BAMBERG, Germany — When Hasani Kleart and 173 others were bused in from asylum homes across Bavaria, the first of about 1,500 migrants to move into newly converted army barracks, they had been full of excitement: freshly painted apartments, sprawling lawns, a state-of-the-art playground, even a basketball court.
Few paid attention to the sign written in German at the entrance: Arrival and Repatriation Facility.
“Are they building a school for our children?” 22-year-old Mirela, who is from Kosovo and would give only her first name, asked hopefully as she explored the grounds with her husband, a builder, and her daughter.
But by lunchtime on their second day there, the news had spread. Mr. Kleart, a 20-year-old student from Albania, had been denied asylum that morning, just two hours after pleading his case. Soon he would be on a plane home.
Mr. Kleart’s application was the first to be processed, and the speedy conclusion — cutting a process to a few hours from what had been taking months — sent a clear signal to those who did not yet understand why they had been brought to the medieval town of Bamberg: Here, in a former United States military base in northern Bavaria, hope ends for those who came to Germany not to save their lives, but for a better life.
“This is where we group asylum seekers with near-zero chances of success,” said Jakob Daubner, who manages the center, the second of its kind to open in Germany’s largest state this month.
Even as Germany is assembling an efficient infrastructure to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict, it has begun installing an equally efficient system for sending home people who have come from poor but safe countries to seek jobs. About 10,000 were repatriated between January and July, more than all of last year, and the pace is quickening.
As Chancellor Angela Merkel put it this month, “Those who do not come because of political persecution or war but for economic reasons will not be able to stay.”
There are many. More than half a million migrants have arrived in Germany this year, and 42 percent of the 256,938 who have already applied for asylum have come not from Iraq or Syria but from Europe. Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia have issues with poverty, joblessness and corruption but are deemed safe. With few options to apply for work visas in Germany, migrants from the western Balkans often claim asylum.
These so-called economic migrants strain an already overburdened system at a time of great need for those seeking refuge from war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and turmoil elsewhere. Indeed, with the continuing flow of a large number of people from the Balkans, German officials say they anticipate as many as a million migrants this year over all.
The number of migrants has also driven up resentment among some Germans, who see them as opportunists who are diverting resources.
Bavaria’s two repatriation centers are emblematic of a new national push to discourage economic migrants from applying for asylum. A federal draft law, expected to be passed in October, plans among other measures to add Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro to an official list of so-called safe countries — places to which migrants can be returned without fearing for their lives. (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia were included last year.)
In exchange, Berlin is talking to governments in the western Balkans about opening a channel for labor migration. Germany anticipates a shortage of up to 2.4 million workers by 2020, according to Frank Laczko of the International Organization for Migration.
To reduce the number of rejected asylum seekers remaining in the country illegally, those who refuse to leave voluntarily may no longer be notified when the police will escort them to the airport and out of Germany. And the current monthly allowance of 140 euros, or about $155, for a single adult with a pending asylum application could soon be paid out mostly in goods, like toiletries, rather than in cash, and for only one month.
One major change has already been carried out. Since August, anyone who makes what is deemed to be a “baseless” asylum claim could be barred from re-entering not just Germany, but the European Union’s passport-free Schengen area, for up to five years.
“This is not about bad vs. good refugees; everybody gets their rightful procedure,” Mr. Daubner said. “But we need to speed up the process to free up resources for those who need them most. The easiest way to do that is to differentiate by country of origin.”
In Bamberg, the local newspaper has already nicknamed the new site the “West Balkan center.” Other asylum centers popping up across the country have signs in Arabic. Here, all notices in the cafeteria are in Albanian.
The name tags on apartments still bear the identities of American soldiers who left last year: Halliday, Garcia, Tucker. The families living here now are called Shala, Bajram, Haskovic.
Housed in the pastel-color barracks next to them are branch offices of all the authorities with a role in the asylum process: the Social Ministry, which pays out the allowance; the migration office, which processes the asylum claims; the foreigner’s bureau, in charge of repatriation; the courts, in case of an appeal; and the police. The goal is to complete the whole process in days or, at most, weeks.
When migrants arrive, they are ushered from office to office for fingerprinting, digital photographs and medical screening. The most important appointment, the asylum interview, a one-shot chance at making a pitch to stay in Germany, takes place on the first floor.
The office where Sascha Walter conducts the interviews is bare. On his desk are the essentials: a computer, a headset, software for dictation and a box of tissues. Mr. Walter’s official title is Decider. He decides whether an asylum seeker gets to stay in Germany.
“My friends call me the bouncer of Germany,” he joked, but then turned serious. “There are often tears. But I have to apply the law.”
Some families come back every year, often in the winter months, to escape the cold back home, he said. Others openly come for the benefits.
But that is a minority, Mr. Walter said. Most, like Mr. Kleart, the young Albanian who had his claim rejected that morning, want to stay. He had come to Mr. Walter’s office at 9:30 a.m. Cleanshaven and shy, he said he had finished high school in Albania in 2013 but had run out of money two years into his pursuit of an information technology degree.
In June, he made his way to Greece and then took a plane to Nuremberg. He wanted to study and work in Germany, he explained through an interpreter. His parents need his support.
The interview took 55 minutes and would have been even quicker had the dictation software not acted up. None of the reasons to grant refugee protection or asylum applied: persecution on the basis of religion, race, nationality, political conviction or membership in a particular social group.
An hour later, Mr. Walter had typed up his report and informed Mr. Kleart that his claim had been rejected. He had seven days to appeal but was advised to accept a ticket and return voluntarily.
Mr. Walter’s boss, Peter Immeler, who runs the on-site operation of the federal migration office, where the number of deciders will soon increase to 60 from two, said the problem was a lack of options to apply for economic migration.
“There are channels, but they are too narrow, and the asylum system is used as compensation,” he said.
Some try to get around it by claiming their lives are in danger at home. The Bajram family, from Macedonia, said that as Muslims they faced discrimination in every aspect of life and were afraid there. One Albanian woman said she had faced horrific sexual abuse.
Other common stories include fearing blood revenge, a form of tit-for-tat justice still used between families in parts of the Balkans, or an illness that is not treatable in the country of origin. Still others pretend to be Syrian. But many unravel when pressed.
Mr. Walter’s interpreter, Anton Coli, has heard his share of far-fetched tales or clumsy attempts at claiming refugee protection.
Mr. Coli, who arrived in Germany in the 1970s as the son of an Albanian guest worker, has worked on over 1,000 asylum cases since 2014. “Not a single one of them was successful,” he said.
He felt for his compatriots, he said, “but right now there are people who need help more.”
Mr. Coli remembers a time when Bosnians and Kosovars were the Syrians of Europe. The stories were different then, he said. Called in as an interpreter during a previous peak of asylum claims in the mid-1990s, he said, he heard a young Kosovar recount how his entire family had been shot in front of him.
Since Mr. Kleart’s claim was rejected, more than 60 migrants in Bamberg have been told they have to leave, Mr. Walter said. This week, a bus will take the first group to the Munich airport for a repatriation flight to Albania.
“I’m not saying that we need help like the Syrians,” Mirela from Kosovo said. “They need protection. Children are dying.”
If there were a good way to apply for a work visa, that is what her husband would have done, she said. “We applied for asylum because that’s what everyone does.”