Refugees: German cities are reaching their limits | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

An icy wind blows across the deserted sports grounds on the road to Herzogenrath-Merkstein, a small town in the far west of Germany, near Aachen. A few brown leaves swirl on the green grass of the soccer field; the red sand of the running track is wet. On the once white plaster of the gymnasium, someone has written “SVS Merkstein”, the name of the local sports club, in black paint.

But no sports activities take place here at the moment. Instead, the hall is used to house refugees from the war in Ukraine. In early August, partitions were used to set up temporary accommodation for 80 people. Now the space is full, like all other refugee accommodation facilities in Herzogenrath.

Pastor Frank Ungerathen and his team help refugees in the small community of Herzogenrath

About a mile from the venue, the refugee counseling team gathers for a meeting at the Protestant parish of Lydia. Pastor Frank Ungerathen has just announced to his colleagues that a second gymnasium will be converted this week. He learned this from the city’s social welfare office, which is responsible for receiving and caring for refugees.

He and his team had hoped the situation would not get back to the point it was during the 2015/2016 refugee crisis, when people also had to be housed in gyms and even tents. But there are simply no more accommodations available in the small town of around 50,000 people.

“The housing market has completely dried up,” said Mahkameh Robatian, who runs the advice centre. Private offers to welcome refugees are also rare. “High gas and electricity prices mean that people often decline because it becomes too expensive for them,” said volunteer Olga Meier.

Elderly Ukrainian woman standing in her bedroom

In any refugee accommodation in Aachen, at least two people share a room

Helpers overwhelmed

Since Russia invaded Ukraine and the first refugees from the war arrived in Germany, the counseling center has been running non-stop. Its staff conduct interviews, phone authorities, help fill out forms, run language classes, find apartments, and run cooking classes and meetings over coffee and cake. They encourage, advise, comfort and, if necessary, also take care of the children.

A town like Herzogenrath normally received around 50 to 60 new refugees a year, the pastor estimated. “Now 400 war refugees from Ukraine have arrived in the space of three months – and we currently have 530,” he said. In addition, around 850 people who fled from 20 other countries have also arrived. “Some have found jobs in the meantime, many haven’t – and the need for integration doesn’t stop there.” The municipality cannot face it alone.

In Aix-la-Chapelle, 20 kilometers (12 miles), the situation does not look any better. In early August, Mayor Sibylle Keupen pulled the emergency brake and announced that the city would not accept any more war refugees or asylum seekers for the time being. All emergency accommodation centers were full, including eight sports halls.

Sybille Keupen standing at the entrance to the town hall of Aachen

Aachen Mayor Sibylle Keupen said many refugees were here to stay and needed permanent accommodation

Most of the more than 4,000 Ukrainian refugees who are registered in Aachen and receive financial assistance have found private accommodation. This is also because Aachen already had a relatively large Ukrainian community before the war.

They are mostly nationals of African countries, along with a few Syrians and a handful of Ukrainians, who live in a “container village” made up of prefabricated buildings installed on a former sports ground in the south of the city in 2016. The small bedrooms, each with their own kitchen facilities, showers and toilets, are in high demand as they offer privacy. Up to 120 people can live there, but a third of the containers are currently leaking and therefore uninhabitable. Attempts are underway to fix them.

The municipal authorities of Aachen are working hard to convert vacant commercial premises into housing. The plan is for the refugees to be out of the gymnasiums in a few months, by late fall.

An exterior view of a row of blue shipping containers, nobody

Dutch company sets up makeshift accommodation to house refugees

Local authorities feel abandoned

“We are now in a situation where we realize this war is probably going to go on for a long time – people will stay here, and they need something other than a gym,” Keupen said. “It’s families, it’s different ethnicities, different age groups, all clashing there, it’s also an explosive social force that needs to be moderated. It’s very difficult if you don’t there are no more small-scale accommodation options.”

The mayor supports the request of the German Association of Cities and Municipalities, which represents the interests of city and district authorities, for a summit on refugees. The federal government must better control the distribution of people across the country, as well as intervene financially, she believes.

“We need an orderly system to really provide people – and that’s what’s important to me – not just a roof over their heads and a bed, but more. They need a place at school or daycare: they also need psychosocial care, especially when it comes to families and children dealing with war-related trauma,” she said.

These are all things that, throughout Germany, are just as difficult to find as an available apartment – ​​for which refugees compete with the rest of the population.

“Most landlords say no immediately or hang up when they hear about refugees,” said Michaela Lee, administration manager at the Herzogenrath Refugee Center.

“I’m always so happy when I manage to find an apartment for a refugee,” she added. “Or an apprenticeship, having helped write hundreds of job applications.” This is his motivation.

This article was originally written in German

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James R. Rhodes