Conditions in initial reception centres
There is no common standard for initial reception centres, although 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 refer to other regulations, such as general “sanitation plans” as they exist for other forms of communal accommodation (e.g. residential homes or homeless shelters).
Many of these centres use former army barracks which have been refurbished. There are substantial differences in the structure and living conditions, for example, between the AnKER centres and the Dependancen in Bavaria. In Regensburg for example, the main AnKER centre was built recently and is relatively modern, while the Dependancen are old former barracks. Particular concerns have been voiced with regard to Dependancen such as Schwandorf and Stephanposching, which consists of large halls with no rooms. In the Dependance of Munich Funkkaserne, a former barracks which hosted over 200 people at the end of March 2019, collapsing sinks, a damaged medical room and unsanitary conditions have been reported, far below standards. Following public criticism, the authorities have started renovation works in the facility of early April 2019 and have transferred several residents to other facilities.
Locations of centres vary significantly. While some of the initial reception centres, arrival centres and AnkER are situated in or close to big cities (e.g. Berlin, Munich, Regensburg, 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 (Lebach near Saarbrücken). Some initial reception centres (Nostorf-Horst in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Deggendorf or the Dependancen in Garmisch and Waldkraiburg in Bavaria) are located in isolated areas far away from the next town.
Initial reception centres have at least several hundred places, while some facilities can host large numbers of persons. The AnkER centre of Bamberg in Bavaria has a capacity of 3,400 places, for example, although it has never accommodated more than 1,500 persons at one time.
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 provides that asylum seekers should have 4.5m² of living space, while other regulations provide for 6 or 7m² per person. 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.
Most initial reception centres have a policy to accommodate single women and families in separate buildings or separate wings of their buildings. The AnKER centre in Manching/Ingolstadt for example provides separate rooms for vulnerable persons.
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; in AnkER centres, for instance, cooking is not allowed. Refrigerators for the use of asylum seekers are available in some initial reception centres, but this seems to be the exception. In some centres, the management does not allow hot water boilers for asylum seekers as this would be forbidden by fire regulations. This poses an obstacle to mothers with infants.
The living conditions in many initial reception centres have been criticised by asylum seekers, volunteers and NGOs – especially in light of the extended obligatory stay in these facilities. Asylum seekers at the arrival centre in Hamburg-Rahlstedt, for example, have reported inter alia a lack of privacy, unclean sanitary facilities and disturbances at night. The sleeping areas are placed in former warehouses and divided by thin partitions into several compartments, which do not allow for privacy. Besides reading lamps attached to each bed, there is one common light for the whole warehouse, which is switched on from 8:00am to 22:00pm.
More generally, studies published in 2020 have come to the conclusion that the accommodation in initial reception centres is infringing childrens’ rights and constitutes a danger to their mental health. The spatial confinement, the experience of violence and deportations, as well as the permanent uncertainty cause psychological stress and have a negative impact on children. Health care and psychosocial support provided for young refugees in the mass accommodations was described as worryingly inadequate for most of the facilities.
The NGO “Ärzte der Welt” (Doctors of the World) announced in September 2019 that an advice service run by the organisation in the AnkER-centre of Manching/Ingolstadt was to be terminated. The NGO described living conditions in the facility as “morbid” and claimed that adequate treatment, in particular treatment of persons with psychological disorders, was impossible under the circumstances. Insufficient protection against assaults, lack of privacy and nocturnal disturbances were impeding mental stabilisation of asylum-seekers at the facility and the NGO was no longer capable to bear responsibility for the mental health of its patients. Moreover, the organisation claims that there was no system for the identification of vulnerable persons in place at the facility.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been rising concern that the conditions in initial reception centres (and other form of collective accommodation) do not allow for sufficient protection against the virus. In Ellwangen, for example, 50% of the asylum seekers were tested positive. For this reason, some courts have ruled that asylum seekers must be allowed to take residence outside of initial reception centres. Whether the obligation to take up residence in initial reception centres will end because of the virus depends on local circumstances and individual cases – especially since other courts have decided that the risks caused by COVID-19 do not generally justify an exemption from the obligation to stay in initial reception centres.
