Private security guards hold down a handcuffed 20-year-old Algerian refugee at a German refugee center.
Credit: Hagen Police Department

ESSEN, Germany — Midway through describing his alleged abuse by security guards at a home for asylum seekers here, Badr Abboussi breaks off to answer a call on his cell phone.

After speaking rapidly in Italian, the 21-year-old originally from Morocco hangs up, shrugs his shoulders and says ruefully, “Transfer.”

Ordinarily, that would be good news. Getting transferred from the dormitory-like processing center where he’s been living for the past two months to semi-permanent housing would normally signal that the government has agreed to evaluate his asylum claim.

But with his complaint against the Opti-Park refugee home in this western German city still pending, Abboussi is worried that it represents an effort to shut him up by shuffling him out of sight.

“They treat animals better than they treat us,” he says.

Abboussi says private security guards beat and kicked him so severely that doctors at a nearby hospital wanted to keep him overnight for observation. Dozens of others have recently filed similar complaints about humiliating treatment at homes across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

As Germans wake up to that and other news of grim conditions in overstretched facilities, cases like Abboussi's are prompting locals to call for other European Union members to help by taking on more refugees.

But with millions of Syrians fleeing to Lebanon and Turkey promising to increase refugee rosters in Europe, a looming crisis is putting pressure on ties already strained between EU members.

Among those calling for change, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere is proposing that EU member states accept refugee quotas based on their population sizes or GDP in order to limit the flow into Germany.

Berlin will host an international conference next week to discuss aid to countries hardest hit by the exodus from Syria, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

But much-needed reforms of the EU's own refugee policies probably won't make the agenda.

Instead, human rights activists say, Europe remains focused on building border fences and stepping up patrols to keep people out.

“I don't see the EU member states taking a great share with their resettlement programs or humanitarian mission programs,” says Franziska Vilmar of Amnesty International.

Critics of Germany's abuse cases say they highlight the fact that current policies are encouraging people to think of asylum seekers as invaders or lawbreakers.

Nearly 10 days went by before local police turned up to investigate Abboussi's claims. In another case guards took videos and photographs of themselves stepping on the neck of a handcuffed resident.

Those victims are the lucky ones.

For many others, Europe's fortification of its land borders has proven deadly. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say hundreds of thousands have tried to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats this year, resulting in a record death toll of more than 3,000 people.

As EU member countries squabble over the high cost of absorbing the refugees who do make it to Europe, there are signs of an even greater emphasis on policing the borders on the horizon.

The EU has already spent billions of dollars on building fences, installing electronic surveillance and conducting patrols in Bulgaria, Greece and other border states.

But that’s done little to stem the flow.

Next month, Italy will turn over its Mare Nostrum naval search and rescue operation to the EU's comparatively underequipped Frontex border police agency because other member states aren't willing to share the $8 million-a-month bill.

That’s worrying observers.

“If Mare Nostrum stops and Frontex takes over, we will with open eyes have a large zone in the Mediterranean where people will drown,” Vilmar says.

Germany's own refugee crisis is shining a spotlight on how EU policies are contributing to the problem.

Under an agreement forged in Dublin in 2003, the first EU state to process asylum seekers’ arrival typically assumes responsibility for taking them in and evaluating their claims for refugee status.

The idea was to prevent asylum seekers from being shuttled from country to country in interminable limbo or “asylum shopping” in various states to increase their chances of being accepted.

In practice, the scheme has pitted EU border states against others on the continent — and states that are relatively friendly to refugees against the more refugee-averse — which has both worsened conditions for the refugees themselves and strained EU ties already stretched thin by infighting over austerity measures and other issues.

Many Germans believe the current policy, together with the effects of the euro crisis, have forced a small number of wealthy countries in northern Europe to accept responsibility for around three-quarters of the EU’s asylum seekers.

However, refugee advocates who point to the problems inside Germany say new quotas would only exacerbate poor conditions for asylum seekers.

Germany allots refugees to its states based on local wealth and population, as it hopes the EU will begin doing at the country level.

But critics say restricting people from moving freely within Germany after they've been granted temporary residence has inadvertently encouraged administrators to treat them like criminals.

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“Of course the discourse in Germany leads to even more negative and hostile attitudes in large parts of the German population,” says Karl Kopp of Frankfurt-based Pro Asyl.

At the EU level, current policies have even more severe consequences, critics say.

The fact that countries processing asylum seekers are responsible for not only evaluating their claims, but also providing for their well-being if they’re granted refugee status, is creating an incentive for EU border states to pack arrivals onto trains and buses destined for other countries instead of processing them as required under the Dublin convention.

As Europe’s refugee crisis deepens, some say a change that allows refugees a choice in where they land is the only solution.

“The Dublin system is collapsing,” Kopp says. “It’s time for a real alternative which is taking into account the needs of asylum seekers.”

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