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GERMAN CITIZENSHIP

‘I’ve waited four years’: Foreigners in Berlin furious over German citizenship delays

Dozens of disgruntled foreign nationals gathered at Berlin's immigration office on Friday to protest long processing times to get German citizenship and the bumpy transition to a digital system.

People walk next to a mural at the State Office for Immigration (LEA) on Friedrich-Krause-Ufer in Berlin.
People walk next to a mural at the State Office for Immigration (LEA) on Friedrich-Krause-Ufer in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Around 50 people arrived at the new centralised citizenship office in the Berlin district of Wedding on Friday morning to protest on behalf of the some 40,000 foreigners that still haven’t received a decision on their citizenship applications. 

Registered under the theme of “Rapid processing of naturalisation applications for refugees”, the event attracted numerous asylum seekers, but also a wider pool of foreigners who wanted to express their hurt and frustration at the slow processing times. 

Holding German flags and signs detailing how long they had been waiting – some 18 months, some more than three years – the group demonstrated outside the immigration office (LEA) before heading inside to speak with officials who worked there. 

In a tense and sometimes heated exchange with the director of the LEA, Engelhard Mazanke, protestors demanded to know why many new applicants had already received their naturalisation documents while others had heard nothing for several years. 

One attendee pointed out that, on social media groups, there had been several posts from people who had applied for citizenship this year under the new digital system and had already been invited to pick up their certificate of naturalisation. 

READ ALSO: Why German citizenship applications in Berlin are facing delays

Meanwhile, applicants who had submitted paper applications as long ago as 2020 are still waiting for answers. 

According to Mazanke, the LEA has hired a contractor to digitalise older applications and forward those to case workers as they come in. “This service provider is in arrears, which means that we don’t even have all their files yet, they are still in some securely locked warehouse in Brandenburg,” he said.

Citizenship office staff are receiving around 300 to 400 of these a day, along with around 100 new applications, which are being processed in tandem. “But if we don’t have the file, we can’t start working,” Mazanke explained. 

The head of the LEA is hopeful that the rest of the paper applications will be digitalised by the end of June. “I hope so and I believe that this is realistic,” he said. “Until then, we can only work with the files we have.” 

That involves processing the newest applications before documents become out of date. 

“I know that this accusation of injustice always comes up: why have I been waiting for 18 months and if my best friend submits a digital application tomorrow, which he can do without a consultation, and pays the fee immediately, then he might be naturalised in two months,” said Mazanke. “That’s not fair.” 

That said, the LEA is “not BER”, he said, referring to Berlin’s scandal-hit airport that took almost two decades to build. 

‘80,000 new applications’

At the start of the 2024, Berlin commenced a major overhaul of its citizenship processes, opening a large centralised office to replace the smaller offices in the boroughs.

The new office on Sellerstraße was designed to speed up the processing of applications by implementing digital systems and massively increasing staffing levels from around 80 to 210.

Though many of the open positions have not been filled yet – Mazanke estimates there are about 50 percent more staff than in the boroughs, but says hiring is still ongoing –  the new digital processes are already speeding things up.

Since January 1st, people have been able to complete a quick online pre-screening instead of a phone consultation and submit their application entirely online. 

READ ALSO: Berlin launches online German citizenship application form

With all of these changes and an imminent influx of new staff, Mazanke said he wants to increase the number of applications processed each year to at least 20,000. 

Nevertheless, the upcoming dual nationality reform, which looks set to come into force in July, is likely to open the floodgates to an even larger wave of applications.

Engelhardt Mazanke, director of the LEA

Engelhard Mazanke, Director of the Berlin State Office for Immigration, stands in front of the State Office for Immigration. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

According to LEA estimates, as many as 80,000 people – primarily from the Turkish and Kurdish communities – could submit an application after the new law comes in later this year.

This number could, however, be even larger: according to Mazanke, the federal government is on the verge of launching a major campaign to encourage people to become German. In Berlin, that means as many as 330,000 people could apply.

All these unknowns mean nobody can say for sure how long it will take to reduce the mountain of unprocessed applications, the LEA director said.

“I hope that we will be able to clear this backlog at some point,” Mazanke said, pointing to the new systems they had put in place. “But I can’t promise you it’ll be this year.”

For those frustrated with the current situation, there was an alternative option: resubmitting a digital application and paying a futher €255. 

“We can’t directly recommend you do that,” Mazanke said. “But if you were to do that of your own accord, it may be helpful to both you and us.” 

READ ALSO: How fast will Berlin’s new citizenship office process applications?

‘I expected this’

Though the LEA director was thanked for his time with a polite round of applause, the feeling in the room was one of frustration and disappointed resignation.

Wasim, a Syrian national who has been living in Germany since 2013, said he was irritated by the excuses that he had heard at the meeting.

“I expected that,” he said. “It really exposes the procedures in Germany: their only excuse is a new building, and we are just supposed to accept that.” 

Wasim Syrian refugee

Wasim, a Syrian national who has been in Germany since 2013, has been waiting almost four years for his citizen application to be processed. Photo: Imogen Goodman

After a year of learning German to fluency, Wasim started work in 2014 and has worked and paid taxes in the country ever since. He submitted his application in 2020 but, almost four years later, there still hasn’t been a decision. 

