'Bureaucrazy': Syrian refugees work on app to beat German red tape

A migrant has an identification photo taken at the registration office of the Patrick-Henry Village refugee center, Heidelberg, Germany. © Ralph Orlowski
A team of Syrian refugees is developing a multipurpose app, ‘Bureaucrazy’, designed to help newcomers not get lost in translation while filling a zillion forms in almost incomprehensible German ‘officialese’, and find a quick solution to common problems.

Munzer Khattab, from Latakia, and Ghaith Zamrik, from Damascus, have first-hand knowledge of German bureaucracy. Munzer, 23, arrived in Berlin in 2015, and was soon given the address of a job application center. When he turned up at the exact location, the building appeared to be shut down for renovation. It took him weeks to find the right office.

When Munzer's friend Ghaith, 19, arrived in the German capital, he was told to sign at least eight important documents. For some reason, only half of which happened to be translated into Arabic.

“It was very frustrating,” the teen told the Guardian.

“Even my German friends struggle with the paperwork here – imagine what it is like for a newcomer,” he added.

Khattab said German bureaucracy is a real challenge.

“In Syria, there was always a way to avoid bureaucracy, even if it meant paying a bit of extra money. Here, there is no way around the paperwork,” he told the newspaper.
The two pals and a team of four other Syrian refugees have decided to find a way to somehow simplify stifling state bureaucracy to help not just a bunch of others like themselves, but hundreds of thousands of people arriving in Germany.

Over the course of the last year, an estimated 1.1 million refugees have arrived in Germany. Most of the asylum seekers have come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Balkan states.

Bureaucrazy will feature at least three key functions: a translation service that renders German documents into Arabic and English; a ‘decision tree’ for frequent problems, and a service that sends individuals to the right council office door. Ideally, their app would be a one-stop guide for all things migration, from opening a bank account to applying for a university course.

When the Syrian developers unveiled their brainchild at the Startup Europe Summit in June, they received tons of positive feedback.

“Lots of Romanians and Spaniards told us they needed a similar app. And we had thought this was just a problem for refugees,” Khattab told the Guardian.

The problem is, for the app to function effectively, Bureaucrazy has to store plenty of information for logged-on users – a real challenge and risk in Germany. In the wake of ever-increasing cyber-security threats, Germany passed legislation last year, ordering that over 2,000 essential service providers implement new minimum information security standards or face penalties if they fail to do so within two years.

“Germans are really into their privacy,” Zamrik told the paper.

The app is still in development, and the Syrian wizards seek coding and financial support to launch their program by next January. The developers initially planned to crowdfund Bureaucrazy, but have no clue where they would actually keep the money. Zamrik told the Guardian that if he puts over €700 (US$780) into his account, he would get in hot water at the job application center.

Bureaucrazy is being developed at ReDI, a Berlin school of digital integration where refugees can learn to code.

The school's founder, Anne Kjær Riechert, said creators like Munzer and Ghaith could help improve the image of refugees in Germany.

“If we want to help the people stuck in refugee camps around the world or getting trafficked, we need to empower and collaborate with people like Munzer and Ghaith. They know firsthand what the situation is like, and hence can be part of building the real solutions,” she said.