Conditions in initial reception centres
Conditions in general
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 (Landesaufnahmegesetze) 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 started renovation works in the facility of early April 2019 and transferred several residents to other facilities. In June 2019 a new area for children over 100 m² has been installed. According to the municipality of Munich, the Funkkaserne continues to be used as Dependance in June 2022.
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. In Berlin, the local authorities of the Arrival Centre reported that, in December 2021, there were a large number of asylum applicants from Egypt, Iraq and Yemen in its reception facilities, having arrived through the Polish–Belarusian border. The number of asylum applicants from Georgia, Moldova and Vietnam also remains high in Berlin. Since June 2021, 2 000 asylum applicants have arrived every month in Berlin, and reception capacities have reached their limits. In 2022, the number of arrivals rose to over 3,963 in March to 14,704. The numbers include though not only applicants for international protection but also subsequent applications which have been filled in the initial reception centres.
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 themselves. 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.
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. In 2022 the conditions deteriorated even more due to the massive overcrowding as consequence from the war in Ukraine and the situation in Afghanistan. Small cities like Herzogenrath in North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as middle size municipalities like Augsburg in Bavaria and Aachen in North Rhine-Westphalia but also big municipalities like Berlin and Hamburg face difficulties in accommodating new protection seekers. In Berlin and Hamburg, around 99% percent of the reception capacities were occupied at the end of September 2022. In Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Lower Saxony 80% are currently occupied. According to the administration of Berlin 10,000 additional places are required, 3,200 shall be built as emergency shelters in tents on the territory of the former airport Berlin-Tegel. Also the local administration of Augsburg, Bavaria claims that nearly all of the 67 accommodation centres are occupied and that the city is considering using sports facilities of local schools as emergency shelters. The authorities on the local, state and federal level blame each other for the shortcomings. While the local authorities are by law responsible for the accommodation of protection seekers, they claim that the do not have enough financial and housing resources to fulfil the current need. They therefore ask the Federal States to vacate more housing properties. The Federal States in turn urge the Federal government to strengthen their efforts and to take up a coordinating role. According to the Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the statement of the Federal government that 4.000 federal properties shall be made available for additional accommodation facilities is misleading, since most of these properties are farmland and thus not suitable for quick usage. In North Rhine-Westphalia, only 3 out of 39 proposed facilities by the Federal government are suitable for accommodating people.
As consequence of the overcrowding, the authorities seem to be overburdened and deteriorating conditions have been reported. Under the law the state may derogate from the obligation to stay in initial reception centres in cases of overcrowding. Nevertheless, so far only Berlin has used this derogation clause and allows asylum seekers who have been allocated to Berlin under the “Köngissteiner Schlüssel” to live in private accommodations since the end of January 2023. In emergency shelters e.g. in Berlin, it has been reported that the tents at the former Berlin-Tegel airport do not protect from the cold causing numerous illnesses and facilitating the spread of Covid-19 (on conditions in reception facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic see the 2021 Update). Additionally, since the airport is surrounded by barbed wire no systematic access for NGOs and volunteers is granted. At the same time protection seekers need to take a shuttle bus to enter and exit the emergency shelter, thereby making it difficult for protection seekers to access legal aid and social assistance. In the emergency tents in Bremen protection seekers report of non-functional and unclean sanitary facilities, coldness due to non-functional heating systems and a tense atmosphere. Only one month later the municipality of Bremen decided to evacuate the tents due to the non-functionality of the infrastructure. Inhabitants were partially relocated to emergency shelters on exhibition grounds. This solution seems to be again only temporary since the exhibition grounds are only available until the end of January. The local authorities hope that the infrastructure in the tents will be repaired by that time.
In arrival centres, the overcrowding mostly leads to backlogs in the registration procedure and conflicts among the protection seekers stemming from the lack of privacy. Asylum seekers at the arrival centre in Hamburg-Rahlstedt, for example, have reported inter alia a backlog of registration, 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. A backlog of registration, lack of access to health care and social assistance has been reported also from the arrival centre in Berlin. In the arrival centre in Thuringia, many violent conflicts have been reported stemming from the lack of staff members, stressed social workers and non-trained security personnel.
More generally, studies published in 2020 have come to the conclusion that the accommodation in initial reception centres infringes upon children’s’ rights and constitutes a danger to their mental health. The spatial confinement, the experience of violence and removals, 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 were described as worryingly inadequate for most of the facilities. The study of PROASYL and the Refugee Council Berlin support these findings. According to the study of 2022, especially the access to health care, access to adequate hygienic and other products such as strollers for toddlers are scarce.
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 the 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.
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 differ 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.
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. In Lower-Saxony for example, one protection seeker reports that the food was insufficient and inadequate especially for his special needs due to his cancer disease. In one accommodation centre in Rhineland-Palatinate it has further been reported that the lightweight construction of the accommodation centre alongside with the asphalted surrounding without any shadow in summer the accommodation centre becomes nearly uninhabitably warm.
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.
