Refugee Housing Policy and its Effects on the Lives of Asylum Seekers in Germany
Germany has been hailed for its “Refugee Welcome” culture and the efficient and organized manner in which it managed the 2015 migration crisis. One important aspect of reception policy in Germany has been undoubtedly the centralized refugee housing system and the way asylum seekers are systematically “distributed” around the German territory. But although the system is undoubtedly efficient from an institutional perspective, does it offer “adequate living conditions” for the person who is seeking asylum? Here, I will offer two perspectives: the institutional interpretation of “adequate living conditions” and a contrasting account based on the subjective experience of asylum seekers themselves.
The Asylum Act and the Management of Asylum Seekers in Germany
In Germany it is the Asylum Act that dictates the living arrangements provided to a person who expresses his or her wish to apply for asylum. Once they are identified as asylum seekers, border authorities promptly transfer asylum applicants to the nearest reception centre. Asylum seekers are then logistically managed or “distributed” around the German territory via the “EASY” system (Erstverteilung von Asylbewerbern, "Initial Distribution of Asylum-seekers"). According to section 45 of the Asylum Act, the distribution of asylum seekers within Germany is based on quotas (the so-called “Koenigsteiner Schluessel”), which is based on the tax revenue and the population to the German regional states.
In crude terms, this means that the policies that govern the accommodation system in Germany are strict and unilaterally applied. Freedom of movement is highly restricted and the choice of where and how to live is not left to the asylum applicant but rather strongly regulated by the local authorities. In Brandenburg, one of the 16 German regional states, asylum seekers are often sent to reception centres in small and remote locations, away from any village or nearby town. The remoteness and derelict appearance of such places (which are usually converted former DDR-era hotels, schools or government administrative buildings) often insight comparisons to prisons or detention centres. Indeed, refugees I interviewed have made such comparisons often enough. Even those residing in refugee accommodation in Berlin have faced hurdles such as being expelled together with their children simply for cooking in their room, or for arriving after 22:00.
A Day Trip to Dystopia: a Short Experiential Account of an Asylum Seekers’ Living Condition.
One asylum seeker I recently interviewed, challenged me to come and visit the place where he (officially) lives. I accepted his invitation and we drove through the Brandenburg countryside to Massow (Halbe), about an hour south of Berlin. The navigation system took us to an eerie place in the middle of a dense pine forest, which made me question if we were in the right place. “No, no, its correct, we are here,” the man reassured me. The old watchtower announced we were approaching some old DDR-time security area.
As we drove through the forest, an old blue and white building emerged. It looked like a large shoebox. Next to it, there was an old abandoned building with overgrown vegetation and rusting steel beams exposed. The whole place looked like the scene of a dystopian movie and it reminded me of George Orwell’s novel 1984. “This is where they want me to be…” said Wasseem Abdullah (not his real name), who pointed to the building whilst shaking his head in a negative motion. “Is it or is it not a prison?” he asked me. “Do you think there is any chance of us having a life here? Look at this, it is a place for animals, not humans. There is nothing around, no one to be seen. No shops, no people, no life. The only bus into Halbe (the nearest town) comes every two hours. The service stops at 17:00. On weekends you can forget it. You’re stuck here. We are here to die. Not to live – to die!” he said in a nervous, shaky voice. “Its bread and cheese for breakfast, bread and cheese for dinner. Maybe they think we are rats”
“Its bread and cheese for breakfast, bread and cheese for dinner. Maybe they think we are rats”.
After a quick stop at the reception to collect his mail, we headed to his room. It was at the end of a long dimly lit corridor. He knocked at the door and opened it. The tag on the wall said that five people occupied the room: Wasseem was one of them. As we entered, the smell of unwashed clothes, fried food and alcohol hit my nostrils. There was an empty bed on the left and on the far right corner a man raised his head from under the covers and gestured. He mumbled something incomprehensible and half sat in bed. Wasseem quickly explained that the man was from Uganda and that he most likely was drunk. I looked over the table and saw empty cans of beer, dirty cooking pots with food still inside. There was an old wardrobe next to the table, and nothing else. “I don’t blame him.” He said in a low voice whilst pointing at the man who by now had gone back to sleep. “How can you not feel depressed just by being here? There is nothing to do here but spend your 350 Euros in alcohol and to wait for death. It is so depressing…”
I left the room feeling disturbed with the situation those men were in and I must have looked rather bewildered because Wasseem took me by the arm and said: “come, let’s go to the reception. I want to introduce you to someone”. There, we met one of the social workers that were there regularly. She had large kind eyes and was rather talkative. “She is the only one I can talk to here. She speaks good English and doesn’t mind speaking English to us. Others will say: “Speak German, you’re in Germany now”, but she’s ok. She knows I don’t stay here all the time, but she also knows I can’t just seat here and die”. Wasseem is secretly living with a friend in Berlin. He sleeps on the floor, on a thin mattress, whilst his friend, who is a student, goes to University. His wife and his daughter live in Kassel and he goes to visit them regularly, even though he is not allowed to cross the Brandenburg border. “I don’t care, nobody will stop me from seeing my daughter. No German government, no United Nations, no one!”
