Berlin, Germany – There is barely space to move in Banna and Yousuf’s room at the refugee dormitory in Spandau, a borough in West Berlin.
Crammed in the 18sqr m dorm unit are two single beds, a bunk bed, a couple of chairs, a desk for dining, and a wooden cabinet holding two suitcases. Scattered around are the few personal belongings that the couple and their two young boys managed to take when they fled their home in Kurdish Iraq last May.
The family moved into this state-sponsored accommodation after applying for asylum in Germany four months ago. The children, three-year-old Ali and his five-year-old brother, Ahmad, have not yet integrated in Germany’s education system. The first is on a waiting list for a kindergarten, and the second is physically and mentally disabled and his special needs have not been met. The boys and their parents spend several hours each day in the small dorm room. The dorm acts as their living room, dining room, and bedroom.
“We did not expect it to be like this,” said Banna (whose family name is concealed for safety reasons), Ali and Ahmad’s mother. “It is not the room or the place that we wish for, but we are living with the reality. We don’t feel happiness. We have too much difficulties.”
Banna, 31, is frustrated. She is happy to have her children in a safe place, away from the violence inflicted by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But the asylum procedure is slow – the family has yet to be interviewed by authorities – and the living conditions are not suitable for children, she said.
Banna’s boys face a similar situation to that of thousands of other under-aged refugees throughout Germany. There are about 65,000 minors that are either asylum seekers or people with uncertain residency status, according to a new study by the United Nations Children’s Fund. Many of them are lodged in mass accommodations, without any privacy, in an environment that is not child friendly, explained UNICEF’s spokesperson Helga Kuhn.
“Our study shows that refugee children in Germany are disadvantaged,” Kuhn said. “They don’t have the same chance to lead a good life as German children have, and we think that each child should have the same rights and the same chances.”
Surge in refugees
Kuhn said Germany’s treatment of refugee minors is not always in line with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which aims to ensure children have adequate living conditions and basic rights, regardless of their legal status.
Germany ratified this international human rights treaty in 1992, but its federal legislation does not fully incorporate the principle of prioritising the best interests of asylum seeking children according to the UN committee that monitors countries’ implementation of the convention.
UNICEF’s study noted other problems for refugee minors in Germany, including insufficient medical care and bureaucratic hurdles that make access to education difficult.
The situation has become even more dramatic due to the influx of asylum applications in recent years. The annual tally of asylum seekers has been constantly and significantly rising since 2008, peaking at 127,023 last year. German authorities estimate the total number of asylum applications for 2014 is likely to be around 200,000. Most come from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, but there are also many from former Yugoslavia countries.
“The sheer rise in numbers is a problem for all organisations involved in refugee protection in Germany,” said Katrin Hirseland, spokesperson for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the authority responsible for reviewing asylum requests.
“This year we received another 300 staff members. However, with the continuing rise of the number of people applying for asylum in Germany, this additional staff will not be enough. The times of the asylum procedures will get shorter probably in the future, but not as short as we would like them to be.”
The average duration of an asylum procedure in Germany is currently seven months, but many asylum seekers wait much longer.
We wish to learn the language and do many other things, but because of the limitations we are not able to do that.
For Banna and Yousuf, the main problem is not the wait; it’s the living conditions. The facility in Spandau, where they have been staying since May, houses 555 refugees in container dormitories with shared bathrooms and communal kitchens.
The place is designated to serve asylum seekers for short stays of up to three months, before they move to more convenient housing complexes or apartments. But due to the surge of arrivals, there’s a shortage of accommodations in Berlin, according to Jyoti Chakma, manager of the Spandau facility.
“Some individual people stayed here one year. On average, people stay here six months,” said Chakma. “We have nothing to hide. This is the reality. What to do?”
The authority in charge of housing asylum seekers in Berlin is the Senate Department for Health and Social Services. Its spokesperson, Constance Frey, said a special task force was created to search for hostels, schools, and shelters that can be converted to serve as housing for refugees. But with about a hundred additional refugees arriving in Berlin everyday, the challenge is big.
“In the capital of Germany you do not find hundreds of unused apartments that you can just use to accommodate refugees,” said Frey, who described the housing situation as tense. “All through the country you will find that the institutions that are in charge of making sure the refugees are hosted, face tremendous challenges to meet that aim.”
Frey added that their first goal is to provide shelter, food and a place for rest under decent conditions, and that they have so far succeeded in providing that for every refugee that has come.
But that does not comfort Banna and Yousuf, who continue to wait in the small room in the Spandau dormitory with their two boys.
During their first three months in the country, the family was obliged by German law to stay in the state-provided accommodations. But that period ended on August 25, and the couple is currently searching for an apartment in Berlin, with the help of social services and members of the local Kurdish community.
“We wish to learn the language and do many other things, but because of the limitations we are not able to do that,” said Banna. “I wish for myself that we have our own home, our own house, to live normally.”
Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner