations — including Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria — “safe countries of origin,” which would make it easier to reject and deport asylum seekers from those countries.
But even if the new measures succeed, Germany will still face a massive task — ruling on the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who have already arrived, as well as what is still likely to be a steady flow of newcomers this year.
The accelerated procedures in Heidelberg could offer an answer. An experiment between the national migration office and the state of Baden-Württemberg, the system is partly aimed at separating migrants fleeing war from those coming for economic reasons.
When they arrive, asylum seekers are divided into three groups. The first is for those from war-torn nations such as Syria or Iraq. The second is for asylum seekers from Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia, who are likely to be rejected. The third is for everyone else.
On a recent visit, groups of asylum seekers were waiting at various stations in the former military compound. Refugees start by undergoing background checks and obtaining a special identification document before moving on to a medical check. Then, they are counseled on their rights and obligations as asylum seekers before heading into official interviews. Ideally, they get a decision within 48 hours.
But not everyone is getting processed that fast. Officials were not able to say how quickly all asylum seekers are being processed, but they said that about 60 percent of those likely to be granted refugee status are being assessed within the 48-hour window.
Others, they say, are still getting decisions far faster than in the general German system. Routinely, asylum seekers are waiting months for answers as applications bounce between federal and state officials. For would-be refugees from war-torn nations, the program amounts to a blessing.
Jasim Abed, a 27-year-old Iraqi who was plucked out of the Aegean Sea by the Greek coast guard only a week ago, was standing Thursday in what used to be an elementary school for the children of U.S. service members. He said he hoped for a rapid approval so he could start his new life in Germany.
“I am so happy,” he said. “I arrived here at 8 in the morning and it was my turn so quickly. Germany is the best country.”
But not everyone is thrilled about the new system. Miroslav Nikolic, a 34-year-old Serbian who said he was discriminated against at home because he is an ethnic Roma, was still waiting to find out the result of his application. He called the system in Heidelberg “confusing” and said he had not been offered legal assistance that might help him boost his claim.
“They told me that the Balkan countries are safe,” he said. “. . . But there is a war in Serbia against the Roma people. I have been in a war since I was born.”