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"Creative" housing solutions for refugees

Dagmar BreitenbachJanuary 21, 2016

Cities and towns in Germany grapple with finding adequate housing for refugees - sometimes with extremely bizarre results. Once again, within just a few weeks, Cologne is the brunt of bad press.

Deutschland Köln Longerich - geplantes Flüchtlingsheim
Image: DW/F. Borchert

Tents, tennis bubbles, container villages, hotels, army barracks, school gyms, vacant office buildings and empty warehouses: desperate municipalities face the huge challenge of providing accommodation for asylum-seekers, be it for a transition period or a longer stay.

The city of Berlin wants to build new shelters on parts of its iconic, disused Tempelhof airport - once the city's lifeline during the 1948/1949 Berlin Blockade.

A year ago, the western town of Schwerte planned to set up refugees on the grounds of a former Nazi forced labor camp.

Cologne, however, takes the cake these days: The city plans to build refugee housing on the premises of a cemetery.

Local residents and politicians are aghast and construction work aimed at erecting container housing for 68 refugees in the northern residential neighborhood of Longerich, was temporarily put on hold on Wednesday.

Appalled neighbors

"A refugee shelter in a cemetery - that is totally in bad taste, both for us locals and for the asylum-seekers," local media on Thursday quoted a Longerich resident. The man said he lived right next door to the cemetery and that the neighborhood wasn't informed about the project in advance.

An elderly woman said: "I don't feel safe anymore. A cemetery is a sacred place. This is absolutely out of the question."

A cemetery is a 'sacred place' and not to be used for refugee housing, locals say
A cemetery is a 'sacred place' and not to be used for refugee housing, locals sayImage: DW/F. Borchert

The choice of venue shows how desperate the city of Cologne is.

Germany uses what is known as the "Königsteiner Schlüssel," an allocation key based on population and tax income to determine the distribution of asylum seekers across the 16 federal states. The states, in turn, distribute the asylum-seekers to the cities and towns, while federal, state and local governments share the costs of housing and services.

Municipalities overwhelmed

Adequate housing for more than a million refugees who entered Germany last year is and remains to be a problem nationwide. It's particularly difficult in Germany's most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia.

Often enough, municipalities are told just a day or two in advance that they will be accommodating hundreds of refugees - so creative solutions are called for, and fast.

In response to criticism from residents and local politicians, Gabriele Klug, Cologne's treasurer and currently responsible for accommodating refugees, temporarily stopped the excavators at the site. She met with local politicians on Thursday to clarify and discuss the plans - a move previously neglected.

The city currently houses more than 10,600 asylum-seekers, a Cologne press spokeswoman told DW, adding that a staggering 5,000 came to the city last year alone. The cemetery plot was chosen as an emergency measure, she added: "We're under enormous pressure to accommodate refugees."

"I don't see the problem," argued Manfred Kaune, head of the office responsible for the cities cemeteries. "The plot of land has never been used for burials, and we won't use it in future, either." The refugees would not access the shelter by way of the main cemetery entrance, Kaunhe said, adding that their section would be shielded by trees and bushes, and soon, a fence.