German officials defend housing refugees at former US base

In Bavaria, one model "reception center" is home to more than 1,300 asylum-seekers. Directors say the barbed-wire enclosure and lack of privacy are for "safety" and efficiency. One resident says "it's a wasted life."

Is this what the future of asylum management will look like in Germany? On the outskirts of the romantic UNESCO World Heritage city of Bamberg in Bavaria, one passes through an unforgiving security checkpoint manned by tough guards to enter into a facility lined with barbed wire. This was once a US army base, complete with cinema, supermarket and disco.

Since July 2016 the long, light-colored barracks have served as refugee housing. The streets are named after types of trees. During my visit in December, a thin man in a track suit stood at a roundabout and waved: "I tell you the truth!" he yelled to me. There are guards everywhere. Welcome to the Upper Franconia Reception Center.

In Krug's view, the center works

Stefan Krug didn't need a key as he entered the first-floor apartment. That is the way things are everywhere throughout the facility, not just in the model apartment. "We do that for residents' security," said Krug, who heads Upper Franconia's asylum affairs department.

Read also: Germany processes more asylum requests than other EU states combined

The apartment has a parquet floor, a balcony, toilet, bathroom, living room and four bedrooms. There is an electric kettle in the kitchen. "Up to 16 people live in the biggest apartments," Krug said. That sounds crowded. "We have calculated that it provides each inhabitant with 7.1 square meters (76.5 square feet) of space. That meets the Social Ministry's guidelines for collective accommodations," he added. Fulfilled guidelines are the goal of every bureaucracy.

Krug said his office was doing its best to make living together as beneficial as possible for all involved. "We pay close attention to homogeneity and to cultural proximity," he said. "We also leave families together," he added. He and his team are very happy with the results so far.

Read more: Mistrust and Islamophobia see dramatic rise in Germany's melting pot

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Made in Germany | 15.08.2017

Refugees and the battle against bureaucracy

'State of the art'

When it is time to eat, residents head over to the cafeteria. It is an enormous hall with yellow steel girders, from which an impressive ventilation system hangs. That system is necessary: Up to 1,000 people can eat here at one time. Food is halal (permissible according to Islamic law) and even vegan upon request.

The way the government sees things, the Upper Franconia Reception Center provides refugees with everything they need. They can even receive text notifications about the status of their asylum applications, which they submit at the facility, on their cellphones.

Up to 1,000 people can eat in the center's cafeteria at a time – so mealtimes are hardly a private affair

The Federal Administrative Court has an office here, as does the region's immigration agency. The welfare agency is in Block E. This is all "state of the art" in Krug's eyes: "If the government decides to put refugees into centralized accommodations, then our facility is definitely a good model."

Controversial proposal by interior minister

That is exactly the plan advocated by Horst Seehofer, the interior minister in the new federal government and a member of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU). He has presented plans to open "anchor centers" to house asylum applicants from their arrival in Germany until their requests are granted or they are deported. And the first one may well be built in Bavaria. The centers that Seehofer proposes are intended to provide efficiency, as well as maximum control over the people who come to Germany hoping to find more sustainable living conditions.

Seehofer has for years presented a hard line on immigration and frequently come into conflict with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Separately, he has also butted heads with Merkel over Islam's place in Germany. Seehofer recently openly declared that Islam "doesn't belong to Germany," a position that Merkel countered with an inclusive message in first Bundestag address of her current mandate. While the Pew Research Center reported that the majority of refugees Germany took in between 2010 and 2016 were Muslims, the country has been home to a Muslim population for decades, following a post-WWII influx of Turkish guest workers.

Whether the Bamberg model will be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen. In the wake of various controversies, on Wednesday state Interior and Integration Minister Joachim Hermann announced that Bavaria would reduce the maximum number of residents at the center to 1,500, down from the currently permitted 3,400, and shut the facility permanently in 2025.

Caritas representative Markus Ziebarth: Residents here have "nearly no privacy"

Good for some, a dead end for others

Many of the people who live at the center are less convinced about the model character of the facility. At noon on that December day, the central streets begin to fill up with residents on their way to the cafeteria. The man from the roundabout who had promised me the truth was in the crowd. "I'm Adel, from Casablanca," he said.

Adel said things were bad: The guards are rough and the food is awful. A group of young men, fellow Moroccans, gathered around. They nodded in agreement. "We can do a lot of things — just give us a chance!" Adel shouted. He said he wasn't giving up hope, but added: "I just got a denial." It was only a matter of time before he would be deported, and that was time that he would have to spend at the center.

It is quite possible that residents who have been denied asylum are especially eager to complain about living conditions at the facility because they are frustrated.

"One can certainly expect people to spend a couple of weeks here," said Markus Ziebarth, a social worker who runs the asylum and social counseling office set up by the Catholic relief organization Caritas at the center.

But, he said, some people have been stuck here for months. "They can't lock their doors, they don't have any privacy, and they cannot structure their own lives," he said.

Ziebarth thinks the situation would be easier to organize if residents were in smaller units. Nevertheless, he said, "one also has to take into account that this is a big challenge for the city of Bamberg and its 70,000 residents."