Situation in collective accommodation centres and decentralised housing
Following the initial reception period, asylum seekers are supposed to be sent to a collective accommodation centre 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.
Studies have repeatedly shown 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.
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.
It has also been pointed out that living conditions in individual apartments are not necessarily better than 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.
While occupancy rates have improved in recent years, some aspects of collective accommodation centres continue to be identified as problematic by asylum seekers and NGOs. Facilities are often isolated or in remote locations. Many temporary facilities do not comply with basic standards and do not guarantee privacy. According to reports this has led to serious health problems for some asylum seekers, especially in cases of long stays in 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. The quality of food is often criticised where food is handed out in the form of pre-packed meals.
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.
Furthermore, many facilities lack qualified staff, thus highlighting the crucial role played by NGOs and volunteers, particularly regarding counselling and integration. A lack of communication between authorities and NGOs and/or volunteers has also been flagged problematic.
In addition to overall living conditions, the security of residents can also be an issue of concern. According to official statistics, 128 attacks on accommodation facilities took place in 2019, compared to 173 in 2018. In addition, 1,620 attacks on individual asylum seekers or refugees were recorded in 2019. Most of these attacks are classified as racially motivated crimes.
According to statistics compiled by NGOs, the number of attacks on reception centres during 2019 was significantly higher – namely 913 attacks on facilities, including 3 arson attacks, compared to 1,535 attacks including 9 arson attacks in 2018. Nevertheless, NGO statistics also show a significantly lower number of attacks (198) on individual asylum seekers or refugees, therefore discrepancies may partially be explained by differences in counting methods.
In many facilities, spatial confinement and lack of privacy led to a lack of security, particularly for women and children. To counter this problem, most Federal States have developed violence protection concepts in recent years.
Fences are used around premises, particularly for large-scale centres, 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).
Duration of stay
The duration of stay in initial reception centres has been generally set at a maximum of 18 months following the reform in 2019 (see Freedom of Movement). Following the initial reception period, a stay in other collective accommodation centres is also obligatory, until a final decision on the asylum application is reached. This often takes several years since the obligation applies to appeal procedures as well. In addition, people whose asylum applications have been rejected are now 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 increases health risks, especially with regard to mental disorders.
 Markus Kraft, ANKER-Einrichtung Oberfranken – Grundlagen, Kritik und Alternative, Asylmagazin 10-11/2018, 352; ECRE, ‘The Bamberg model and transit camp system in Germany – Op-ed by Aino Korvensyrjä’, 2 February 2018, available at: http://bit.ly/2FIz6KP. See also Bayerischer Flüchtlingsrat, ‘Abschiebelager Bamberg’, available in German at: http://bit.ly/2IwD471.
 European Migration Network, The Organisation of Reception Facilities for Asylum Seekers in Germany, 2013, 26.
 Bundesweite Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Psychosozialen Zentren für Flüchtlinge und Folteropfer (BAfF), Living in a box – Psychosoziale Folgen des Lebens in Sammelunterkünften für geflüchtete Kinder, 2020, 55, available in German at: https://bit.ly/2W5DaLo.
 Administrative Court Leipzig, Decision 3 L 204/20.A, 22 April 2020; Administrative Court Dresden, Decision 11 L 269/20.A, 24th April 2020; Administrative Court Münster, Decision 6a L 365/20, 7 May 2020.
 Administrative Court Gießen, Decision 4 L 1755/20.GI.A, 20 May 2020, Administrative Court Leipzig, Decision 4 L 211/20.A, 18 May 2020.
 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.
 Federal Government, Reply to parliamentary question by The Left, 19/18269, 19 March 2020, available in German at: https://bit.ly/38ArLYP .
 Mut Gegen Rechte Gewalt, ‘Chronik flüchtlingsfeindlicher Vorfälle’, July 4th 2020, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3f43DQT .
 Section 53(2) 1st Sentence Asylum Act.
 Section 61(1d) Residence Act.