Photo. Visitors at the opening of the exhibition, 'Drawings by Refugee Children,' August 29, 1953
&copy Landesarchiv Berlin - Willy Kiel

The Emergency Reception Procedure

The application process for refugees and emigrants from East Germany was based on a West German law. Passed on 22 August 1950, the “Law Concerning the Emergency Reception of Germans in the Federal Republic” harmonised the existing arrangements for refugees in the three Western occupation zones. A year later, the West German parliament, the Bundestag, decided to extend the law’s coverage to West Berlin. The law took effect in West Berlin on 4 February 1952.

According to the law, every East German refugee or emigrant required a permit for permanent residence in West Germany and West Berlin. Initially, strict acceptance criteria applied: only those refugees who could credibly demonstrate that they were forced to leave East Germany owing to a threat to their lives, their personal freedoms or other compelling reasons received a residence permit. Starting in 1953, however, the application of the policy was relaxed. Although the criteria remained the same, proof of employment in the West sufficed; after 1956, evidence of the ability to work was enough.

Refugee Policy

The West German government pursued several goals with this law and the attendant reception procedure. Both economic and political considerations played a role:

  • The basic needs of the refugees shall be met immediately after their arrival in the West
  • The number of refugees shall be kept to a minimum, as in the years immediately following the Second World War one feared competition in the West over such scarce resources as employment, housing and foodstuffs
  • The acceptance criterion of political repression shall politically legitimize state-sponsored integration assistance
  • Reducing the influx of arrivals is intended to prevent a collapse of the opposition against the Socialist Unity Party in East Germany, e.g., the opponents of the East German regime should remain in East Germany
  • With the regulation of the refugee flows the basis for targeted integration measures shall be created – for instance, through the assignment of refugees to the economically stronger West German federal states

The Stations of the Reception Procedure

Passed on 11 June 1951, an implementing regulation to the 1950 refugee law defined the precise course of the application process for East German refugees. This process remained essentially unchanged until the procedure’s annulment in 1990. In the post-war decades, however, the political test procedure increasingly became a registration and allocation procedure.

Upon their arrival at the Marienfelde Center, refugees had to supply a first round of personal information. They also received a health certificate and a processing slip noting all of the other stations of the application process.

The applicant had to sequentially proceed through a total of twelve stations; an orderly progression through the procedure, from station to station, was noted by a stamp on the processing slip, supplied by one of the Center’s civil servants at each respective station. To ensure donations were allocated fairly and to prevent fraud, gifts and other social services received by the applicant were noted on the processing slip.

What happened to those whose application was rejected?

Those whose application was rejected were neither punished nor sent back to East Germany. They were, however, exempted from the assistance measures provided to East German refugees, and were reliant upon general welfare relief. Until the mid-1950s, a negative answer brought with it major social stresses – first and foremost for the individual in question, but also for the city of West Berlin. Those whose application was rejected could not be flown out and their case allocated to West Germany; instead, they were now institutionalised in other camps where they lived in cramped conditions, with little perspective for a better life. They received neither work nor residence permits.

After the mid-1950s, the West German economic miracle reached West Berlin. The rising demand for labour made possible the integration of those whose application had been rejected, many of whom now received a positive answer retroactively. During the 1960s, the problem faded into the background. Not least because of the sharp decline in the number of those leaving East Germany, the percentage of those whose application was declined fell below 1%.


©ENM - Photos: A. Tauber