Refugees hope to find more protection when they cross the border to the European Union. But often they encounter resistance and a lack of compassion. When it comes to asylum, there are prejudices - on both sides.
"Suddenly I was handcuffed and taken into custody," recalls Hidir Karul of his experience with immigration officials in Hamburg. "I couldn't call anyone, neither my lawyer nor my close class teacher. I was to be deported to Turkey the next day."
Karul is a Kurdish Alevi. As a 16-year-old, he fled in 1995 to Germany because of the looming civil war in his home country. According to German officials, however, he did so illegally.
Why the handcuffs? To this day, Karul doesn't have an answer. Directly after his arrival in Hamburg, he applied for asylum and was appointed a legal guardian. He also had a registered address and attended school.
When he went a year later to the immigration office to renew his residence permit, he was arrested. "How can I be here illegally when everyone knows where I live?" he asks, adding that the immigration officials were unable to provide an answer. "If you don't know your rights as an asylum-seeker, you don't have a chance."
More legal channels needed
Karul knows he's had a relatively simple entry into Germany. Before coming, he had gone to the German embassy in Turkey and received a visa for Germany within weeks. After landing in Hamburg, he applied for asylum. The trip cost 3,000 euros.
For other refugees, the road to asylum is more difficult. And that's why they try to enter Germany or other EU countries illegally. Often, they land in the hands of human trafficking gangs - a costly endeavor that can also cost them their lives.
"We need more legal channels via embassies to enter the EU," says Petra Bendel, a political scientist at the Central Institute for Regional Studies at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.
In crisis-hit regions and war zones, vulnerable people have no embassies or consulates to turn to for support. "So they go to the human trafficking gangs and, if they're lucky, find themselves stranded on some EU external border," says Bendel, "and from that point on, their future is uncertain."
Every EU member state treats immigrants differently. And Bendel sees no political will to align their individual national asylum policies.
Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece and Italy are often criticized for putting up refugees under inhumane conditions. But other EU countries have yet to offer support or any European solidarity, according to immigration experts.
"Germany, too, prefers to distribute money and pay into the European refugee fund instead of saving and supporting needy people," says Bendel, who is also a member of the network Migration in Europe. It's important, she adds, that a new European refugee policy meets human rights requirements and that no country dodges its responsibility.
'Here to work and not live off the goverment'
"The new common European asylum system has missed its targets," says Bendel.
Thanks to a support group that intervened on his behalf, Karul has been able to stay in Germany. Many asylum-seekers, however, lack such support when they enter a foreign country. They speak neither the language, nor are they aware of their rights or know the organizations they can turn to for help, according to Dagmar Dahmen, head of the immigration office in Cologne.
"They come here to work and not live off the government," she says. "But they are denied work permits as long as they are not recognized as refugees."
Bendel distinguishes between immigrants seeking employment and those seeking asylum. "They're sitting in the same boat when they come across the Mediterranean to the EU," she says. "But they have different reasons for fleeing."
Many of the young men fleeing to the EU seek one thing - work, according to Bendel. And work is the ideal way to integrate them into society, she argues.
"These people suffer terribly when they can't work," Bendel says. "They spend the entire day sitting around in a refugee dwelling - a cultural mix of people cramped together in a village and unable to leave."
The European Commission has been working for years on a draft bill for apportioning asylum-seekers and refugees in Europe. Under the proposed legislation, skilled workers are to be assigned countries according to local demands and professional qualifications. The apportioning process is to be coordinated by a central European contact point.
One hurdle, however, is labor policy, which is a national concern. On the positive side, notes Bendel, educational qualifications in a few sectors are now recognized throughout Europe.
Far from a proper welcome
Dahmen is well aware of people's frustration when they can't find work. "Those who come to us expect something from us," she says. "But we're far removed from offering them a proper welcome."
Karul has been living in Germany for 20 years. He attended school and earned his Ph.D. in the country and works there, too. Karul is a recognized political refugee.
But his story isn't over yet: Karul has been seeking German citizenship for some years. But as a political refugee, he isn't allowed to apply for it under German law.
That makes Karul wonder what to do after living for 20 years in a country as a political refugee. "I'm integrated here," he says, but admits to having the impression of being isolated in Germany.
"I wonder if I should just emigrate - and leave Europe entirely," he says.
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