There is no common standard for initial reception centres, but Federal States have laid down standards to varying degrees in regional legislation through the various State Reception Acts (Landesaufnahmegesetz) and in regulations and directives. Where no standards for the accommodation of asylum seekers exist, the Federal States often take recourse to other regulations, such as general “sanitation plans” as they exist for other forms of communal accommodation (e.g. residential homes or homeless shelters).
Initial reception centres have at least several hundred places. Many of these centres use former army barracks which have been refurbished. Locations vary significantly: While some of the initial reception centres are situated in or close to big cities (e.g. Berlin, Munich, Brunswick/Braunschweig. Bielefeld, Dortmund, Karlsruhe), others are located in smaller cities (Eisenhüttenstadt, Neumünster, Halberstadt) or in small towns with some distance to the next city (Eisenberg near Jena, Lebach near Saarbrücken). One initial reception centre (Nostorf-Horst in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) is located in an isolated rural area some 10 km away from the next small town.
As far as regulations on accommodation standards in the initial reception centres exist, these show considerable variety in terms of the required living space and equipment. The Refugee Reception Act of Baden-Württemberg stipulates that asylum seekers should have 4.5 m² of living space, while other regulations provide for 6 or 7 m² per person.1 A typical room in an initial reception centre has between 2 and 4 beds, there are chairs and a table and each resident has a locker for herself or himself. Size of rooms may vary, but rooms with a single bed are highly exceptional.
Overcrowding continued to be a serious problem throughout 2014 and 2015, but the situation has improved in 2016 due to a rapid decrease in numbers of newly arriving asylum seekers. In March 2016, only 50% of the capacities of reception centres and emergency shelters run by the Federal States were used, according to media reports. Only the cities of Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin reported that their facilities were operating at 100% at the time, while centres in other Federal States were running far below their capacities (see also Types of Accommodation).2
Most initial reception centres have a policy to accommodate single women and families in separate buildings or separate wings of their buildings, but in situations of overcrowding this policy could not be put into practice in many facilities in recent years.
Bath and toilet facilities usually consist of shower rooms and toilets which people have to share. Where guidelines are available, it is recommended that one shower should be available for 10 to 12 persons, but in some reception centres the ratio is worse than that, particularly in situations of overcrowding. Cleaning of shared space (halls, corridors) as well as of sanitary facilities is carried out by external companies in the initial reception centres.
Food is supplied in the initial reception centres and is usually served in canteens on the premises of the centres. In general, two or more menus are on offer for lunch and the management of the catering facilities tries to ensure that specific food is provided with regard to religious sentiments. Some, but not all initial reception centres also have shared kitchen space which enables asylum seekers to cook their own food. Refrigerators for the use of asylum seekers are available in some initial reception centres, but this seems to be the exception.
Asylum seekers may leave the premises of the initial reception centres at any time, but in many centres they have to report to security personnel upon leaving and re-entering. In general, they can travel freely within the town and district in which the reception centre is located, but in most Federal States they need a special permission to travel to other parts of the state or to other parts of Germany.
Following the initial reception period, asylum seekers are supposed to be sent to another collective accommodation centre (Gemeinschaftsunterkunft) within the same Federal State. However, responsibility for housing at this stage of the procedure often lies with the municipalities and many different forms of accommodation have been established. On the local level, accommodation may still consist of collective housing in former army barracks, in (formerly empty) apartment blocks or in housing containers. At the same time, many municipalities have dissolved collective accommodation centres from the 1990s onwards and are now permitting asylum seekers to rent an apartment on the housing market or in council housing. As mentioned in Types of Accommodation, decentralised accommodation is more common in some regions than in others, so whether asylum seekers are housed in collective accommodation or in apartments depends heavily on the situation of the municipalities.
Even before the rise in numbers of asylum seekers made itself evident, studies showed that living conditions of asylum seekers differed considerably between regions and sometimes even within the same town. For example, some municipalities have a policy of generally allowing asylum seekers to live in apartments, which they have to find and rent on their own. In some areas, this is almost impossible in practice for many asylum seekers, since rents are unaffordable in privately owned apartments and space in council housing is extremely limited. This may lead to a situation in which asylum seekers have to stay in collective accommodation centres although they are technically not required to do so.
Overall living conditions
Because different policies are pursued on regional and local level, it is impossible to make general statements on the standards of living in the follow-up accommodation facilities.
In 2014 and 2015, reports of overcrowding of facilities had become commonplace. The situation improved considerably in many regions in 2016, but there remained serious problems in some locations, particularly in big cities like Berlin, where many asylum seekers were still staying in emergency shelters (mainly gyms, but also the hangar of the former airport at Tempelhof) at the end of 2016.
