Photo Gallery: Decrepit Refugee Hostels

Foto: Hagen Police Department via Getty Images

Systemic Shame Germany's Woeful Asylum Infrastructure

Horrific images from a German asylum home have recently focused attention on the country's broken system for sheltering refugees. Political failures and climbing numbers have resulted in chaos -- and even the use of right-wing extremists as guards.

On a recent Thursday evening, in a refugee shelter in Bielefeld, facility manager Jürgen Beier stood in the entrance hall surrounded by people pulling wheeled suitcases, carrying plastic bags and clutching slips of paper in their hands. The scene was chaotic -- and indicated to Beier that one of the day's two planned events had taken place: The bus from Giessen had arrived with an additional 27 refugees  that he had to find beds for.

The other event was supposed to be city hall's approval of a building permit. But that agenda item didn't come to pass, meaning that the construction machinery parked in front of the shelter would remain idle that day and the next. The foundation for the planned expansion, which would provide an additional 200 beds, will have to wait even though Beier badly needs the extra capacity. And the situation isn't likely to change anytime soon, with buses full of refugees arriving at his facility on a regular basis.

Bielefeld is far from unique. Chaos, stopgap measures and insufficient capacity has become the norm in Germany. 200,000 refugees will have arrived in the country by the end of the year and newcomers are shunted back and forth between rooms or sent off to different homes in the desperate attempt to ensure that they at least have a mattress to sleep on. It is a grim choreography that has been ongoing for months -- one that everyone thought would ultimately be solved by national, state and local politicians.

But then came the photo of a shelter in Burbach, a town in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It depicts a guard in black standing with one foot on the head of a refugee who lies on the floor, his hands bound behind his back. Even worse, the guard, one of a handful from the facility that is now under investigation, may have a right-extremist background. Furthermore, it quickly became apparent that the incident was by no means isolated and that abuse at the facility was commonplace.

The photo made waves across the country. It is one of those images that has the power to change public perception  -- and could be the image that finally makes people pay attention to the situation of asylum seekers in Germany  and to the conditions in shelters operated by private companies hired by the state. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière immediately visited a refugee home in Munich and called the incident in Burbach "disconcerting and depressing." Ralf Jäger, the state interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, rapidly assembled a task force and announced a plan to have state security personnel run background checks on all refugee shelter guards in the future. "I would like to personally apologize to the victims," Jäger said.

'Reacted Too Late'

But Jäger didn't say exactly what he was personally apologizing for. Was it for the lack of state oversight? That seems unlikely given his other statement that the incident in Burbach was an isolated case. He said nothing about a systemic failure -- despite considerable evidence that the abuse, so graphically illustrated by the photo, was far from singular.

The causes of the problem go back to well before 2010, to a time when Germany was only accepting a few tens of thousands of refugees each year. Shelter capacities were strictly capped in order to save money. Bielefeld at the time cancelled its contract for the shelter that Beier now leads and the building's owners initially intended to transform it into an office building. Later plans called for it to be razed to make way for a parking garage. Neither idea panned out.

When the stream of refugees coming to Germany began to swell again in 2010, state interior ministers long sought to portray the situation as temporary -- one that didn't require an increased capacity. "We all reacted too late," said a spokesperson from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees recently.

Now, several crises across the globe are forcing the agency to quickly make up for lost time. After years of dawdling, facilities must now be built in double time -- and additional personnel must rapidly be found. Most, of course, are well suited to the job, but the urgent need means that thugs are also finding themselves in sudden positions of power.

The same is true for the private companies that operate the homes: Most have a conscience, but some are clearly only interested in squeezing as much profit out of their facilities as they possibly can. The fact that Germany lacks uniform, nationwide standards for asylum-seeker housing only worsens the situation.

"The refugees are the victims of a lottery," says Bernd Mesovic from the refugee rights organization Pro Asyl. And many lose, like those who are sent to the shelter in Oberursel, a town just north of Frankfurt. Although Oberursel is one of the richest towns in the country, the shelter there was recently dubbed the "shabbiest refugee shelter in the state of Hesse" by the daily Frankfurter Rundschau. The town's mayor, Hans-Georg Brum, agrees, saying of the hostel: "It is a disgrace. The conditions there are absolutely unacceptable."

