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Will Germany Seek Safe Housing Solutions for Asylum Seekers?

Mass Accommodations Put People at Risk During Covid-19

Members of a security service stand in protective gear inside a reception center for asylum seekers in North Rhine-Westphalia where 70 people tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19, May 17, 2020.  © 2020 Marcel Kusch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted risks to asylum seekers living in large-scale, shared accommodations. In Germany, where asylum seekers are obliged by law to live in reception centers while their application is considered, it’s an urgent opportunity to rethink this housing model.

These accommodations usually lack sufficient space for people to practice social distancing. Kitchens and bathrooms are often shared by dozens, and rooms often accommodate several people. Outbreaks can impact an enormous number of people. In May, two thirds of the roughly 600 residents in one reception center in Ellwangen, southern Germany, tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19.

German authorities have adopted short-term emergency measures to cope with outbreaks in these centers, including total lockdowns in several cases. In March, more than 500 people had to quarantine in a center in Suhl, after 1 case was detected. In April, all 400 residents of a center in Hennigsdorf, near Berlin, had to quarantine after 68 residents tested positive. The quarantine was lifted only when there were no new cases – 6 weeks later.

While public life in Germany is returning to normal, some centers are still under lockdown, limiting residents’ freedom, access to legal consultation for their asylum claim, mental health services, and education.

Some municipalities set up separate emergency quarantine shelters for asylum seekers who tested positive and, in some cases, people they came into close contact with. In April, while working at the Berlin quarantine facility – a set of tin containers on the outskirts of the city – I expected tensions and complaints, but one resident told me he enjoyed having some space to himself, a luxury. Others said they were anxious about returning to their “home-shelters,” given the continuing risk of infection there.

Like many issues of inequality and exclusion laid bare by Covid-19, addressing inadequate housing requires meaningful steps for long-term change.

In June, the city of Potsdam passed an agreement to gradually abolish shared accommodations for refugees and asylum seekers and  instead house people in apartments or units with a private kitchen and bathroom. Though this won’t happen overnight, the course is set towards a more inclusive approach that allows for Covid-19 preventative measures and protects people’s basic rights during and beyond the pandemic.

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