“How can you not feel depressed just by being here? There is nothing to do here… but to wait for death. It is so depressing…”
The story of how Wasseem got to Germany is too complex to be described in any detail in this short space. But I attest that this brief description of a day in the life of an asylum seeker in Brandenburg exemplifies quite well the difficulties and anguish of the majority of refugees I have interviewed regarding the places where they are forced to live.
The Geneva Convention and the Problem of Terminology: What is it meant by “Adequate”?
The Geneva Convention formulates a number of principles for the reception of refugees under the rubric of “Welfare”. It states that “refugees shall be accorded the same treatment as nationals” in terms of allowances, housing and elementary education (Articles 20-23). Furthermore, countries of residence are to acknowledge that refugees cannot turn to their countries of origin for administrative assistance and are therefore supposed to cater their needs as if they were citizens (Article 25). They should ensure freedom of movement (Article 26) and should not prevent refugees from wage earning employment, e.g. in order to protect their own workforce (Article 17).
In theory, this is supposed to work as such. In practice it is a rather different story. The Königsteiner Schlüssel/ Erstverteilung von Asylbewerbern system often forces asylum seekers to live away from any chance of being integrated into German society by its inherently isolationist instance. As a consequence, asylum seekers must wait patiently for the result of their application – which can take years if appeals are being made and lawsuits come in. Otherwise, the decision on first applications has been speeded up considerably during the previous two years.
According to the Directive 2013/33/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 the “material reception conditions” of refugees “include housing, food and clothing provided in kind, or as financial allowances or in vouchers” (Article 2g) and sets out to formulate minimum conditions for reception (Article 4).
The directive formulates two general principles for member states to provide reception, namely “that material reception conditions are available to applicants when they make their application for international protection”, that they “provide an adequate standard of living for applicants, which guarantees their subsistence and protects their physical and mental health”.
With regard to housing more specifically, the directive acknowledges different modalities, such as accommodation centres or private premises. It emphasizes that housing should be organized in such a way that it takes into account the needs of vulnerable populations, protects the family life of applicants and allows them to communicate with relatives and legal advisors (Article 18).
The Disconnect Between Reception Policies and the Discourse on Integration
Having experienced first hand the varieties of accommodation facilities available to refugees in Berlin and Brandenburg and having listened to a variety of experiential accounts from asylum seekers from more than ten different countries, I noticed that more often than not, the living conditions offered to asylum seekers in Germany not only infringe on some of the human rights on which much of the asylum system is based on but also may well be contributing to cases of mental illness by pushing individuals into depressive states which can result in the heightened consumption of alcohol and other heavier drugs. In sum, it is not hard to see the negative effect the infrastructure of the housing system (including where the housing facility is geographically located and its access to other people, communities and services) on peoples´ mental and physical health.
“Whichever forces may be shaping the way reception policies are drawn or how reception practices are carried out, when added to the problem of what should constitute “an adequate standard of living”, the result seems to be a disconnection between current reception policies and the high expectations placed on asylum seekers regarding their integration into German society. “
But although it would be tempting to attribute the precarious situation of someone like Wasseem Abdullah to disingenuous policies designed to keep asylum seekers away from wanting to remain in Germany, by pushing people to the edge, the truth is always much more complex. The way in which the refugee housing system is set up in Germany can be traced to a variety of sources including the lack of available accommodation in the larger cities and the need to alleviate the financial pressure on cities such as Berlin where rents have gone up quite considerably in the past decade. We cannot forget the sudden and unexpected raise in the number of asylum seekers in the 2015-2016 period and how this has affected the dynamics of local politics, in particular regarding discussion on the future of immigration in Germany, an issue that has in the years prior to 2015 and since become a major point of debate. The latter is partially driven by party politics and anti-immigrant rhetoric produced by the growth of a right-wing constituency, not only in Germany but also in Europe as a whole.
Yet even if we consider these and other equally important factors, we would still fall short of a satisfactory explanation if we did not consider the historical, social and economic complexities that have favoured the centralised distributive system we see in place. Whichever forces may be shaping the way reception policies are drawn or how reception practices are carried out, when added to the problem of what should constitute “an adequate standard of living”, the result seems to be a disconnection between current reception policies and the high expectations placed on asylum seekers regarding their integration into German society.