The 30-year-old facility, made up of run-down mobile units, is "beyond worn out," admits a spokeswoman from the municipality. Even the facility's caretaker, Werner Pohl, agrees that the place is far from nice. He works for his brother Wilfried, who operates several refugee hostels. They took over the Oberursel shelter three years ago. "Even then, it was already dilapidated," says Pohl.

Making a Profit

Hesse state law calls for shelters to "ensure a dignified residence." The phrase, though, is largely meaningless: Hesse is one of seven states in Germany that has not established minimum standards for refugee hostels. Four others have merely codified recommendations, a Pro Asyl study found. The result is that municipalities search for the cheapest possible solution -- and end up with operators like the Pohls, who charge a mere €6.50 per capita per night. And still manage to make a profit.

But states are also responsible for pushing down costs. When state officials disperse refugees to shelters in cities and towns, they are required to reimburse municipality coffers for the costs of housing them. But a spot check conducted by Hesse auditors in 2013 found that states tend only to cover about half the costs on average.

The sheer numbers of asylum seekers coming to Germany is, no doubt, the primary reason that cities in Germany are currently focusing on building new mass housing facilities, despite the problems associated with them, instead of finding apartments in established residential areas. But the lack of sufficient funding likewise plays a role. In many cases, housing refugees in mass facilities is cheaper.

When the Pohl brothers took over operations in Oberursel, the trend was still toward finding apartments to house refugees. In the spring of 2011, the hostel was only half full, providing shelter to 150 people. "We offered to tear down the facility and build a new one," says Werner Pohl. But the municipality rejected the idea. "The plan was to further reduce the number of spaces available," Mayor Brum recalls.

The result is that the camp in Oberusel is now filled to the breaking point and has too little personnel. Pohl is both the gate keeper and the maintenance man and has two social workers and a single employee at his disposal. When refugees complain that the hot water has run out, Pohl simply tells them to take shorter showers. And nothing has been donw about the fact that there is only a single intact toilet for 60 residents.

The situation is no different in other parts of the country. The refugees are being used to improve companies' bottom lines, including hoteliers who have made misguided investments in unprofitable locations. In Rötha, for example, a town located just south of Leipzig. The Alpha-Apparthotel there offers hotel beds starting at €12 per night in the top floors of a boxy, concrete building. The bottom two floors house an asylum-seeker hostel, a fact the town's mayor only became aware of when the district sent over the first refugees.

Before the asylum seekers arrived, the hotel had had trouble filling its beds. Now, hotel operator Martin Steinhart receives €30,000 per month from the government. It's not much for a hotel with dozens of rooms, but Steinhart makes ends meet by saving on social workers and psychological care. Steinhart says he is aware that some of the 84 asylum seekers in his care are severely traumatized. But he is certain he can handle it: "Sometimes you do have to put an arm around their shoulders," he says.

The Search for Adequate Personnel

That, too, is part of the patchwork refugee housing system that has developed in Germany. Not one of the country's 16 states requires hostel operators to hire social workers, no matter how large the facility is. In some states, doing so is merely a recommendation, in others, it's not even mentioned at all.

In Bielefeld, hostel operator Beier employs two multilingual social workers who are accessible and help out in crises. But many other operators do without. Saxony's recent announcement that it intended to make more money available for social work in refugee homes says more about the systemic failings than about any desire for improvement. The government earmarked a mere €1 million for the effort -- for all of the refugees currently sheltered in the state.

It is also true, however, that so many refugees are currently coming to Germany that it is almost impossible to find sufficient qualified personnel to care for them. It is particularly difficult to find social workers and psychologists in some of the remote towns where asylum seekers are housed.

But as the Burbach case made clear, it is also true of guards. One of the men involved in the abuse bore a neo-Nazi tattoo on his arm and residents of the home say that he and others reminded them of an "SS unit."

Beier knows the Burbach facility manager has had direct experience with the company, European Homecare, that operates the facility. Once, Beier's shelter had to be evacuated due to a measles outbreak and European Homecare erected a home, complete with furnishings and personnel, for the 150 displaced asylum seekers within just 24 hours. "It was highly professional," Beier says. But he also says he has no idea where they found suitable staff in such a short time. It could be that, amid rapidly climbing refugee numbers, European Homecare became a victim of its own expansion and hired the wrong security firm.

