Close Quarters Asylum Shelters in Germany Struggle with Violence
There has been a rising number of violent incidents in German refugee hostels in recent weeks and concern is growing among officials. But some communities are finding creative ways to make life more tolerable in the asylum homes.
Two men are waiting for their lunch inside a drafty airport hangar -- one is an 80-year-old from Pakistan, the other an 18-year-old Albanian. A throng of people are waiting and the line can take up to an hour, but the young man has run out of patience. He climbs over the barrier and pushes forward, gets his food and then sits down at a table. A short time later, the elderly man addresses him angrily.
A dispute that began banally enough on Sunday, Sept. 27, ended in a mass brawl after the young Albanian hit the old man in the face. A security guard intervened and was able to pull the two apart, but three hours later, 50 to 60 Pakistanis stormed into the hangar and threatened the young Albanian with aluminum rods they had taken from their cots. The police moved in and were initially able to restore peace. Come dinner time, though, 300 angry Albanians had turned up. Some attacked the Pakistanis, benches were thrown, men struck each other with clubs and used pepper spray.
Police estimate that more than 350 of the 1,500 refugees staying in the emergency shelter at the Calden Airport near the city of Kassel became involved in the fight. The incident resulted in 14 injuries, including police officers. Two weeks prior, another altercation at Calden left 60 people injured.
There have been other violent outbreaks at hostels in Ellwangen in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Suhl in Thuringia, Bramsche in Lower Saxony, Trier in Rhineland-Palatinate, Heidenau in Saxony, as well as in Dresden and Leipzig. Indeed, an explosive mood is developing in many of the refugee camps across Germany, most of which have become overcrowded. Police situation reports from across the country describe a growing propensity to violence in the hostels.
In one refugee hostel in the town of Königsbrunn in Bavaria, police claim to have found machetes constructed using bed frames -- "two approximately one-meter-long (three-foot-long) pipes with knives attached to them," as well as a "chair leg whose tip had been shaped into a club and four iron pipes, each about one meter in length."
At the beginning of September, inside a trade fair exhibition hall that had been converted into a refugee hostel in the town of Sinsheim in Baden-Württemberg, 200 to 300 asylum-seekers began fighting. A police report notes that security guards were so frightened after a man accused of participating in the brawl pulled a knife on them that they fled the scene.
In August alone, police in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia were dispatched 926 times to refugee accommodations -- far more frequently than in previous months. Often they are responding to reports of bodily injury, but other times it's as simple as someone having pulled the fire alarm. Rainer Wendt, the head of DPolG, Germany's second-largest police union, says that officials are "facing the greatest challenge in postwar history."
'Violence Is Unacceptable'
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has also expressed concern over the recent violence. Given the fact that almost all hostels are overcrowded, he said last Friday, "I can understand criticism of the lodgings. But (violence) is unacceptable." He was careful to note that those engaged in such fisticuffs are "a minority," but also stated that Germany expects asylum-seekers here to also live up to a certain code of conduct.
Germany's competing police officers' unions are now calling for refugees to be separated and housed according to their religion. It's a proposal Thuringia Governor Bodo Ramelow had already made in August after the offices of a refugee reception center in the town of Suhl had been severely vandalized. Six government workers and 11 refugees were injured in the altercation.
But experts like Roger Lewentz, the interior minister of Rhineland-Palatinate and a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), say that dividing asylum-seekers based on confession or ethnicity is "nearly impossible" in practice. Every day, hundreds of new arrivals are showing up at the initial reception centers in the state. Officials in the state capital of Mainz say they are having a tough enough time as it is just ensuring people have access to beds and roofs over their heads. "We really need to get away from this kind of overcrowding," says Dieter Lauinger, the justice and migration minister for the state of Thuringia with the Green Party.
Just how dramatic the situation has become can be seen in Berlin where, each morning, hundreds of refugees surge inside the State Office for Health and Social Affairs immediately after its doors are opened as they seek the best spot in the long lines. At times, pushing and shoving can be the order of the day.
Efforts to contain the chaos through crowd barriers and additional security personnel have all failed. Asylum-seekers are supposed to wait in specific lines based on their particular issues, but nobody is respecting the queues. People have simply been making their way to the front of whatever line they can find and then refuse to move to the appropriate line once they find it is the wrong one. It took hours and many interpreters in order to ease the impasse after one recent incident.
'Tension and Aggression in the Air'
Despite working 12-hour shifts, employees at the state office say they have been unable to get on top of the situation. "There is a lot of tension and aggression in the air," says one worker.
Hall 4 at the Leipzig Trade Fair complex is 144 meters long (472 feet), 144 meters wide and eight meters tall, a uniform block for parties, company events, presentations and conferences. Since the beginning of September, it has been home to refugees. Initially, 700 refugees were supposed to take up residence in the "temporary accommodations." By the time the situation here spun out of control last Thursday, some 1,800 were calling it home.
Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis are living in the facility, a mix of cultures painstakingly spread out into 200 cabins covered in a makeshift manner with sheets. Workers with the local chapter of the Red Cross thought they had the situation under control, but then 200 Syrians and Afghans began fighting with each other.
Police reported the brawl was triggered when a 17-year-old Afghan boy threatened an 11-year-old girl from Syria with a knife. The girl sought protection from her uncle, who then took the boy to task. The events triggered an explosion of anger and violence. Security guards and members of the German military also got attacked in the outburst. Police took six Afghans into custody as a result of the altercation.
Following day after day of monotony and emptiness with nothing meaningful to do, and restless nights in overcrowded tents or halls, it often doesn't take much to trigger a full-fledged conflict. Aid workers report that the disputes are often triggered banal, daily realities like the shared use of toilets and showers. Most often, they are the product of people having to wait in long lines for food. In one reception center in the city of Trier, though, all it took to spark a fight was for a team of Syrian refugees to score a goal against a team from Albania during a football game in July. It took 70 police officers to stop the mass brawl that ensued.
