Has ‘Heimat’ been Made?: Centralized Refugee Accommodations in Germany.

by Vijay Gopal Vazhoth Palliyil

‘Heimat’ is a German word with no literal, direct translation in English. It is “more than home and not only an architectural but a mental situation” (Plane-Site, 2017).

At the Venice Architecture Biennale of 2016, an exhibition called ‘Making Heimat; Germany, Arrival Country’ was linked to the refugee crisis. The title of this article and my master’s thesis are inspired by the same.

Over the past decade, the number of forcibly displaced people across the globe has increased dramatically. Forcibly displaced persons include both asylum seekers and refugees. Asylum seekers are defined as people outside their country of origin and seeking formal protection but have not had their claims to refugee status assessed (Ziersch et al., 2017).

According to UNHCR (2020), Germany hosts 1.1 million refugees, more than any other European nation, and is the fifth biggest host country globally in terms of the number of refugees hosted. In 2018, Germany hosted 28% of asylum seekers in the EU, and in 2019, it came down to 23%. There is an observable decline in asylums given to applicants, but there is a large population of refugees and asylum seekers already in the country (Eurostat, 2016; 2018; 2019; 2020).

Once asylum seekers are given refugee status in Germany, they can move into urban areas and live in shared or individual apartments. Before this, they live in collective accommodation facilities called Gemeinschaftsunterkünfte (GUs), run by the respective municipalities, while waiting for their application to be processed. Yet, many refugees who have acquired official status continue to live in these facilities because of difficulties finding decentralized accommodation in urban areas for various reasons.

Health of the refugees and asylum seekers is highly influenced by the housing they live in (Bonnefoy, 2007; Rolfe et al., 2020; Ziersch et al., 2017). Housing has also been listed as one of the means and markers for achieving the integration of refugees (Ager & Strang, 2008). At the same time, there is a lack of standards and guidelines for the design of temporary accommodations for refugees and asylum seekers. GU typologies, for instance, were developed as a response to the question “how to get the fastest and cheapest housing unit while meeting modern living requirements?” (de Keijser & Kip, 2017)

With this premise, I attempted to examine the living conditions of the asylum seekers and refugees at the Gemeinschaftsunterkünft at Hofheim am Taunus in Hessen, Germany as part of my master’s thesis. I interviewed the residents and a staff member of the GU and mapped the different amenities around the GU. Of particular interest to me was various aspects of well-being of the residents, as well as potential for social integration.

The GU at Hofheim is at the periphery of the urban area, adjacent to the agricultural fields.
Site map of the collective refugee accommodation facility at Hofheim am Taunus. Source: Google satellite base map, labelled by author)

“The location is good, the people are friendly, there are really nice open spaces and play areas for the children. I’ve been living here (with my family) for five years and I have no complaints (about the location).”

While the GU is situated right at the periphery of the urban area, most amenities are at walkable distances. The amenities include schools, hospitals, supermarkets, open spaces, play areas, district administration, and points of social support. Furthermore, the public transport network enables the residents to easily move around within the city or surrounding towns.

The GU at Hofheim follows prefab construction. According to the staff, it is also a style of ‘container housing’. In terms of living experience, there is a lack of privacy arising from a lack of space. Even though families have apartments for themselves, bedrooms are often shared within the apartment, especially for large families.

A room in a housing unit that has been kept empty for quarantining in case a resident is tested positive for Covid-19. Usually the rooms have only two beds, the previous tenants had rearranged the furniture and brought in a bed from the next room to this room.
A kitchen in one of the family housing units. There is a compact dining area within the same space.

“The house is very small! We are a big family and according to the normal German standards, we are supposed to have a housing unit of more than 120 square metres but here the housing unit is just 42 square metres.”

“The (architectural) standard (in terms of area per person) used to be 6 square metres per person and now it is 7 sqm/person excluding the common spaces like the kitchen and bathroom. If the common spaces are to be included, then it becomes 9 sqm/person.”

This is even more severe in the case of individual refugees and asylum seekers as they have to share their bedrooms with one or two persons, and the kitchen and bath with even more people. Interviewees expressed that overcrowding has impacted their well-being, even though access to basic services like water supply, electricity and heating are taken care of. However, interviewees who had previously lived in other GUs evaluated the GU at Hofheim to be better than other GUs they have lived in.

“It’s (the dwelling) very small. I live in a room of 11 square meters and now 3 people live in it. There are two bunk beds and maybe they’ll let another person move in at some point.”

“There is no storage space. We’ve kept things everywhere. Under the beds, on top of the cupboards. There are shoes and bags all over the place.”

“Here we have privacy. We have two (bed) rooms, a bathroom, a toilet and a kitchen. But at (the previous GU of residence at) Kelkheim, we had no privacy. The three of us were in a room and the kitchen and toilets were commonly shared by many others.”

Entrance to the GU compound at Hofheim
Multiple names on each mailbox indicate 2–4 families share an apartment unit. (names concealed)

In terms of social integration, the residents of the GU interact mostly with volunteers and very little with the host population. Living in a collective accommodation with only fellow migrants minimizes chances to integrate. However, children who live at the GU and go to schools make friends with children who are part of the host population. This is a strong social bridge as parents of these children can form connections and facilitate cultural exchange.

“The local people do help. We don’t come across any bad people. Our children have made friends with German kids at school. So when we need some help, the parents of these children help us out and very quickly too.”

“I still have not learned German. Because my children go to school with Germans, they learn quickly in some months. Now they help us to fill forms and understand letters.”

For integration to be achieved, continued contact between migrants and host community is vital (Berry,1991). Moreover, multidimensional integration process requires efforts from all stakeholders involved, mainly the migrants, host population, and the government (Mestheneos and Ioannidi, 2002; Schibel et al., 2002).

This research indicates that the housing policy environment needs modification to make housing accessible and affordable for refugees, or the standards at the GU should be improved and enforced. Absence of an official standard on the housing size contribute to the problem of overcrowding at even the GU at Hofheim.

“After getting a letter, the resident must move out (of the GU). But they cannot until they find a place. We help them out by listing options and providing details. The main problem is that the flats are expensive. There are not so many social (housing) flats. They can look for private apartments but the price must be okay.”

“When the families are big and have many children, sometimes seven, eight or even more, people do not want to rent flats or houses to them. There are not many houses with enough rooms to accommodate such families.”

These residential facilities are meant to be temporary, but many families end up living at the GU for prolonged periods. Similar ethnographic research needs to be conducted on other GUs in different parts of Germany to understand the range of living conditions, which can help policymakers formulate appropriate strategies.

*The complete master thesis is in the process of archiving for public access at TUPrints.


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an interdisciplinary M.Sc. in International Cooperation in Urban Development, addressing the challenges of rapid urbanization throughout the world.