Guards, of course, are necessary. With so many people from several different countries live in such close quarters, friction is inevitable. But those hired to intervene in those situations also need to be free of xenophobia.

In Hoyerswerda, a security guard is currently under investigation for allegedly having broken a Tunisian resident's lumbar vertebra during an altercation in late July. The guard has also filed a counter complaint against the resident. In Munich, asylum seekers from Somalia and Iraq have complained of security personnel calling them "monkeys" and "niggers" and of walking through their rooms at night wearing balaclavas. During a routine check last year, Bavarian authorities discovered two right-wing extremists working as guards at refugee shelters.

'Extreme Potential for Conflict'

Are those just isolated cases? In Saxony, companies have been able to request background checks for security personnel since 2008. The state interior ministry says that "of 9,500 checks, some 70 cases of right-wing extremism were found." In Brandenburg, state security authorities estimate that one out of every 10 right-wing extremists works for a security agency. They warn that neo-Nazis "are increasingly seeking employment in the security industry or start their own company in the sector." If they then find themselves providing security in an asylum-seeker hostel, there is an "extreme potential for conflict," the agency notes.

Security jobs don't just offer the trappings of masculinity and power: They are also easy to get. Preparatory courses often last just 40 hours -- and 90 percent of all security guards have only the minimum required training. A criminal background check is also necessary, but not everything must be listed on it: Juvenile offenses for which the punishment was less than two years' probation are left off, as are fines that don't exceed 90 days of income and jail terms of less than three months.

City and regional governments have the option of hiring only those security firms that adhere to the higher standards of BDSW, Germany's national association of security companies. The city-state of Hamburg, for example, only hires companies that belong to the association. The firm that was in charge of security at the Burbach hostel at the time of the recent abuse there, by contrast, was not.

The company has since been fired. North Rhine-Wesphalia Interior Minister Jäger introduced a "Seven-Point Plan" in the wake of the scandal, one of which is requiring security companies at refugee hostels to be members of BDSW "or a comparable association." But the new security company hired at the Burbach facility is neither a member of BDSW or, it would seem from its website, of a comparable association.

Refugee hostels in Germany are, of course, inspected for basic safety by local fire departments and health authorities. But with a lack of prescribed minimum standards, there is no reference point for states to control for housing adequacy.

Legally Binding Standards?

Still, one man in Saxony has tried to establish some modicum of quality control. In 2010, Martin Grillo, the state's liaison for issues relating to refugees and immigrants, single-handedly came up with a set of standards for asylum seeker hostels. In the first year, half the shelters in the state were found wanting, but Grillo declined to publicize his results so as to give them an opportunity to improve. In 2011, he did release his results, which found that only 10 percent of the homes were subpar. In 2013, all homes passed. His system, it seems, had an effect.

Still, the shelters were far from perfect, despite the checks. At one home in Plauen, for example, plaster is crumbling from the walls and most of the toilets are broken. Grillo doesn't have the power to close down facilities that don't meet the standards he set. "We are consultants, we give recommendations," he says. But even the activists from Pro Asyl, who are strictly opposed to institutional housing, have praised Grillo's effort as a step toward legally binding minimum standards.

Real change, however, will be hard to come by. Although politicians quickly released statements in the wake of the Burbach images, realpolitik soon reasserted itself. German Interior Minister de Maizière reiterated that the federal government would not take on any of the costs for housing refugees.

An effort to apply Grillo's standards across Germany began in November 2013, but it has since petered out and nowadays nobody, aside from Pro Asyl, is talking about nationwide minimum standards. "Given the high numbers of newly arriving asylum seekers, a new survey is impossible because of the huge workload and constantly changing conditions at the facilities," the Integration Ministry in Rheinland Pfalz stated recently. In other words, controls aren't possible because there is too much to control.

By Matthias Bartsch, Jürgen Dahlkamp, Markus Deggerich, Hubert Gude, Conny Neumann, Maximilian Popp, Andreas Ulrich, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Steffen Winter

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