More refugees in Germany: It’s getting tight again

Municipalities are complaining about the increasing number of refugees, gymnasiums are being converted again. Is it really that dramatic?

Two girls sit on beds in a gym

Many refugee accommodations are now fully occupied again, here in Kirchseeon in Bavaria Photo: Imago

BOCHUM/DUSSELDORF/BERLIN taz | The gymnasium on Bochum’s Pestalozzistrasse, where Mohamed will be living with almost 50 other refugee boys over the next few weeks, looks a bit run down, at least from the outside. Graffiti is emblazoned on the exposed aggregate concrete facade, and the A448 motorway is humming a few meters away.

Inside there can hardly be any privacy, peace or retreat. Nevertheless, not a word of criticism escapes the lips of the 17-year-old Kurd, who fled from the destroyed city of Kobanê in Syria via Turkey to Germany. “I am sure that the German state would have accommodated us better if there was a possibility,” says Mohamed in front of the door in Kurdish, which a supervisor translates.

Still are in Bochum only underage unaccompanied refugees accommodated in gyms, explains social affairs director Britta Anger. The Ruhr area city is the seat of the only state initial reception center in North Rhine-Westphalia. And Bochum has agreed to first “take care of” all those under the age of 18 seeking protection who register there, before they are permanently accommodated in other cities. Anger reports that this has not been a problem for years. “Since 2017 we have taken care of about 50 minors a month.” But now it is “10 to 30 a day”. And they, explains the Greens, would have to be “placed immediately, taken care of immediately”. “We had to open two gyms. Otherwise the young people would have had to sleep on the street.”

But the head of the social affairs department is not only concerned about the minors in view of the increasing number of refugees. Since the beginning of Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine 3,241 people from there had sought protection in Bochum, of whom around 2,200 were still in the city. There are also around 1,450 other refugees, many of whom are housed in three residential containers. And according to the distribution system of the Königsstein key, the city is obliged to offer another 470 people a roof over their heads. “That’s why we reactivated an old school as accommodation in the Langendreer district,” says Anger. In addition, “lightweight halls” are being planned.

Civic hall or gymnasium converted

Bochum is not an isolated case: Gymnasiums in Moers, Velbert and Burscheid are also to be turned into emergency shelters. In Schwerte, the citizens’ hall of the town hall is being converted. The municipal umbrella organizations have therefore been raising the alarm for weeks. “To speak of a difficult overall situation would be an understatement,” says Christof Sommer, general manager of the NRW Association of Towns and Municipalities, the taz. The chairman of the North Rhine-Westphalian Association of Cities, Essen’s CDU Mayor Thomas Kufen, speaks of a “real challenge”. And his party friend and counterpart at the federal level, Münster’s town hall chief Markus Lewe, warns that there will not be enough places in schools and daycare centers for the foreseeable future.

And the warnings are also getting loud outside of NRW. In the meantime, 12 of the 16 federal states had blocked the initial reception system. Saxony’s Interior Minister Armin Schuster (CDU) speaks of “enormous pressure” from the increased number of refugees. There is “not much air left”. Bavaria’s Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann (CSU) warns of “overburdening the municipalities and overburdening our social systems”. And Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser (SPD) speaks of a “huge effort” in the accommodation. She is “concerned”.

When on Wednesday the Country leaders at their special conference came together, that was also an issue. The federal government was unanimously reminded of “uncovered costs” for the accommodation and integration of refugees. These would have to be reimbursed retrospectively from January 1st and “consolidated” in the future. And at the urging of the federal states and municipalities, there is now a refugee summit in the Federal Ministry of the Interior on October 11th. But the question is: is it really that dramatic?

The numbers only give that to a limited extent. So came alone in the first three weeks after the outbreak of war, 160,000 Ukrainians went to Germany, by mid-June it was 850,000 – after that the curve flattened out. So far, NRW has taken in the most refugees with 215,000, followed by Bavaria (148,000), Baden-Württemberg (126,000) and Lower Saxony (104,000). However, many of those seeking protection are still housed privately. And the Federal Ministry of the Interior also reports that at least 80,700 Ukrainians have now traveled to other EU countries or returned to Ukraine. It remains unclear how the further war situation and the winter will affect further developments.

General increase in refugee numbers

However, there is an increase in the number of refugees from other countries: a good 132,000 people applied for asylum in Germany in the first eight months of this year – an increase of 18 percent compared to the same period last year. And the trend is currently “significantly increasing”, according to the Federal Ministry of the Interior. In particular, unauthorized entries into the EU via the Western Balkans almost tripled from 29,797 in the previous year to 86,581. One reason for this is the increasing pressure that President Erdoğan is putting on refugees in Turkey.

