Germany's capital has approved plans to build new refugee homes as coronavirus and housing shortage bite. Some refugee homes are struggling to maintain hygiene guidelines.
A total of 38 new accommodations, made of prefabricated concrete blocks and guaranteed to last 80 years, are to be built over the next few years. Eight of these, with a total capacity of around 2,000, are expected to be completed by next summer.
Elke Breitenbach, Berlin's minister for Integration, Labor, and Social Affairs, said the new buildings were necessary for a variety of reasons: Some were needed to replace the so-called tempo-homes — essentially pre-made living containers meant to be used for a maximum of three years, and which were installed on empty land around Berlin at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016.
"There are many examples where we have to give up refugee homes, which is why we need new ones," Breitenbach told DW.
Fewer refugees, more shortages
The plans, she added, are made according to the expected number of new arrivals. That figure has continually fallen in the last few years in Berlin, as in the rest of Germany. According to official statistics, Berlin registered 6,316 new asylum seekers in 2019, down from 7,260 the year before, while the first four months of 2020 have seen 1,575 new arrivals.
That is of course very different from 2015, when some 55,000 arrived in Berlin, and local districts were forced to redeploy school gyms to house everyone. Now the situation is regulated, and Germany's distribution system mandates that Berlin state takes in around 5% of Germany's new arrivals every year.
The new buildings will at least allow some families a little privacy, as many include units with individual bathrooms. Nora Brezger, the spokesperson for the Berlin Refugee Council, said privacy had always been in preciously short supply for refugees who need protection from sexual violence as well as disease. "We are actually against shelters - we want flats for all. But if we have to have shelters, then at least they should be with apartment structures so that every family has a separate bathroom," she told DW. "This is more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic."
Last week Berlin authorities said that 25 residents, out of a total of 407, had tested positive for the coronavirus at a refugee home in the Buch district of the city. Ten of the infected, as well as 55 of their contacts, had to be moved into a separate residence to quarantine. The ministry said that employees and security personnel were going to be tested this week. But, the ministry said in a statement, "A further, or permanent distribution by moving further residents out is not possible because of a lack of social space and a lack of connecting spaces in the district."
Asylum accepted, but nowhere to live
Berlin is also facing a problem because more than half of the people living in these homes have had their asylum applications accepted — which means they have the right to stay and work in Germany for up to three years but are no longer supposed to live in refugee homes.
But the market for affordable housing is chronically tight in the capital, and if refugees don't have work, they are competing for apartments with a lot of other people. "You have the students, you have the single mothers, you have all the Germans who depend on benefits," said Brezger. "The refugees are last on the list, because of language skills, because of prejudices of house owners, because many have more than two kids, and landlords don't want too many kids. Even if you find a home, normally others are preferred."
Above all, of course, refugees are competing with permanent residents, i.e. people who know they are allowed to stay in the country for more than a year.
So unless the refugees stay in the homes, "they'd be on the street," Breitenbach sums up the situation.
For Brezger, the problem of where to house refugees points to a larger issue: "We always say: If you can build shelters, why don't you build affordable flats for all? For refugees, for Germans, for Europeans, for everybody," said Brezger.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is much worse elsewhere in Europe, and the Berlin government — a coalition of the center-left Social Democrats, the Greens, and the socialist Left party — is also planning to take in extra refugees from the chronically overcrowded camps on Lesbos and other Greek islands.
"We think that is part of humanitarian refugee policy," said Breitenbach. "We want Europe, and Germany of course, to accept its responsibility." To that purpose, some temporary container accommodations are being re-opened while the new accommodation is being built," the minister said.
But it's uncertain how many, or even whether, refugees will actually be brought from the Greek islands to Germany. Angela Merkel's conservative government has so far resisted the measure, and whether German states can do so unilaterally is a legal headache.