Screening of vulnerability
There is no requirement in law or mechanism in place to systematically identify vulnerable persons in the asylum procedure, with the exception of unaccompanied children. The BAMF and the Federal Ministry of Interior drafted a “concept for the identification of vulnerable groups” in 2015, which was intended to be codified in law as part of the transposition of the recast Asylum Procedures and Reception Conditions Directives. However, the concept has not been implemented and instead has been only made available to BAMF staff as an internal guideline.
The Federal Government states that the identification of vulnerable applicants as required by the Asylum Procedures Directive is the remit of the Federal States, who are responsible for reception and accommodation. A 2016 amendment to the German Asylum Act has introduced wording relevant to the identification of vulnerable asylum seekers. However, the law stops short of requiring Federal States to transmit personal information about an applicant’s vulnerabilities to the BAMF, as it only confers them the power to do so. It also fails to properly transpose the recast Asylum Procedures Directive, as it only requires the BAMF to “duly carry out” the interview and not to provide “adequate support” to applicants in need of special procedural guarantees throughout the duration of the procedure. In practice, therefore, identification procedures in Germany have been generally described as “a matter of luck and coincidence”, given that authorities “are not able to systematically undertake the necessary steps to ascertain mental disorders or trauma.”
The BAMF claims that the new counselling service for asylum-seekers, consisting of general information on the procedure as well as the opportunity to make individual appointments with BAMF staff (see Provision of information on the procedure) has led to vulnerabilities “being partially identified more often” as counsellors inform applicants about rights of vulnerable applicants during the procedure. BAMF counsellors can also transmit information on vulnerabilities to the BAMF staff responsible for the asylum procedure, if the applicants consents. However, no details were given concerning the number or the type of vulnerabilities which were identified in the course of the new advice service.
The lack of a systematic identification processes for vulnerable applicants has been described as especially problematic in the context of the airport procedure by NGOs (see Border procedure (border and transit zones). With the exception of unaccompanied children, the BAMF does not collect statistics on the number of vulnerable persons applying for asylum in Germany.
The procedures and practice of identification in reception centres, which are run by the Federal States, vary. Upon initial registration, all asylum seekers should undergo a medical examination, which usually takes place shortly after the registration of the asylum application in the arrival centre. However, this examination is focused on the detection of communicable diseases and does not include a screening for potential vulnerabilities. Sometimes medical personnel or other staff members working in the reception centres inform the BAMF if they recognise symptoms of trauma, but there is no systematic procedure in place ensuring that such information is passed on.
As of 2020, only three Federal States (Berlin, Brandenburg and Lower Saxony) had a structured procedure in place to identify particularly vulnerable asylum seekers. A number of States offer psychiatric or psychological consultations or refer to the general care infrastructure, while five Federal States (Bavaria, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia) seem to have no structure in place to identify vulnerable applicants.
In Berlin, a “Network for persons with special protection needs” has developed concepts for the identification of vulnerable persons and their needs since 2008. The network, which refers to itself as a unique project in Germany, consists of seven NGOs which cooperate with the social services of the regional government. The NGOs have special expertise in the support of the following groups: traumatised persons and victims of torture; LGBTI*; single women and pregnant women; children and unaccompanied children; persons with disabilities, with chronic diseases and older persons. The network has been involved in the development of guidelines for the social services to assist with the identification of vulnerable groups. The guidelines, published in August 2018, provide detailed information on how vulnerable persons can be identified and on the determination of special support needs. Social services at the arrival centre Berlin are instructed to systematically screen applicants for vulnerability in the reception procedure. If they find that an asylum seeker has special reception needs or requires special procedural guarantees, they try to take appropriate measures (including appointments with specialised institutions) and inform the BAMF and the State authority accordingly. In spite of these efforts, participating NGOs of the Berlin network have reported that measures to accelerate asylum procedures in the “arrival centre” have had a negative impact on the identification process, since the interview in the asylum procedure is often scheduled before the persons concerned have a chance to speak to staff members of NGOs or of the Federal State institutions.
Recent practice shows that when an asylum seeker needs special procedural guarantees, the BAMF simply assigns “special officers” for the interview (see Special Procedural Guarantees). Apart from that, the regular procedure is carried out and the interview may take place within a few days. NGOs have criticised the fact that special procedural needs of asylum seekers are not taken into account (i.e. the lack of support and time to prepare for an interview. In addition, identification of a vulnerability by the social services does not entail a right to specific reception conditions, which can still be hard to obtain especially since social services and State authorities do not always work hand in hand.