It is this trend that worries state interior ministers like Armin Schuster. A “repatriation offensive” is needed, also to Syria, and there should be no more admission programs for refugees, demands Saxony’s interior minister. In Bavaria, Interior Minister Herrmann complains about “disincentives” such as the reform of citizen income or the introduction of the right of residence. The Bavarian anchor centers are already 113 percent overcrowded, the other collective accommodations 93 percent.

The refugee councils of the federal states, on the other hand, see the accommodation situation as less dramatic – and that it is the fault of the federal states themselves. Dave Schmidtke from the Saxon Refugee Council criticized Schuster’s warnings as “fomenting a climate of fear”. After the start of the war in Ukraine, the number of people entering the country was much higher, and to this day many Ukrainian refugees are being accommodated privately. “The authorities are overwhelmed because they failed to build up capacities and staff in good time.” Many properties in the country are also still unused, and there is also no shortage of living space. “The crisis is homemade by politics,” says Schmidtke.

Alexander Thal from the Bavarian Refugee Council also sees “more political calculation than real emergency” in many warnings: “People flee to Germany because they are looking for protection, but not for social benefits that hardly cover the decent subsistence level.” And most of them are also in Bavaria Ukrainian refugees are housed privately, says Thal. Rather, the problem is that many refugees have been stuck in the anchor centers and communal accommodation for months and years – and are now blocking places for new arrivals. “The solution would be to finally abolish the storage requirement.”

In fact, the current numbers do not seem unmanageable. According to the Ministry of the Interior there, between 762 and 899 refugees per week have recently come to Saxony – in August it was still 311 to 741. The number of Ukrainians, however, fell: from a good 300 a week to 56. And in Bavaria, too 148,000 Ukrainians since the beginning of the year, almost 60,000 others seeking asylum, which is a high since 2016. But even there, the Ministry of the Interior says the situation is still at a “manageable level” despite “enormous challenges”.

“2015 has already been topped”

In NRW the total number is slightly higher. In addition to the 215,000 refugees from Ukraine, there are 38,000 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. “This puts us above the total number of refugees from 2015,” says Christof Sommer from the Association of Towns and Municipalities. “That’s the challenge: 2015 has already been topped.” He sees the housing problems simply as a result of the lack of housing, “in the metropolitan areas anyway, but also in the country”.

For Birgit Naujoks from the North Rhine-Westphalia Refugee Council, the consequences for the often traumatized refugees are “terrible”. “In gyms there is no privacy, no peace, no adequate protection against infection and no appropriate medical, psychological and social care,” says a statement by the initiative group for refugee work in Bochum, especially with regard to minors such as Mohamed, who is housed on Pestalozzistrasse. With the accommodation in gyms, the city of Bochum breaks “clearly the principles of the children’s rights convention”. She suspects that more expensive accommodation in hotels, for example, “was not even considered,” complains initiative group coordinator Carla Scheytt. “As urban real estate, gymnasiums are of course the cheapest solution.”

The impending shortage of appropriate accommodation had been foreseeable for months, Naujoks also criticizes. The federal, state and local authorities simply lack long-term, forward-looking planning. For situations like the current one, in which optimal accommodation in rented apartments is not immediately possible, “multifunctional buildings” would be a solution, in which students could also be accommodated temporarily.

In fact, Sommer also confirms that the cheapest alternative is accommodation in rented apartments – emergency accommodation not only has high heating costs, but also needs security and central catering, as kitchens are often simply not available. Nevertheless, long-term planning is difficult for the municipalities, says Sommer. If accommodations were empty when the number of refugees fell, the cities would be accused of waste. In an overload situation like today, however, even residential containers are not easy to obtain: “You can’t just order them. The delivery time is currently around six months.”

Municipalities are asking for more financial aid

The federal and state governments should therefore provide long-term financial support for the cities and municipalities, says Sommer. “It is also important that we are reimbursed for the so-called maintenance costs – i.e. the money that we need to have housing options available, even if they are not always occupied.”

In general, the municipalities simply need more money, says Sommer. In April alone, the federal government made almost 2 billion euros available for refugees from Ukraine. The NRW share of around 430 million euros was also passed on to the municipalities on a one-to-one basis. “We are grateful for that. But these funds have now been used up.” If you add everything up, the NRW municipalities cost the care, accommodation and integration of the refugees a three-digit million amount – per month.

The calls for help from the cities have also reached the black-green state government in Düsseldorf. In a state parliament debate on Wednesday, the Green Minister for Integration, Josefine Paul, declared that she wanted to increase the state’s admission places by 3,850 to 28,000. In addition to the 430 million provided by the federal government in the current year, the state is making a further 570 million euros available for accommodating refugees.

But the Green Minister also knows that this will not be enough. “It is also part of the truth that neither local authorities nor federal states can meet this challenge alone,” warned Paul, referring to the federal government – and the refugee summit there in October.

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