Photo Gallery: Germany's Crowded Refugee Centers

Foto: Peter Kneffel/ dpa

Growing Influx Germany Caught Off Guard By Surge in Refugees

The German government is expecting around 175,000 people to file applications for asylum this year, the highest number in two decades. Regional politicians are acting surprised, but there have been signs of this development for years now.

Last Friday, the state interior ministers of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) convened for a meeting at the stately Westin Bellevue in Dresden, with a view of the Elbe River and the baroque historic city center. But they weren't here to discuss the views -- the subject at hand was much grimmer: packed school gymnasiums, dwellings made out of shipping containers, cots and other logistical aspects of Germany's refugee crisis.

Part of the job of state interior ministers in Germany is to ensure that refugees who make their way into country are provided with acceptable accommodations. If you travel through Germany's cities, you can often see evidence that state governments haven't been doing their jobs well -- and that they've been overstrained by the sheer number of people seeking assistance, which has risen dramatically for months.

Officials had been hoping that Thomas de Maizière, Germany's federal interior minister and a member of Chancellor Merkel's CDU, might present a realistic solution at the Dresden meeting. Germany's federal parliament passed a new law penned by de Maizière on Thursday that defines Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the sources of a massive wave of refugees to Germany during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s -- as "safe countries of origin" and expedites the process of rejecting asylum applications for citizens from these countries.

Although de Maizière praised the law at the meeting, it is unlikely that it will be approved by the Bundesrat, Germany's second legislative chamber, which represents the interests of the states -- the CDU and SPD do not have a majority in the Bundesrat, and the Green Party has already expressed its displeasure with the proposed law. And even if it is approved, it isn't clear if the new rules can slow the influx of refugees.

During their consultations, the ministers gave the impression that developments have caught the country by surprise -- almost as if they were being overrun by it. But in fact, large numbers of refugees have been making their way to Germany from the world's crisis zones for two years now.

Officials Moved too Slowly to Address Problems

The refugees in Germany are fleeing many things: the civil war in Syria, the recent wave of terror in Iraq, torturous regimes but also, in many cases, a life of poverty and no prospects, be it in Africa or as a member of the Roma minority in Serbia. Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) estimates that as many as 175,000 people will apply for asylum in Germany this year alone, the highest number seen in the past 20 years and double the figure for 2013.

In Munich, the state government even considered the idea of erecting tent camps to provide new arrivals with accommodation. What's happening there is symptomatic of what other municipalities and aid organizations are experiencing: One of Europe's richest countries is proving unable to provide humane accommodations for refugees. At least part of the problem lies in the fact that government officials failed to plan and properly prepare for the current wave. Cities have been complaining since the beginning of 2012 about having too little money available and too little capacity for providing assistance to refugees. Their complaints were either ignored or went unheard.

The federal interior minister and state governments have done too little to address the problem. There have been faint promises that municipalities and states would be given more money at some point in the future for the care of refugees, but the people are arriving here now.

At the end of June, Pastor Andreas Herden of Inner Mission, the Munich chapter of a Protestant aid organization, spoke openly about the situation in the state. He said it had become inevitable that tent cities would have to be set up at the preliminary reception center in Munich for refugees. In just two days' time, he said 300 people had arrived at the former military barracks, which were already full. Herden's public remarks sent a collective chill down the spines of members of the Bavarian state government -- they feared that photos making beautiful Munich look no different than a Syrian refugee camp would make their way around the world.

Shortly thereafter, German President Joachim Gauck pleaded with his fellow Germans for a greater sense of humanity. He said the images of coffins in the hangar of Lampedusa airport didn't fit in with the image "we have of ourselves as Europeans." Thousands of mostly African refugees have perished in recent years as they sought to make their way to the Italian island, which is located just 113 kilometers (70 miles) from Tunisia.

Germans Growing More Empathetic to Refugees

Gauck's words struck a chord with Germans. In contrast to the 1990s, there is a greater consensus among society today that refugees should be provided with protection in Germany. Empathy for stranded people -- who have made the voyage from Africa, often having given their entire sayings to human-traffickers in the hope of getting to Europe -- has replaced old fears of foreigners.

These days, Germans don't seem to mind taking in refugees from Syria either. German politicians -- from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) right down to members of the Left Party in parliament -- have said that Germany has to face up to its international responsibilities by taking in more Syrians. But what good is compassion for the needy if no one is taking care of the practical aspects of refugee relief?

When it opened in 2010, the Munich reception center for new refugees, located at the former Bayernkaserne military barracks, was only meant to be a temporary, back-up location to be used for six months. At the time, 400 people moved in and the Bavarian Interior Ministry promised it would quickly build a new reception center in the smaller city of Deggendorf, where the government had the opportunity to inexpensively purchase buildings that were part of an apparel factory. Munich city officials had originally planned to build new apartments at the site of the barracks.

But then the barracks filled with asylum seekers from the countries affected by the Arab Spring, families from the Balkans, refugees from Eritrea and Nigeria and Syrian war victims. By the winter of 2013, the interim facility had grown into a giant camp with 1,600 people. It became so cramped that a former military equipment hangar was converted into a sleeping facility with beds. As of the end of June of this year, some 2,000 refugees were being accommodated in the barracks.

Influx Exceeds Forecasts

Nowadays, smugglers simply drop their passengers off in small buses on side streets near the barracks. "The influx is exceeding any of our previous forecasts," laments Bavarian Social Minister Emilia Müller.

