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.
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.”
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 focussed 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.
Some Federal States have introduced special schemes for the identification of vulnerable groups. 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. If the social services find during the reception procedure at the arrival centre Berlin 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 accordingly. In spite of these efforts, participating NGOs of the Berlin network have reported that measures to accelerate 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. Asylum seekers at this point are mainly in contact with staff members of the BAMF which is not involved in the identification scheme and which does not seem to have a concept for identification of vulnerable groups. 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.
Other projects to improve the identification of vulnerable groups have been established in reception centres first in Friedland and then also in other reception centres in the Federal State of Lower Saxony, as well as in Brandenburg and Rhineland-Palatinate. In the latter, the regional government has adopted a protection concept which also includes methods for the identification of vulnerabilities. This includes the following measures:
- 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 and, in many centres, this access does not even exist. This depends on how the Federal States and the BAMF have organised the procedure in the respective centres. While other Federal States have also adopted measures for the protection of violence in accommodation centres, the guidelines from Berlin and Rhineland-Palatinate seem to be the only publicly available examples of detailed measures for the identification and accommodation of vulnerable persons.
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”. However, no details were given concerning the number or the type of vulnerabilities which were identified in the course of the new advice service.
With the exception of unaccompanied children, the BAMF does not collect statistics on the number of vulnerable persons applying for asylum in Germany.
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 visual impressions of two experienced staff members of the office. 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, such an age assessment 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 such an assessment could only be done 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.
 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.
 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.
 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 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.
 Nina Hager and Jenny Baron, ‘Verfahrensgarantien für psychisch Kranke oder Traumatisierte’, Asylmagazin 7–8/2017, 17-26, 22.-24.
 Konzept zum Gewaltschutz und zur Identifikation von schutzbedürftigen Personen in den Einrichtungen der Erstaufnahme in Rheinland-Pfalz, available in German at: https://bit.ly/2FsmG7V.
 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.
 For example, the protection concept for the Federal State of North-Rhine Westphalia refers to the concept of vulnerable persons in general terms and it specifies detailed standards for accommodation facilities, but it does not contain any guidelines for the identification of vulnerable groups. See: Landesgewaltschutzkonzept für Flüchtlingseinrichtungen des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (Regional concept for protection from violence in refugee facilities of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia), March 2017, available in German at https://bit.ly/2ul7CCQ.
 Information provided by the BAMF, 1 August 2017.
 Section 42f Social Code (SGB), Vol. VIII.
 Bundesfachverband Unbegleitete Minderjährige Flüchtlinge, Vorläufige Inobhutnahme – Was ändert sich zum 1.11.2015?, October 2015, 2-3.
 Section 42f(3) Social Code, Vol. VIII.