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Germany struggles to house refugees

July 24, 2023

While the number of refugees coming to Germany is rising, many of those who arrived years ago still have not found their own accommodation. They still live in preliminary housing.

A helper and a refugee outside overgrown accomodation containers in Aachen
In many German towns, makeshift accomodation houses refugees for many yearsImage: Sabine Kinkartz/DW

The calls for help keep coming from municipalities that are running out of room to take in asylum seekers and war refugees from Ukraine. The latest example: the Fulda district in the central German state of Hesse. Towns and municipalities are "at the absolute limit of their capacity" to accommodate people "at least halfway humanely," reads a letter from the county council to the state and federal governments, which a large majority of local lawmakers endorsed in mid-July.

"We need to limit the number of people arriving," said District Administrator Bernd Woide, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "It is not only that there is a lack of accommodation options — services are also stretched in childcare, in schools, medical treatment in many other areas."

If I come to Germany as a refugee, what can I expect?

300,000 asylum seekers expected in 2023

While only a few Ukrainians are now coming to Germany, the number of people seeking asylum is increasing. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) counted more than 162,000 applications for asylum from January to June this year. Most of the people had come from Syria (about 44,000), followed by Afghanistan (about 28,000) and Turkey (about 19,000). About 20,000 people who fled countries in Africa have applied for asylum in Germany.

According to Boris Kühn from the Research and Transfer Office for Migration Policy at the University of Hildesheim, Germany can expect about 300,000 asylum seekers in 2023.

When people arrive in Germany seeking refuge, they are distributed throughout the country and must remain in that location while their applications are processed. The problem: Most of the accommodation facilities are heavily occupied much of the time; often there is simply no more space.

There is a 'moving out crisis'

Migration researcher Boris Kühn, along with Julian Schlicht, who is the refugee assistance coordinator for the southern German city of Tübingen, have found an explanation via an investigation of refugees' living arrangements. There is a "moving out crisis." Currently, 25% of the people who came to Germany during the influx of refugees and migrants in 2015/2016 are still living in refugee shelters.

Shrinking cities make room for refugees

There is something of a traffic jam in the system. Especially in areas where the housing market is tight, it is difficult for recognized refugees to find their own apartments. The flow-on effect is that newly arrived asylum often must stay in reception centers for several weeks, instead of a few days. These reception centers also have capacity limits.

There are certainly regional differences. Kühn and Schlicht observed that the cities and municipalities which are most under pressure now are the ones that disestablished staff positions in areas of integration or refugee social work, as well as structures such as networks or roundtable meetings in the years after the 2015/2016 influx. In places where these initiatives and positions were instead developed further, the authorities are better placed to handle the renewed challenge which began in 2022.

Much of this is a question of political will, as well as political prioritization. "Accommodating refugees is mandatory, but there is room left to maneuver in the framework of local self-government when it comes to how that is implemented," the study noted.

Challenged, but not overwhelmed

"It is actually quite sobering," the authors wrote. "A period of calm is followed — for the second time now in the space of a few years — by the hectic construction of emergency shelters, urgent appeals from the administration and finally a discourse of overload."

Düsseldorf is among the cities which have fared better. Within a brief time in 2022, 10,000 war refugees from Ukraine arrived in the North Rhine-Westphalia state capital. "That was as many refugees as the years 2015/2016 combined," said Miriam Koch, a deputy for culture and integration. "Despite this, we were not overwhelmed, but rather simply challenged."

In Düsseldorf, the city authorities proactively seek rental accommodation for recognized refugees. That also includes convincing private landlords to accept refugees as tenants — something which is often difficult. Koch tells of landlords who only wanted to take in Ukrainian women and children. In many cases, a lot of persuading was necessary to "allay the fears and worries" of the landlords, as Koch put it, and concepts such as trial periods had to be offered.

EU migration policy remains unresolved

In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, several cities have banded together to find accommodation. Some local authorities pay renovation allowances to make vacant properties usable, while others offer landlords guarantees on their rent or sign the rental agreement for the first couple of years, with the goal that the tenants take it over after that.

Miriam Koch from Düsseldorf would like it if all refugees — and not only Ukrainians — could also be accommodated privately. There are many migrants in Germany who would be prepared to take in relatives, friends, or acquaintances, who had fled their countries or origin.

In the meantime, an increasing number of local authorities are asking to only be sent refugees who have a prospect of staying in Germany. 

According to asylum statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, about 133,000 applications for asylum were processed and decided upon in the first half of 2023. Of these, 48% were rejected for content-related or technical reasons. Only every second applicant had prospects of remaining in Germany.

This article was originally written in German.

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