Berlin, with a population of 3.6 million, was temporarily housing around 70,000 asylum-seekers and refugees as of early 2017.
In the capital of the wealthiest European country, however, most migrants had been offered second-class accommodation. Since 2012-13, the federal state and municipalities had been commissioning an increasing number of non-state actors – such as charity organizations and private companies – to provide asylum housing. In Berlin, 85 per cent of asylum-seekers were being housed in mass shelters, structured like camps, and only 15 per cent in private apartments, according to the Refugee Council. The mass shelters were located in former hotels, gyms, sports halls, schools and airports.
Anyone visiting Berlin would no longer find long queues of asylum-seekers right in the centre of the city. There were no longer endless queues outside the LaGeSo (the State Office for Health and Social Affairs), which had been moved to the suburb of Wilmersdorf, so wealthy North American and European tourists did not have to suffer the sight of newly arrived migrants. Once you went a little further out of the town, you found their shelters tucked away deep in an industrial estate, or a business area on the outskirts of the city, or in the three hangars of the former Tempelhof airport in the middle of nowhere.
The Tempelhof camp, where thousands were being housed, was most notorious for its overcrowding. Not only was it overflowing, with roofless, partitioned rooms where residents lived without any privacy, it also lacked basic facilities. The poor conditions, in addition to the isolated location, led to cases of depression and attempted suicide among the migrant residents. However, the authorities not only never attempted to improve conditions, but even intended to maximize the capacity of the camp and accommodate even more people.
Those who benefited most from this kind of segregated housing arrangement, which was the norm in Berlin, were the operators of the mass shelters and camps. As refugee housing was state-funded, any individual or organization could apply for funding, and bid for their application to be accepted, simply on the grounds of lower cost. The state had established no criteria for the funding applicants – any business could apply, even a security firm that had no experience in working with migrants. This created a situation where the businesses running the shelters had neither the expertise nor the slightest knowledge of the people to whom they were supposed to provide services. How could they be in charge of shelters? It seemed the state was only interested in the cheapest bidder. Shelters then received a certain amount of funds per person housed there, with the state having absolutely no control over how funds were spent and allocated. The result of such a business-oriented system is a shelter for 1,000 people with only four bathrooms, and the placement of culturally or politically conflicting groups in the same room. Billions have been made out of asylum shelters, while the standard of housing is often far below average. The general consensus is that there are only ‘less bad’ shelters, not good ones.
Some politicians think that containers offer a solution to the shortage of housing in Berlin, which had in fact been created by the mass privatization of social housing under the previous administration, though the policy has been continued by the current city government. In December 2016, immediately after taking office, the ‘red-red-green’ (SPD-Left Party-Green Party) administration in Berlin reneged on its promise to provide asylumseekers with housing in apartments. It decided to continue the rightwing refugee policy of the previous Social Democrat-Christian Democrat administration, and to move asylum-seekers from mass shelters to container settlements.
Both the containers and the mass shelters are mostly located in industrial areas on the outskirts of Berlin, far away from the transport system and urban infrastructure. And both are managed by independent operators contracted by the state, which pays them a daily rate for each person housed for a period of three years.
These mass shelters and container villages are, to all extents and purposes, ghettoes, created to isolate migrants and keep them away from society. The system identifies migrants as different, separates them from society, and stigmatizes them as a ‘problem’ for the city and the country. They are therefore segregated. The solution of ‘mass containment’ of migrants has all the appearance of a race-based policy.
Consequently, only five per cent of Germans have ever been acquainted with a refugee and, according to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, one in two Germans distrusts refugees. Yet most Germans are unaware of the reality of the lives of these ‘outsiders’ – and know even less of their destinies.
The majority of asylum-seeking migrants who end up in Berlin are, in fact, being trapped in the asylum system without the chance to move on and live a normal life where they can explore the opportunities for employment and education. Due to the increasingly strict asylum law introduced by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), only a minority, usually those with skills and a profession in demand within the country’s labour market are to be granted asylum. Those who do not fit the requirements are unwanted and will be sent out of the country straight away. In October 2016, interior minister Thomas de Maizière proposed that refugees should be separated into two categories, those who come from a ‘safe’ country and those who do not; the former would be fast-tracked for immediate deportation. This arbitrary categorization puts many at risk of human rights abuses when they are returned to the countries from which they fled. Even those granted asylum would face a lengthy wait to be reunited with their families: earlier in 2016, the German parliament passed laws establishing that asylum-seekers who are victims of the Syrian war but not ‘personally persecuted’ have to wait two years before they can apply to bring their families to Europe.
Isolated from the rest of the city, residents in shelters and containers have no-one to turn to but the staff, who may not always be helpful. The consequences of the inadequate reception system are serious. Many migrants had fled from conflicts, wars, persecution and abject poverty before reaching Germany. Assistance such as therapy is not available and the lack of care and degrading treatment they had already suffered and tried to escape from was repeated in the receiving country. This often deals a severe blow to an individual’s mental health. Between 40 and 50 per cent of the asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany during 2015 are now psychologically ill and suffer from various conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Around one in five asylum-seeking children suffers from PTSD. But in autumn 2015 the federal chamber of psychotherapists revealed that few have received psycho-therapeutic treatment.
To protect the wellbeing of migrants, the Refugee Council in Berlin has pushed for an immediate end to policies that require asylum-seekers to live in shelters while their applications are being processed. It argues that much of the city’s social housing is standing empty and that there are around 7,000 unoccupied flats in Berlin − a fact ignored by the politicians. The Council believes that private housing in the community is the best way for migrants to integrate.
Frustration and anger with conditions in the mass shelters have led to several protests. In Berlin, dozens of young Iraqi and Syrian migrants protested in front of the Jahn sports hall on the Columbiadamm in July 2016. There have also been several hunger strikes in Berlin’s shelters.
This article is an extract from Hsiao-Hung Pai’s new book ‘Bordered Lives – How Europe fails refugees and migrants’, (New Internationalist 2018). Available here for £9.99.