Roughly 200 refugees arrive in Berlin every day. They are supposed to stay in an initial reception facility such as the one at the former Tegel airport only for a short time, before being relocated to accommodation elsewhere in the city. But available apartments are hard to come by, and some refugees have been stuck at Tegel for more than a year. Currently, some 4,000 people live there and a further expansion is underway to provide up to 8,000 places.
The refugee situation in the German capital is echoed in cities and municipalities all over the country. So far in 2023, 220,000 migrants have made their initial applications for asylum. And of the 1 million Ukrainian refugees from the war, more and more are now registering with the authorities to be housed by the state.
Many municipalities operating ‘in emergency mode’
Across Germany, mayors and district councils are saying they no longer know where to accommodate the refugees who are allocated to them according to a fixed distribution formula.
In October, 600 of Germany’s 11,000 municipalities took part in a survey conducted by Mediendienst Integration together with migration researchers from the University of Hildesheim. Almost 60% of them described the situation as “challenging, but [still] feasible.” But 40% percent report being “overloaded” or said they were even “in emergency mode.”
The lack of accommodation is just one factor. There’s also a shortage of administrative staff, and not enough places in nurseries and schools, language courses and counseling services for traumatized refugees.
Mayors and district councilors tend to take a negative view of the situation: 53% said they consider their own municipality to be “overburdened.”
Miriam Marnich, the spokesperson for the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, attributes this view to growing dissatisfaction with migration policy in the population at large “Integration is effectively no longer possible in many municipalities at the moment because resources are exhausted. In terms of personnel, but also in terms of reception capacities,” she said.
The solutions proposed by respondents to the survey include limiting immigration to ensure there are fewer people sent to their own municipality — or none at all. They have also called for more money from the federal government, and assurances for reliable long-term funding.
They are also asking for support with accommodation, ranging from a simplification of legal procedures to an increase in social housing programs.
‘Not much to be gained’ from tougher deportation rules
Only one-fifth of the respondents said they would like to see more deportations. In view of “how prominent that topic is currently in federal and state politics, that isn’t much,” said Boris Kühn, a migration researcher at the University of Hildesheim.
At the moment, there are around 250,000 people in Germany who have had their asylum applications rejected. Some people simply cannot be tracked down by authorities. But 200,000 of them can’t be repatriated as there is either no country willing to take them in, or their country of origin is a war zone or they themselves have serious health issues that cannot be treated in their countries of origin.
In late October, the government drafted a bill to increase the number of deportations. However, the high number of refugees in most cities and municipalities currently consists of new arrivals. “So there is actually not much to be gained in terms of numbers through tougher deportation rules,” said Kühn.
Social benefits to be reconsidered?
Politicians are also discussing limiting social benefits for refugees, which are more generous in Germany than in many other EU countries. Conservative politicians have described this as a “pull factor” attracting refugees to Germany, and have suggested paying out less or no more cash to new arrivals.
Migration researchers, however, have criticized these demands. “The principle of benefits in kind was already tried in the 1990s, and then again in 2015 and it turned out not to be practical,” said Niklas Hader from the German Center for Integration and Migration Research in Berlin.
It has long been legally possible to provide refugees primarily with benefits in kind, but the states and local authorities prefer not to do this because it requires more resources and turns out to be much more expensive than simply paying out cash.
Adults living in initial reception facilities receive food in their accommodation, and an additional maximum of €150 (about $160) per month in pocket money for personal needs such as phone cards, toiletries or travel tickets. This “pocket money” is enshrined in law and the constitutional court has ruled that it cannot be arbitrarily reduced.
“If we switch exclusively to benefits in kind, this does not mean that fewer people will set off for Germany,” said Marnich of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities. Instead, she suggested that benefits be leveled out across European countries.
Debit card instead of cash
One change that is now being discussed is the switch to payment cards instead of cash payments.
Such debit cards are being used in other countries, such as France. Instead of being given cash, refugees would receive a card, to which social authorities would regularly transfer the allowances which can be used to pay in supermarkets. However, it’s not possible to withdraw cash from the card.
But Hader remains skeptical. “We all know that you can of course turn the money on a cash card into cash if you really want to,” he said.
This article was originally written in German.
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