It has also been pointed out that that living conditions in individual apartments are not automatically and always better than they are in accommodation centres (e.g. if apartments are provided in run-down buildings or if decentralised accommodation is only available in isolated locations). Nevertheless, the collective accommodation centres, and particularly the bigger ones (often referred to as “camps” by critics) are most often criticised by refugee organisations and other NGOs.
Facilities are often isolated or in remote location. Many temporary facilities do not comply with basic standards and do not guarantee privacy.3 According to reports this has led to serious health problems for some asylum seekers, both in emergency shelters, but in cases of long stays also in “normal” collective accommodation centres.
In facilities in which food is provided, asylum seekers are sometimes not allowed to prepare their own food and/or no cooking facilities exist. Especially where food is handed out in the form of pre-packed meals, quality is often criticised.4
Concerns have also been raised around limited space and equipment for recreation, including for children, in some facilities. In some centres, no separate and quiet space is available for children, for example to do their homework for school.5
Furthermore, many facilities lack qualified staff, whereas NGOs and volunteers often have to take over authorities’ obligationsm in particular in the areas of counselling and integration. Lack of communication between authorities and NGOs and/or volunteers has also been reported.6
In addition to overall living conditions, the security of residents can also be an issue of concern. According to official statistics, more than 900 attacks on accommodation facilities took place in 2016, including 66 arson attacks. Most of the attacks are classified as racially motivated crimes.7 According to statistics compiled by NGOs, the number of attacks during 2016 is significantly higher – 1,578 attacks on facilities, including 102 arson attacks.8
In many facilities, situations of overcrowding and lack of privacy lead to lack of security, particularly for women and children.9
Fences are used around premises, particularly those of the bigger centres or of centres for which former industrial buildings or former army barracks.
In some facilities asylum seekers have to report to staff upon leaving and upon return. Visitors have to report to staff and there are only limited visiting hours. In some cases, no overnight stays are allowed for visitors, even for spouses (see Access to Reception Centres).10
Duration of stay
In the absence of a consistent policy, the duration of stay in collective accommodation centres is dependent on the place of residence and sometimes it seems to be a matter of pure coincidence whether asylum seekers are allowed to move out of collective accommodation or not. If asylum seekers stay in collective accommodation for the whole duration of their asylum procedure (as it is generally prescribed by law) this often takes several years since the obligation applies to appeal procedures as well. In addition, people whose asylum applications have been rejected, are often obliged to stay in collective accommodation centres as long as their stay is “tolerated”. It has been argued that a stay in collective accommodation which lasts several years corresponds with increased health risks, especially an increased risk of mental disorders.
According to reports, the long duration of stay in temporary facilities (emergency shelters), which do not comply with basic standards has led to serious health problems for some asylum seekers, both in emergency shelters, but in cases of long stays also in “normal” collective accommodation centres.11 Cases of depression, alcohol and drug abuse have become common in temporary accommodation facilities in Berlin.12
- 1. Cf. overview of the regulations of seven Federal States in Andreas Müller, The Organisation of Reception Facilities for Asylum Seekers in Germany, Focussed Study of the German National Contact Point for the EMN, Working Paper 55, 26.
- 2. Tagesspiegel, ‘Erstunterkünfte stehen zur Hälfte leer’, 20 March 2016, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2lJq853.
- 3. ProAsyl, ‘Ein Leben ohne Privatsphäre? Sammelunterbringung darf nicht zum Dauerzustand werden!’, 10 January 2017, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2kWyi5U.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. For both positive and negative examples of cooperation, see Robert-Bosch-Stiftung, Die Aufnahme von Flüchtlingen in den Bundesländern und Kommunen - Behördliche Praxis und zivilgesellschaftliches Engagement, 2015, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2kIKN9M.
- 7. Tagesshau, ‘Mehr als 900 Angriffe auf Flüchtlingsheime’, 28 December 2016, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2ii1bfs.
- 8. Mut Gegen Rechte Gewalt, ‘Chronik flüchtlingsfeindlicher Vorfälle’, 17 February 2017, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2l4P8jO.
- 9. ProAsyl, ‘Ein Leben ohne Privatsphäre? Sammelunterbringung darf nicht zum Dauerzustand werden!’, 10 January 2017, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2kWyi5U.
- 10. Ibid.
- 11. Tagesspiegel, ‘Leben in der Massenunterkunft’, 21 November 2016, available at: http://bit.ly/2lJBA0v. The article reports that a family from Turkmenistan had stayed in a temporary accommodation facility (a former school) for 26 months.
- 12. Ibid.