Additionally, criticism has been raised in the last years against restrictive house rules. Already in 2018 the German Institute for Human Rights published an analysis of common house rules in accommodation facilities and plead that the right to privacy under Art. 13 (1) of the German Constitution applies to collective accommodations and that therefore security personnel cannot unreasonably enter the private rooms. In 2022 the Higher Administrative Court Baden-Wuerttemberg agreed with the position. It decided that indeed private rooms in collective accommodations are protected under Art. 13 (1) of the German Constitution checks of private rooms therefore need to be regulated by law and justified, which is not the case if house rules generally allow for security personnel to enter private rooms.
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 as problematic.
In addition to overall living conditions, the security of residents can also be an issue of concern. According to preliminary police statistics up to October 2022, 65 attacks on accommodation centres were reported, compared to 61 in 2021, 84 in 2020 and 128 in 2019. In addition, 167 attacks on individual asylum seekers or refugees were recorded in 2021 (1,606 in 2020). Most of these attacks are classified as racially motivated crimes.
According to statistics compiled by NGOs, the number of attacks on reception centres during 2020 was significantly higher – namely 992 attacks on facilities, including 6 arson attacks, compared to 93 attacks including 3 arson attacks in 2019. Nevertheless, NGO statistics also show a significantly lower number of attacks (198) on individual asylum seekers or refugees for the same year, 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. Additionally, the Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth introduced in 2019 a monitoring and evaluating programme which serves to develop common standards for violence protection concepts. Despite the introduced violence protection concepts, protection seekers continue to report violent and/or racial harassment from security personnel. Refugee Councils from several Federal states therefore call for a more effective implementation of the protection programmes, minimum standards for health care especially for vulnerable groups and the abandonment of big collective accommodation centres.
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.
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 health disorders.
 Munich, Übersicht des Sozialreferats über Unterkünfte für Geflüchtete und Wohnungslose ab 48 Bettplätzen, 30 June 2022, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3D9jwmY.
 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.
 PROASYL and Refugee Council Berlin, Das Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz – Einschränkungen des Grundrechts auf ein menschenwürdiges Existenzminimum für Geflüchtete, 100, November 2022, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3XrdSox.
 Silke Mehring, Leichtbauhallen in Tegel geplant Unterbringung von Ukraine-Flüchtlingen in Berlin wird immer komplizierter, rbb24, 02.12.2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3wdFPUT; Migration Media Service, Flüchtlinge aus der Ukraine, lastly amended 10 January 2023, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3D0Jvgr.
 §44 AsylG in conjunction with the different Federal state’s Reception laws: e.g. §1 Landesaufnahmegesetz Hesse; §4 Landesaufnahmegesetz Brandenburg; §2 Flüchtlingsaufnahmegesetz North Rhine-Westphalia.
 The Federal Network of Municipalities (Städtetag) already asked for financial assistance in June and September 2022, see: Deutscher Städtetag, Städtetag fordert neuen Flüchtlingsgipfel, press release of 09.06.2022 and 13.09.2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3kvk8gw and http://bit.ly/3ZLsgto.
 Section 49 para. 2 Asylum Act.
 Buten und Binnen, Darum muss die Bremer Zeltstadt für Geflüchtete evakuiert werden, 15 December 2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3WDYELN.
 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.
 PROASYL and Refugee Council Berlin, Das Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz – Einschränkungen des Grundrechts auf ein menschenwürdiges Existenzminimum für Geflüchtete, 192f., November 2022, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3XrdSox.
 Refugee Council Lower Saxony, Kritik an Misständen und Gewalt durch Mitarbeiter des Sicherheitsdienstes in der Landesaufnahmebehörde in Osnabrück, 14 December 2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3XS5Jt6.
 Refugee Council Rhineland-Palatinate: Hitzeinseln – Die Unterbringung von Geflüchteten im Kreis Worms steht im Sommer vor großen Problemen, 29 August 2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/405LKcu.
 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 questions by The Left, 20/4253, 1 November 2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3JeCGvC; tagesschau.de, Wieder mehr Anschläge auf Flüchtlingsunterkünfte, 8 November 2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3iXRhBb.
 Bundesinitiative Schutz von geflüchteten Menschen in Flüchtlingsunterkünften, Monitoring und Evaluierung eines Schutzkonzeptes für geflüchtete Menschen in Flüchtlingsunterkünften, 15 December 2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3j4HZ6d.
 Refugee Council Lower Saxony, Dokumentation „Sicheres Ankommen und Gesundheitsförderung für Geflüchtete? Gesundheitliche Auswirkungen der Unterbringung in Sammelunterkünften“, 23 September 2022, available in German at: http://bit.ly/3WDT6Rs; Refugee Council Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia: Gewaltschutzkonzept umsetzen – Gemeinschaftsunterkünfte auflösen!, 30 August 2022, available in German at: https://bit.ly/3XZw6gT.
 Section 53(2) 1st Sentence Asylum Act.
 Section 61(1d) Residence Act.