In Brandenburg, a questionnaire is handed out upon registration in the initial reception centre to detect vulnerabilities and possible psychological disorders. If the questionnaire indicates a potential vulnerability, a screening interview takes place with the socio-psychological service of the immigration authority. Following the screening interview, if a vulnerability is detected applicants are refereed to psychiatric counselling (which only takes place in Eisenhüttenstadt) and can be housed in a special house for vulnerable applicants. The vulnerability is also communicated to the BAMF. However, in 2016 this was the case for under 1 % of all asylum seekers, indicating that detection rates are very low compared to the estimated prevalence of psychological distress among asylum seekers. Furthermore, the special accommodation houses both single men with psychological difficulties and single women who might have been victims of sexual violence.
In Lower Saxony, projects to improve the identification of vulnerable groups have been established in reception centres first in Friedland in 2012 and have since then expanded to all reception centres in the Federal State. Upon registration, all applicants are informed about special vulnerabilities and a further diagnosis is carried out in cases where there are indications of psychological disorders. While the authorities usually follow the recommendations which follow from the diagnosis, between 2015 and 2017 only very few people were referred for a diagnosis.
- Obligation to check for possible vulnerabilities in the reception centres during the initial stages of the reception process and the asylum procedure;
- Intensification of communication between various actors and authorities involved in the reception system and in the first steps of the asylum procedure;
- Documentation of possible vulnerabilities in a data system used by all authorities involved in the reception process and in the asylum procedure;
- Training measures for persons employed by the Federal State in the reception centres to raise awareness on the different forms of vulnerabilities.
However, there are considerable variations to the procedure in the different arrival centres, AnkER centres etc. There is no common approach on access to social services or other counselling institutions. This depends on how the Federal States and the BAMF have organised the procedure in the respective centres. Other Federal States have also adopted measures for the protection of violence in accommodation centres.
Age assessment of unaccompanied children
The BAMF is not responsible for age assessments but refers all unaccompanied asylum seekers claiming to be under 18 to the local youth welfare office (Jugendamt). During the provisional care period, the youth welfare office has to establish the age of the unaccompanied minor. The office has to check identification documents and, if these are not available, an age assessment has to be carried out based on a “qualified inspection”, meaning the overall impressions of two experienced staff members of the office, based on their assessment of the developmental state of the minor obtained during the conversation as well as their visual impression. As part of this qualified inspection, the office may hear or gather written evidence from experts and witnesses.
Only in cases in which remaining doubts concerning the age cannot be dispelled by these means, the youth office may initiate a medical examination. This examination has to be carried out by qualified medical experts with the “most careful methods”. The explanatory memorandum to the law states explicitly that the previously practiced examination of the genitals is excluded in this context.
The problem of questionable age assessments carried out by the authorities has been discussed in some court decisions in 2016. For instance, the Administrative Court Berlin criticised the authorities for an age assessment based only on outward appearances. This age assessment had been called into question by a paediatrician. The High Administrative Court of Bavaria, in a decision of 16 August 2016, set certain standards for age assessment by the authorities: According to the High Administrative Court, an age assessment that leads to the conclusion that the applicants is not a minor and that is based only on outward appearances cannot be regarded as sufficiently certain if there is possibility that a medical examination might lead to a different result. This means that the conclusion based on such an assessment could only be warranted in exceptional cases in which there can be no doubt that an asylum seeker is older than 18 years. All other cases should be treated as “cases of doubt” and a “grey area” (margin of error) of one to two years should be taken into account in favour of the asylum seeker. Even following a medical examination a margin of error of another two to three years should be considered as a margin of tolerance, in order to avoid any risk of incorrect assessments. The court based its opinion on an expert’s statement, according to which some medical methods for age assessment had a margin of error of up to five years.
The decision of the youth welfare office may be challenged with an “objection”, to be filed within one month and to be examined by the youth authorities themselves. If the objection is not successful, the person can appeal before the competent Family Court. However, neither the objection nor the appeal do have suspensive effect. This means that the youth welfare office’s decision not to take a young person into custody remains in force as long as the objection or appeal procedure is pending.
In practice, though, the results of age assessment are rarely challenged and therefore not many court decisions on this issue have become known. A study by the NGO “Association for unaccompanied refugee minors” found that young persons affected by age assessments as well as staff of youth authorities often were not aware of the possibility to challenge age assessments. Moreover, young persons usually lose any entitlement to be supported in legal matters by the youth authorities once they are declared to be adults in the course of the age assessment.
Given that different youth welfare offices and Family Courts are responsible for age assessments, no statistics are available on the number and outcome of age assessments.
 Information provided by the BAMF, 1 August 2017; see BAMF Dienstanweisung Asyl (internal directive for asylum procedures) – 2. Identifizierung vulnerabler Personen, 2021, 81.
