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Germany

Making amends in a German refugee shelter

An asylum seeker lying in vomit has his head pinned down by a guard's boots: that image from a refugee center in the German town of Burbach sent shockwaves throughout the country. Fortunately, much has changed.

Going through the shelter's entrance, it is clear that things have changed in the western German town of Burbach. The German Red Cross now runs the refugee home, not the private contractor European Homecare. That is what is written on a large sign at the gate, which is opened by a guard who works for a private security company.

"They are all now thoroughly scrutinized, even by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution [Germany's domestic intelligence service], especially to make sure there are not criminals or right-wing extremists, as was the case before," said Hubert Multhaup, the institution's new director.

Multhaup was a retiree when the district council of the nearby town of Arnsberg asked him to manage the shelter. "Now I have the best job I can imagine," he said with satisfaction and with a big smile on his face.

Dream job running a shelter?

But it's not an easy job. Last September, the reputation of the former army barracks and the country's refugee policy was ruined when people there were humiliated, beaten and abused - systematically and over a long period of time - in a hopelessly overcrowded refugee center.

Gewalt auf Flüchtlinge

Guards abused asylum-seekers at shelters in Germany

Security guards took the migrants to a part of the premises called the "problem room" where the refugees were imprisoned, beaten and robbed. Almost 800 people were housed there under deplorable hygienic conditions. No one was interested in taking a closer look at the situation - neither local authorities nor politicians, as investigations have revealed. The whole country was shocked when the incidents became known.

"I cannot fathom the idea that something like that is possible in Germany," Multhaup said. "I was shocked."

Beatings and cruelty were common

Refugees who have come here now says they are just glad to be safe. "I cannot imagine people here were abused. We felt welcomed here," said a woman from Syria who requested anonymity out of fears for the lives of her husband and one of her sons, who are still in Syria. She fled from Damascus with a son and daughter.

"We had to paid the smugglers 8,000 euros per person; we had to sell our house," she said. They escaped the war and poverty and said they are happy to be safe. Their only complaint is about the forever filthy toilets in the shelter.

But now anything broken gets repaired. You can hear the sounds of hammers and drills throughout the long, dark corridors in the former army barracks. Bathrooms are being renovated; noise insulation and fire safety measures are being installed. A maximum of 500 refugees are accepted here now.

Asylbewerberheim Burbach Hubert Multhaup

Multhaup - like the rest of Germany - was shocked when the abuse was made public

More funds have suddenly become available since last year's catastrophe. The regional government realized that it cannot go on this way and found more money for Burbach - and the whole region - to improve refugees' living conditions. Authorities have also made adjustments.

"Supervising authorities send unannounced inspectors to the shelter. They even come on Sunday. So warning signs have been heeded," Multhaup said.

In a well-equipped kindergarten, children from all over the world play, paint and do crafts together. "Most of them here come from Kosovo, although their chances of being granted refugee status are slim," Multhaup said, adding that people from Syria are more likely to be recognized as refugees.

Investigations continue

Asylbewerberheim Burbach

Members of a Syrian family said they're happy to be in Germany

Legal authorities are still processing the scandal. The public prosecutor's office in the neighboring city of Siegen and the police in nearby Hagen are probing into past incidents. The allegations include illegal restraint, assault and battery. More than 10 officials are involved in the investigations.

In the beginning only six security guards were questioned. Some of them had criminal records and were right-wing extremists. Public prosecutor Johannes Daheim told DW it was obvious that more people were implicated in the case. Investigations are continuing and now more than 50 suspects have been listed.

"They are security service employees, social workers, people from the contractor European Homecare and two employees from the Regional Council in Arnsberg," Daheim said, adding that he has been surprised by the magnitude of the case.

The center's director is aware of the investigation and has adopted an open approach to resolve issues

His strategy: be open and work to resolve remaining issues. It seems to be working for the most part in Burbach.

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