“You see that some people are applying online and getting their citizenship faster,” he said. “It’s unfair – they should do something.”

But Gabi Rissmann, a pensioner who advocates on behalf of refugees, said she was satisfied with the answers given by the authorities.

“I can absolutely understand the difficulties they’re facing,” she said. 

Whether satisfied or disheartened, the foreigners demonstrating at the LEA on Friday left with one clear message: nobody has any clear deadline in mind for processing those 40,000 plus older applications. No matter when they submitted their applications – and the oldest unprocessed application goes back as far as 2010 – they’ll just have to be patient. 

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BERLIN

Why are Berlin rents soaring by 20 percent when there’s a rent brake?

The Berlin Tenants' Association says rents rose by 21 percent last year, and a recent report confirms a similar increase. Germany's rent price brake put in place in 2015 was intended to hold rents steady, so why are they continuing to soar?

Why are Berlin rents soaring by 20 percent when there's a rent brake?

A report released Wednesday by two leading real-estate firms found that asking rents in Berlin rose by 18.3 percent to €13.60 per square metre despite the rent brake that’s meant to control the increase. 

The report was compiled by real estate financier Berlin Hyp and the global real estate service provider CBRE.

The report also notes that the number of rental apartments offered in Berlin shrank drastically.

In the real estate market however, prices have come down somewhat. The report suggests asking prices for apartment buildings fell by 11.7 percent, and asking prices for condominiums fell slightly by 1.4 percent.

These findings are based on evaluations of 23,300 rental offers, around 28,400 purchase price offers for condominiums and apartment buildings as well as 220 new construction projects with around 34,900 apartments in Berlin for 2023.

Where are rents the highest and the lowest in Berlin?

According to the report, Berlin’s rental prices top out in Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain – at rates up to €26 per sq/m.

Marzahn was the kiez or neighbourhood that had the lowest rents, at €16.03 per sq/m at the most. Spandau and Reinickendorf were the next cheapest neighbourhoods. 

The range of rent prices was wide across every neighbourhood in Berlin. Across the capital city, rents on the bottom end were as low as €6 per sq/m – amounting to a difference of nearly €20 per sq/m between rents in the upper and lower market segments.

READ ALSO: Is there any hope for Berlin’s strained rental market?

While Berlin’s rapidly increasing rents combined with its severe housing shortage makes moving to or within the city notoriously frustrating, it does not have the highest rent prices in Germany.

According to Statista, Munich has the highest rent prices by far, at a rate of €19.23 per sq/m in 2023. Frankfurt am Main had the next highest rent on average, at €14.80 per sq/m.

Close behind, Stuttgart has held the third highest rents in Germany in recent years, but as of 2023 it looks like Berlin has caught up.

Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Cologne all had rent prices between €12 and €13 per sq/m on average.

Is the rent price brake failing?

In an attempt to slow the rapid rise of rents in competitive housing markets, the German government introduced a rental price brake (Mietpreisbremse) in 2015, which was recently extended until 2029.

But it appears that the rent brake has done little to slow the rise of rents in Germany’s most competitive markets.

The Berlin Tenants’ Association (BMV) welcomes the extension of the rent brake, but says that it needs urgent tightening and strengthening to adequately keep rents affordable.

Mieten runter "rents down"

The words “Rents down” are graffitied on the wall of a rental building. About 75% of Berlin rents are set illegally high, a legal expert told The Local. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

The rent brake is intended to prevent landlords from asking for rents more than 10 percent above local comparative rates. But with no significant consequences for violating the rent brake rule, the BMV says landlords regularly raise rents well above the legal limit.

According to the BMV, rents were excessive in 98 percent of the cases that it reviewed in 2023.

“Many landlords ignore the requirement, and try to circumvent the rent brake and demand excessive rents,” says Managing Director of the Berlin Tenants’ Association,  Ulrike Hamann-Onnertz.

“At the same time, the enforcement of the rent brake is associated with a great deal of effort and legal risk for tenants.”

Renters in Germany’s high-demand rental markets can invoke the rent brake to reduce their rent, if they find that their ‘cold rent’ (the base rent without additional costs) is set more than 10 percent above the average rate for a comparable unit in the same neighbourhood. Average rates are recorded local indexes, called Mietspiegel. Here’s one for Berlin.

READ ALSO: German rent brake to be extended until 2029: What you need to know

However, there are a number of exceptions to the rent brake. Perhaps the most frustrating of which is a loophole that allows landlords to maintain an overpriced rent if the previous tenant did not challenge it. 

“Rents agreed in violation of the rent brake can also be included in the rent index and in turn lead to an upward spiral of rents,” Hamann-Onnertz said.

The BMV recommends three policy adjustments to fix the holes in the rent brake which include: applying sanctions to landlords who violate the rent brake, eliminating most of the exceptions to the rent brake, and supporting tenants’ in enforcing their rights through municipal inspection bodies.

Whether policymakers in Berlin (and beyond) will heed any of the BMV’s advice is another story.

READ ALSO: ‘Tense housing situation’: Why a Berlin renter can’t be evicted for two years

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