German states give up refugee housing standards

Many German states waive usual housing standards for refugees, providing them lesser space than what's required for dogs

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Migrants rest in a shelter in Hanau, central Germany, Thursday Sept. 24, 2015. Around 700 refugees mostly from Syria and Afghanistan live there now.

Refugees coming to Germany can expect a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in and three meals a day. But with authorities struggling to find housing for tens of thousands of people each month, many new arrivals will find their lodgings a squeeze.

Smaller, in fact, than what's permitted for a German shepherd dog.

An Associated Press survey has found that several of Germany's 16 states have waived the usual rules expected of communal housing. As a result, migrants in some parts of Germany are finding themselves living in cramped conditions that rights groups say are unfit for human habitation.

"The situation is becoming dramatic," said Karl Kopp, an expert on refugee policy with the campaign group Pro Asyl. "If we put people up in undignified conditions then this will have long-term consequences for their health and their ability to integrate in the country."

On Sunday 14 people — including three police officers — were injured when a mass brawl involving hundreds of refugees broke out at a reception center in Calden, near Kassel. The site is a tent city originally designed for 1,000 people but now housing 1,500.

"Improvised, often catastrophically overcrowded emergency shelters offer residents no privacy or place to retreat. Every trip to the canteen, to the toilets or the showers becomes a patience test in these mass shelters" Pro Asyl said following the incident..

The warning came as the German government agreed on measures Tuesday aimed at helping authorities cope with this year's surge in migrants.

According to Bavaria's governor, 169,400 migrants have arrived in the southeastern German state since the beginning of September. Horst Seehofer said 10,000 people arrived on Monday alone, the DPA news agency reported.

Critics say that most of the new measures are focused on deterring people from coming to Germany and speeding up deportations, rather than providing immediate relief to ease overcrowding in refugee shelters.

Of the 14 states that responded to an AP questionnaire on housing standards, at least three - including Bavaria- have lowered their requirements for shelters, including for the minimum amount of space available to each refugee. Six states had no minimum requirements, while two required that refugees have at least 7 square meters (75.4 square feet) of space each.

By comparison, animal protection laws stipulate that medium-sized dogs get at least 8 square meters (86.1 square feet) of kennel space.

Campaigners and refugees have also noted the lack of sufficient bathrooms, the absence of room locks, and the remote location of some shelters that make it hard for residents to come into contact with Germans.

"You can see what the situation is like," said Gabriel Hesse, a spokesman for the ministry of work and social affairs in Brandenburg, one state that recently suspended its minimum housing standards. "We'll see how things develop, but in the coming months they aren't going to get better."

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere dismissed concerns, saying Friday that "we can't offer any luxury and we don't want to offer any luxury."

"Of course a gym with hundreds of people in it isn't nice, but it's better than no roof over the head," he said. "I think Germany doesn't have to be ashamed about the standards it offers refugees."

Rights groups have been particularly critical of a new measure that extends the amount of time asylum seekers can be housed in reception centers from three to six months.

"There simply isn't enough time for these standards. Last week alone we opened five emergency accommodations," said Monika Hebbinghaus, a spokeswoman for Berlin's social affairs department. She noted that authorities are struggling to find enough staff for the many shelters they are opening.

One state, Thuringia, recently took steps to prevent unrest between different ethnic groups. It now attempts to house migrants separately by country of origin.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable in cramped accommodation.

Meanwhile, there are growing calls from within Chancellor Angela Merkel's party to make it clear that Germany can't take in unlimited numbers of refugees.

German President Joachim Gauck, who has no party affiliation, struck a similar note at the weekend: "We want to help. We have a big heart. But our possibilities are finite."