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Elegant refuge

Gabriel Borrud, CologneSeptember 19, 2014

Rarely does one need "stars" to rate the amenities awaiting refugees, but exceptions are being made in Cologne. The city is looking to turn a luxury hotel into a refugee asylum.

Bonotel Köln als Hotel für Flüchtlinge
Image: DW/G. Borrud

The Bonotel has seen better days. This four-star establishment, which proudly calls itself Cologne's elegant hotel residence," is still lavish, but it's easy to tell from the lack of motion in the lobby that something's just not right.

Back in the day, in the 80s and 90s, the Bonotel was a place of prominence. When in Cologne, international stars stayed here: Bud Spencer, Larry Hagman, Diego Maradona have all enjoyed a drink at the hotel's "Piano Lounge."

With the bar now all but empty, leaseholder and manager Andreas Degen looks back at those times with nostalgia. His hotel will soon be a thing of the past, as the property on which it stands is now up for auction. The city of Cologne was the highest bidder, at 5.8 million euros ($7.5 million), and it wants to turn the Bonotel into a refugee asylum.

Bonotel Köln als Hotel für Flüchtlinge Andreas Degen
Andreas Degen wants to sue the city over its plans for the hotelImage: DW/G. Borrud

"I've put my heart and soul into this place," Degen, who started here as an intern almost 20 years ago, told DW. "I've given it everything I could. That it would become a place to house asylum seekers? I had other ideas in mind."

Degen repeatedly stressed that he understood the city's plight, and that he had nothing against refugees, but he also expressed objection to the idea of his staff losing their jobs and his 93-room hotel no longer being a hotel.

Bonotel Köln als Hotel für Flüchtlinge Wellness Bereich
It's unclear whether the spa and whirlpool will remain for the refugees when the building reopens in 2015Image: DW/G. Borrud

Struggle for space, against time

Cologne's plans for the Bonotel, which will house up to 200 refugees when renovations are done before the end of 2015, bear witness to the difficulties faced by German cities at the moment in their bid to provide housing for political refugees.

Cologne is currently housing around 4,000 refugees. According to the city, this should not be possible, as it has the capacity for no more than 3,500 asylum seekers. "We are dealing with a situation we have never seen before," said city spokesman Gregor Timmer, adding that this accounted for the decision to take measures such as the purchase of the Bonotel.

"There are plans for new housing containers," he told DW, "and for the construction of new buildings, but these things take a considerable amount of time before housing can be offered."

In 2013, Cologne spent over 35 million euros ($45 million) on providing housing and other assistance to asylum seekers. State Interior Ministry prognoses suggest - with the civil war ongoing in Syria, and the extremist onslaught taking place in Syria and northern Iraq - that amount could almost double in 2014.

Worrying for business, residents

At the Bonotel, it's not only the owner or employees who are concerned about the city's plans. The owner of a bookshop located right next door said he was very "critical" of the proposed move.

Bonotel Köln als Hotel für Flüchtlinge Gerold Dreier
Gerold Dreier is skeptical that any of the refugees will buy books at his storeImage: DW/G. Borrud

"I am a bit worried," said Gerold Dreier, behind two stacks of manuscripts at least 10 deep on his desk.

"First off, a lot of my customers stay at the hotel. They are often looking for presents and are glad to stop by. Secondly, I can only assume that many of my customers who live here would be turned away if so many foreigners were hanging around outside," Dreier said.

The street on which the hotel is located has seen better days itself. Once a thriving place for business, the Bonner Straße has lost much of its appeal. Most shops have quite simply given up.

Bonotel Köln als Hotel für Flüchtlinge Wellness Bereich
Apart from the hotel and the bookstore, there isn't much action on the Bonner Straße...Image: DW/G. Borrud

An elderly woman pulling her groceries with a suitcase trolley walks by, and when asked about the plans for the refugee asylum, shakes her head in a kind of bewilderment. "Bombastic. What's next? I don't understand anything around here anymore."

Two middle-aged men smoking cigarettes outside an office building just down the street laughed at the idea. "I hadn't heard that one yet," one of them said, asking if the city's proposal was for real. "For six million? Couldn't they have done more for refugees with that money?"

To that precise question, incidentally, Cologne's spokesman replied: "No, at the moment, not really."