The government district of Upper Bavaria, which includes Munich, quickly cleaned up an old truck storage facility on the barracks property and crammed 300 cots inside with stained, thin 5-centimeter (2 inch) thick foam mattresses. Anything had to be better than erecting tent cities, the thinking went.

The same day, officials led journalists on tours through the soot-covered hall, with rain water leaking through the roof. Officials wanted to show the media that the state still had capacity and that everything was under control. But they weren't shown the quarantine area located just next door, where dozens of people were being kept locked behind iron fences because no doctors were available to give them the quick examination for infectious diseases required under Germany's Asylum Procedure Law.

A Shortage of Money and Staff

Space problems aside, the reception center -- like most German accommodations provided for asylum seekers -- is short on money and staff. Günther Bauer, the head of Inner Mission Munich, says that at least 20 employees are needed to provide social counseling for the new arrivals at the Bayernkaserne facility. Currently, he says, there are only 6.5 employees and they are only allowed to enter into the quarantine area in cases of emergency.

Doctors with the public health office are unable to complete the close to 100 examinations that are currently necessary each day. This has created a bottleneck for the refugees who now face long waiting periods before they can obtain their medical certificates, without which they are not allowed to leave the barracks. As they wait, the five-to-10-day deadline in which they can apply to be brought together with family members already living in Germany expires.

After the medical examination, the refugees are taken to decentralized accommodations or community centers. Even after spending weeks in Germany, many refugees aren't able to meet with the BAMF representatives who are responsible for listening to their stories and reviewing their cases. "Sometimes they spend months in a village waiting for a representative of the office," says Alexander Thal of the Bavarian Refugees Council, an umbrella group of state organizations providing assistance to asylum seekers. It's a period of time in which nothing happens. New arrivals are only permitted to seek employment nine months after they get to Germany, and those who haven't been interviewed also can't be deported.

The overcrowding in the shelters has been worsened by the BAMF's personnel shortage, which has led to longer wait times and frustrated those who have already undergone dangerous travels to make it to Germany. On Friday, the police evicted 80 refugee claimants from the agency's property in Nuremberg who had threatened to begin a hunger strike.

The current federal budget allowed for 300 new BAMF hires, but officials in Nuremberg seem to be struggling to fill those positions. Just recently, eight candidates backed out. The workers who decide on asylum cases usually come from Germany's government-backed public administration colleges. But the graduates of those institutions are coveted, and now BAMF recruiters are going to job fairs and considering bachelors degree-holders who have learned the basics of public administration.

Besides, in the months it will take to train the new employees, the processing points will continue becoming more crowded. In addition, 150 employees who had been on loan to BAMF from the German Federal Police -- to help with the past year's increased number of refugee claims -- will have to return to their original positions, despite the fact that the current number of refugees is considerably higher than it was in 2013. Last week, the staff council of the Federal Police turned down the Interior Ministry's request to extend the temporary workers' deputation.

The German Federal Police have little sympathy for their colleagues. They argue that the rising number of asylum requests isn't some unexpected, new problem -- people have aware of it for a long time. "People have known about this for years, and they've turned a blind eye to it," says one high-ranking Federal Police employee.

In most German states, the search for refugee housing is just as disorganized. Refugees are geographically allotted according to the so-called Königsteiner Schlüssel (Königstein Code), which takes tax income and population into account. The western German state of North Rhine-Westfalia and the southeastern state of Bavaria are responsible for accommodating the greatest number of refugees, a container village is also being planned in the central German state of Hesse, where even a former garden center has been repurposed as shelter.

North Rhine-Westphalia is trying to acquire empty British-army barracks from the federal government in the city of Mönchengladbach to create additional capacity. In Upper Bavaria, local authorities want to use school gymnasia and tennis facilities during the summer months, if necessary. The northern German state of Lower Saxony is planning to outfit group accommodations in the Wendland region, in facilities intended to house police securing the transportation of dry-cask radioactive material to the nuclear waste facility in Gorleben.

Not In Our Backyard Complaints

In three years, Hamburg has increased the number of spaces in its refugee processing center from 70 to today's 1,700. Now the authorities want to open a shelter in the well-heeled Harvestehude neighborhood, where a building belonging to the German armed forces is available. Some high-earners, however, have been resistant to the idea. It is inhumane, they argue, to expose refugees to an affluence that they themselves could never attain.

Protests have also been popping up in the countryside. In the Bavarian municipality of Salzweg, near the Austrian border, village locals have fought against the leasing of an inn for refugee families. In Anzing, near Munich, posters were recently hung in the old forester's lodge that was supposed to house refugees: They included a rhyme claiming that the 30 men the inn was to house would be a burden for the community. In the Baden-Württemberg town of Fellbach, refugees had to move out of a container village located in the parking lot of a stadium because of neighbor complaints.

Both social welfare organizations and authorities are predicting that the number of asylum seekers will continue to increase until October. The stream of refugees supposedly won't crest or plateau until the winter, at the earliest. Günther Bauer of Inner Mission Munich is convinced that "the strain from Africa will remain constant." The German government should have delivered a real refugee policy strategy a long time ago, he argues.

But such a strategy doesn't exist in the EU, or in Germany or Bavaria. Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer has simply stated that his cabinet will now address the massive shortage of accommodations. Minister Müller promised 5,000 new spots for refugees by the end of 2014, an ambitious plan that will be almost impossible to achieve.

Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter, meanwhile, wants to provide the refugees with at least one good-will gesture: TVs for the Bayernkasserne facility so that the new arrivals can watch the World Cup.

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey and Thomas Rogers
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.