Many local governments in Germany are struggling to house the growing numbers of refugees. One conservative politician is now calling on private homeowners to take in asylum seekers.
A family - a father, pregnant mother, and child - live together in a 10-square-meter (107-square-foot) room. They share the bathroom and kitchen with 20 other people. They have just fled the northern Caucasus with the birth of their second child imminent.
"It made my hair stand on end," said Hans-Jürgen Bennecke, who decided to take the family in himself. Bennecke spoke to the local authorities, signed a rental agreement and the family moved into the 70-year-old's house.
They stayed there for seven months. "It was a great time," he said. "It was a time that widened my cultural horizons a lot." Bennecke is a bachelor and has been involved in helping refugees in his community - near the town of Lüneburg, northern Germany - for four years. "People who live alone like me, I recommend they take in asylum seekers. You can complement each other very well." The family father from the north Caucasus helped the 70-year-old with physical work, while Bennecke accompanied the family to the refugee offices, and helped them learn German.
After several months, the family decided to return home, despite the danger of political persecution. "They realized that the obstacles that they would have had to overcome in Germany meant they would have taken a long time to until they could lead a normal life," said Bennecke.
Martin Patzelt, politician for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, has already taken in a number of people in his home. Now, in an open letter published on his website, he has called on other people to think about taking in refugees in their own homes. The conditions in group shelters are often particularly unpleasant for women, and sometimes completely intolerable, he wrote.
The call was a surprise because group shelters are normal in the German states where Patzelt's party governs. In Germany, each of the 16 states can decide for itself how to deal with asylum seekers. That means that in some states, like Rhineland Palatinate, a relatively large number of asylum seekers live in decentralized apartments (92 percent), while in Saxony only 29 percent of asylum seekers live in homes, and are put into communal housing. These are often outside towns and poorly equipped. Exactly how many live in private homes nationally is not known.
Forbidden in some states
Meanwhile, some states, like North Rhine-Westphalia, do not allow asylum seekers to find homes with private people, only allowing it in special instances, and then only if they are related to the people offering their homes. "That rarely happens," the Duisburg city council wrote to DW.
But for large, relatively poor towns like Duisburg, it may make economic sense to house asylum seekers with private people. Duisburg recently made headlines - and garnered criticism - because authorities set up tents for refugees.
"Tents symbolize emergencies and disasters," said the head of Pro Asyl Günter Burkhardt. "Tent cities send an intolerable signal."
In response to the condemnation, the city has not yet housed anyone in the tents, but the incident showed that many local governments are looking for other alternatives. Burkhardt said for this reason, Patzelt's suggestion shouldn't be ignored. But "Pro Asyl calls on cities and states to provide more living space." Up until now, the system is based on deterrence and not integration, he added.
Jürgen Neuwirth lives in a shared flat in southern Germany. Since one of his roommates is not at home during the summer vacation, he allowed an asylum-seeker friend of his from Iran to stay in her room. All of the Iranian's friends live in town, but he was housed an expensive 45-minute train ride away, Neuwirth explained.
Neuwirth said he likes living with the Iranian, though he has to make compromises, as living together always does. "You just have to know what you're letting yourself in for," said Neuwirth, who also welcomed Patzelt's suggestion, though he fears that some people may financially exploit the refugees.
In an interview with the "taz" newspaper, Patzelt announced he would be discussing his proposal with other parliamentarians. Should it be taken up, it might make the job easier for Antonia Kreul, of a refugee help center in North Rhine-Westphalia. "I often get calls from people who would like to take someone in. It's very sad when I have to tell that's impossible."