 See BAMF, Dienstanweisung Asyl (internal directive for asylum procedures), – 2. Identifizierung vulnerabler Personen, 2021, 81.
 Section 8(1b) Asylum Act.
 Nina Hager and Jenny Baron, ‘Eine Frage von Glück und Zufall. Zu den Verfahrensgarantien für psychisch Kranke oder Traumatisierte im Asylverfahren’ in Informationsverbund Asyl und Migration (ed), Beratung und Rechtsschutz im Asylverfahren: Beilage zum Asylmagazin 7-8/2017, July 2017, 17-26.
 see BAMF, Dienstanweisung Asyl (internal directive for asylum procedures), – 2. Identifizierung vulnerabler Personen, 2021, 81-82
 Information provided by the BAMF, 1 August 2017.
 See BafF, ‘Identifizierung besonderer Schutzbedürftigkeit am Beispiel von Personen mit Traumafolgestörungen. Status quo in den Bundesländern, Modelle und Herausforderungen’, June 2020, 24. Study available in German at https://bit.ly/3GsdrSm.
 Leitfaden zur Identifizierung von besonders schutzbedürftigen Geflüchteten in Berlin. Für Mitarbeiter*innen des Sozialdienstes des Landesamts für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten (LAF), available in German at: https://bit.ly/38kBqme
 Flüchtlingsrat Berlin, Das Schnellverfahren für Asylsuchende im Ankunftszentrum Berlin, November 2017, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2HdSDzb; See BafF, ‘Identifizierung besonderer Schutzbedürftigkeit am Beispiel von Personen mit Traumafolgestörungen. Status quo in den Bundesländern, Modelle und Herausforderungen’, June 2020, 26. Study available in German at https://bit.ly/3GsdrSm
 Nina Hager and Jenny Baron, ‘Verfahrensgarantien für psychisch Kranke oder Traumatisierte’, Asylmagazin 7–8/2017, 17-26, 22.
 Manuel Armbruster, Georg Classen und Katharina Stübinger, ‘Neue Verfahrensabläufe im Ankunftszentrum Berlin’, Asylmagazin 10-11/2018, 350.
 See BafF, ‘Identifizierung besonderer Schutzbedürftigkeit am Beispiel von Personen mit Traumafolgestörungen. Status quo in den Bundesländern, Modelle und Herausforderungen’, June 2020, 26. Study available in German at https://bit.ly/3GsdrSm
 See BafF, ‘Identifizierung besonderer Schutzbedürftigkeit am Beispiel von Personen mit Traumafolgestörungen. Status quo in den Bundesländern, Modelle und Herausforderungen’, June 2020, 28. Study available in German at https://bit.ly/3GsdrSm
 See evaluation report of the project in Lower Saxony which was carried out between 2015 and 2018: Jenny Thomsen, Evaluation zur Früherkennung besonders Schutzbedürftiger im Aufnahmeverfahren, Umsetzung der EU-Aufnahmerichtlinie 2013/33/EU in Niedersachsen, July 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/3dVoCnq and See BafF, ‘Identifizierung besonderer Schutzbedürftigkeit am Beispiel von Personen mit Traumafolgestörungen. Status quo in den Bundesländern, Modelle und Herausforderungen’, June 2020, 30. Study available in German at https://bit.ly/3GsdrSm
 See BafF, ‘Identifizierung besonderer Schutzbedürftigkeit am Beispiel von Personen mit Traumafolgestörungen. Status quo in den Bundesländern, Modelle und Herausforderungen’, June 2020, 31. Study available in German at https://bit.ly/3GsdrSm
 Nina Hager and Jenny Baron, ‘Verfahrensgarantien für psychisch Kranke oder Traumatisierte’, Asylmagazin 7–8/2017, 17-26, 22.-24.
 A list of six of such protection concepts has been compiled by the Bundesinitiative „Schutz von geflüchteten Menschen in Flüchtlingsunterkünften“(Federal Initiative for the protection of asylum seekers/refugees in accommodation centres“); available in German at: https://bit.ly/2uAMF7t.
Bundesfachverband Unbegleitete Minderjährige Flüchtlinge, Vorläufige Inobhutnahme – Was ändert sich zum 1.11.2015?, October 2015, 2-3.
Section 42f(3) Social Code, Vol. VIII.
 Nerea González Méndez de Vigo, Alterseinschätzung – ein Irrgarten ohne Ausweg? Rechtlicher Rahmen und Verfahren der Alterseinschätzung in Deutschland, Asylmagazin 6-7/2019, available in German at: https://bit.ly/2VI0w9G, 206-217.