One possible solution to this kind of cabin fever could be smaller, more decentralized refugee accommodations. The town of Elchingen in Bavaria, for example, hasn't experienced any of these problems with its refugees. Things have remained relatively peaceful. The town is home to 9,000 residents as well as 80 asylum-seekers from different countries. They are comprised largely of young men and they are spread out among two large buildings. The fact that the refugees here are managing to live together as well as they are is in part due to the intensive efforts of volunteers here. Local helpers take asylum-seekers out on excursions, during which they listen to the concerns they have. "That eliminates a lot of the tension," says local Mayor Joachim Eisenkolb.
In addition, the community has engaged a Syrian student who speaks several Arabic dialects. Together with a volunteer, he visits the hostels every Sunday to hear their concerns. That method meant that conflicts were discussed before they became acute, the mayor says. Most of the time, he adds, the sources of conflict were relatively banal -- for example that someone never cleaned up the kitchen. "The magic formula is proactive help," says Eisenkolb. "The people aren't going to come to us of their own accord."
More Violence Coming?
Such strategies can also work on a larger scale. In the gymnasium at the University of Siegen, around 200 refugees from around 13 different ethnicities have found shelter, including Iraqis, Pakistanis, Albanians and Kosovars. "Thus far, everything has gone well," says Rector Holger Burckhart. He says there are clear reasons for the success: "There are contact persons for each group, either from among the refugees themselves or from the 80-person interpreter pool assembled by the student body."
Burckhardt believes that separating the refugees according to religion or nationality is the wrong way to go. You just have to treat them with respect and give them something to do, he says. "If you just cram them together and make them wait for months on end, it shouldn't come as a surprise if something happens."
Experts believe that there could be more violence in the coming months. One reason is the sheer number of arrivals. September saw a record number of refugees reaching Germany and reception facilities have had a hard time erecting tents and cots fast enough. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, of Merkel's Christian Democrats, said last week that between 8,000 and 10,000 refugees were arriving in Germany every day. But another reason is the decision by Merkel's cabinet last Tuesday to allow refugees to remain in reception facilities for six months instead of three months, as had been the practice to that point. Furthermore, asylum-seekers from the Western Balkans, like those from Albania and Kosovo, are to be kept at such facilities for the duration of their application proceedings and not distributed among more permanent facilities in the municipalities.
Sexual Assault Concerns
"That results in the reception facilities becoming even fuller and the pressure even greater," says Marei Pelzer of the human rights organization Pro Asyl. The potential for aggressive behavior, she says, grows when refugees begin to realize that such reception facilities are the end of the road for their asylum hopes. In Calden, for example, some of those involved in the brawl had just learned that they wouldn't be allowed to stay," says a woman who works in the cafeteria. "They were, of course, correspondingly excitable."
An additional problem has been the apparently growing number of sexual assaults targeting women and children in the refugee shelters. The number of attacks is constantly climbing, according to the federal government's commissioner for abuse, Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig. The perpetrators, he says, aren't just male migrants, but also guards and volunteers.
As early as mid-August, aid groups were reporting "numerous rapes" in the reception facility in Giessen, in the state of Hesse. Since then, such reports have accumulated across the country. Single women no longer feel safe showering or going to the toilet at night, according to the reports. Hesse Interior Minister Peter Beuth has confirmed that police are aware of four sexual assaults in the Giessen camp and added that the number in Hesse is "in the area of the low double digits."
Rörig, though, says the number of unreported cases is likely enormously high. "We are in an extremely critical situation," he says, adding that he has demanded that organizational improvements quickly be made in the hostels, including the implementation of minimal standards like contact persons for possible victims, lockable toilet stalls, separate shower facilities for men and women and safe places for children.
Counteracting the Best Intentions
Rörig has sent letters to all state and federal ministries as well as to the Chancellery, but thus far to no avail. He is now demanding that the German parliament make improvements to the changes Merkel's cabinet recently made to Germany's asylum laws. He wants to see refugee hostels forced to adhere to existing licensing requirements for facilities that work with children. It is wrong, he believes, to allow a situation where refugee children live according to laxer standards than other children in the country. "Children's well-being must have priority," Rörig says.
Officials are doing "all they can," says Hesse Interior Minister Beuth. They are trying to ensure that solitary women, and mothers with children, be given separate lodgings. But the huge number of refugees, he says, sometimes counteracts the best intentions.
The situation is particularly challenging for those suffering from war-related trauma or those who belonged to an oppressed minority back home. People like 23-year-old Rami, for example, who no longer wants to keep his homosexuality a secret. On his journey from the Syrian town of Daraa to Germany, he bought himself a rainbow armband, which he proudly wears around his wrist. In Europe, Rami thought, homosexuals are free and safe.
But then he ended up in a tent city in Dresden, a temporary camp for up to 1,100 refugees in an industrial area near the Elbe River. Up to 30 men are forced to share a tent, sleeping on cots set up frame-to-frame. Before long, Rami says, other asylum-seekers began harassing him -- Arabs, Afghans and Pakistanis. They called him "girl" and told him to "dance for us." Once, as he was waiting for food, he was bombarded by rocks. Another time, the young Syrian claims, he was chased through the camp.
Rami was lucky. Aid workers were able to find him a spot in a shared apartment. Not long ago, he moved into a small, two-room apartment in the center of Dresden with three other gay refugees.
By Matthias Bartsch, Markus Deggerich, Horand Knaup, Ann-Katrin Müller, Conny Neumann, Barbara Schmid, Fidelius Schmid, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Steffen Winter