Read also: Is Bavaria set for an anti-Merkel conservative swing?

The challenge surfaced publicly in January, when about 100 local residents, including refugees who live at the center, marched to Bamberg's city hall to protest the conditions. The government of Upper Franconia continues to call the living conditions for the current 1,376 refugees at the center "humane."

In November, however, a fire broke out in the center and killed one resident, with at least another 14 residents suffering smoke inhalation.

Refugee shuttle to the historic city center

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Business | 08.01.2016

Refugees seek integration through employment

City administrators have tried to mitigate the problems that the refugee center has been blamed for. An hourly bus heads straight from the facility to the picturesque historic city center.

Residents and business owners along the street leading into town complained about refugees before the buses started running. Police reported that petty crime had gone up in the area. Now, city residents no longer seem to be very interested in establishing contact with those seeking protection here. The bus fills up fast, security agents from the refugee center scan passengers' ID cards, and off they go.

David Emos, who hails from Ghana, is hoping for the best despite living in a holding pattern

David stood next to the stop and watched as the green bus pulled away from the curb. "I usually stay here and walk my rounds in the camp," the 37-year-old from Ghana said. He cannot shop anyhow: He doesn't have any money. He hasn't heard a decision on his asylum status and is still hoping for the best. Most of his compatriots are denied asylum. "I pray that Germany's economy keeps growing," he said, "because I want to stay here."

Read more: One in two rejected asylum seekers win appeal in German courts

That is a dream that Khady from Senegal no longer has. She approached slowly: "I have been here for a year already. I was denied asylum." She was waiting to be deported but that is not so easily with Senegal.

Life in the refugee camp after you have been denied asylum isn't easy either: People who have been denied asylum receive no money, and that translates into problems with other residents and with guards. Summing up her daily routine, Khady said: "You can't leave. You aren't allowed to work. It's a wasted life."

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

The goal: Survival

A journey combined with misery as well as dangers for the body and the soul: In their escape from war and suffering, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from Syria, traveled to Greece from Turkey in 2015 and 2016. There are still around 10,000 people stranded on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos. More than 6,000 new arrivals were recorded this year from January to May.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

On foot to Europe

In 2015 and 2016, more than a million people tried to reach Western Europe from Greece or Turkey over the Balkan route - through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. The stream of refugees stopped only when the route was officially closed and many countries sealed their borders. Today, most refugees opt for the dangerous Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Global dismay

This picture shook the world. The body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi from Syria washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015. The photograph was widely circulated in social networks and became a symbol of the refugee crisis. Europe could not look away anymore.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Chaos and despair

Last-minute rush: Thousands of refugees tried to get into overcrowded buses and trains in Croatia after it became known that the route through Europe would not remain open for long. In October 2015, Hungary closed its borders and installed container camps, where refugees would be kept for the duration of their asylum process.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Unscrupulous reporting

A Hungarian journalist caused uproar in September 2015 after she tripped a Syrian man who was trying to run from the police at Roszke, near the Hungarian border with Serbia. At the peak of the crisis, the tone against refugees became coarser. In Germany, attacks on refugee homes increased.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

No open borders

The official closure of the Balkan route in March 2016 led to tumultuous scenes at border crossings. Thousands of refugees were stranded and there were reports of brutal violence. Many tried to circumvent border crossings, like these refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border shortly after borders were closed.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Symbol of horror

A child covered in blood and dust: the photograph of five-year-old Omran shocked the public when it was released in 2016. It became an allegory of the horror of the Syrian civil war and the suffering of the Syrian people. One year later, new pictures of the boy circulated on the internet, showing him much happier. Assad supporters say the picture last year was planted for propaganda purposes.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

The unknown new home

A Syrian man carries his daughter in the rain at the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni. He hopes for security for his family in Europe. According to the Dublin regulation, asylum can be applied only in the country where the refugee first entered Europe. Many who travel further on are sent back. Above all, Greece and Italy carry the largest burden.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Hope for support

Germany remains the top destination, although the refugee and asylum policy in Germany has become more restrictive following the massive influx. No country in Europe has taken in as many refugees as Germany, which took in 1.2 million since the influx began in 2015. Chancellor Angela Merkel was an icon for many of the newcomers.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Emergency situation in the camps

In France's north, authorities clean up the infamous "jungle" in Calais. The camp caught fire during the evacuation in October 2016. Around 6,500 residents were distributed among other shelters in France. Half a year later, aid organizations reported many minor refugees living as homeless people around Calais.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Drowning in the Mediterranean

NGO and government rescue ships are constantly on the lookout for migrant boats in distress. Despite extreme danger during their voyage, many refugees, fleeing poverty or conflict in the home countries, expect to find a better future in Europe. The overcrowded boats and rubber dinghies often capsize. In 2017 alone, 1,800 people died in the crossing. In 2016, 5,000 people lost their lives.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

No justice in Libya

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East wait in Libyan detention camps to cross the Mediterranean. Human smugglers and traffickers control the business. The conditions in the camps are reportedly catastrophic, human rights organizations say. Eyewitnesses report of slavery and forced prostitution. Still, the inmates never give up the dream of coming to Europe.