What has Germany done to inform and protect asylum seekers in the Covid-19 pandemic?

German authorities launched multilingual campaigns to make Covid-19 information more accessible, but concerns remain over the safety of asylum reception centres.

What has Germany done to inform and protect asylum seekers in the Covid-19 pandemic?
Coronavirus information in Farsi displayed in a refugee centre in Berlin. Photo: John MacDougall/AFP

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In the beginning of November 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a partial lockdown as a second wave of coronavirus swept across Germany. The new lockdown, which now looks set to last until the end of January, limits travelling and socializing and has closed bars, restaurants and cultural institutions. The public health ministry continues to emphasise the importance of social distancing, mask-wearing and proper personal hygiene.

For vulnerable groups, following the rules is not always straightforward. In the early months of the novel coronavirus pandemic, several reports across Europe highlighted concerns about the welfare of asylum seekers in reception centres.

“Refugees who have only a limited understanding of the German language are dependent on social media or friends in order to be informed. The refugees from the camps in Eisenhüttenstadt, Wünsdorf, Doberlug-Kirchhain and of course from all others, smaller homes in Berlin/Brandenburg, don't get the seriousness of the situation from reliable sources,” stated Women in Exile & Friends, an NGO operating in Germany.

One of their primary demands to help the residents of these facilities was: “Multilingual information, transparency of the authorities and the right of the refugees to have a say in initial receptions centres and other camps.”

Taking a leaf out of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees’ (BAMF) book, whose official website  is available in six languages including Arabic and French, the State Office for Refugee Affairs Berlin (LAF) – which is responsible for the registration of new arrivals and providing them with initial healthcare – has taken to providing information to residents and others alike in a multilingual format.

“Usually the German administration hands out important information on a printed pamphlet in German. How typically German!” chuckles Sascha Langenbach, one of the press officers of the LAF. Their solution to the logistic challenges of printing fliers in several languages and reaching a large number of people in as little time as possible: podcasts.

Langenbach went on to add that the LAF was the first state authority to build a 24/7 taskforce to coordinate the issues relating to the coronavirus and the inhabitants of the facility. The team was also first to release information about the pandemic and quarantine measures on the LAF’s official website via a multilingual podcast supplemented by information documents in over ten different languages back in February and March.

As the country neared a second lockdown, the LAF, having learnt from past experiences, decided to release new podcasts that aimed at informing the residents well in advance about the quarantine situation at LAF accommodations as well as disseminating general information about the pandemic to the public. The information originally compiled by the facility’s medical officer, Patrick Larscheid, was translated into languages from three continents, including Amharic, Somali, Sonari, Tigrinya and Kurmanji.

The podcasts answered questions such as how everyday necessities could be procured, how best to social distance, and whether the use of washrooms and laundry facilities would be affected as well as who to contact in case of further queries. Downloadable information posters in the same languages were included with the podcasts. These also mentioned that residents would receive all three meals everyday so as to reduce the use of the communal kitchens.

Meanwhile, podcasts and posters on general Covid-19 hygiene tips were made available in more languages including Bulgarian and Romanian. Langenbach explains that the outreach was extended to people not living in asylum centres, such as members of the Roma community travelling to Germany from Eastern Europe for the winter. The LAF took it upon themselves to caution these seasonal visitors as well about the protective measures to be taken through a videocast.

“But it wasn’t just any normal videocast. You see, we learnt that the Roma do not trust any information provided by state authorities, given their circumstances back home. So we produced a videocast featuring a Roma interpreter who conveyed all the necessary information in their native language to establish trust. We then distributed it directly among the various NGOs aiding this community,” states Langenbach.

A multilingual poster in Berlin reminding commuters to social distance. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

Other authorities and NGOs in Germany and beyond are finding ways to communicate crucial information in multiple languages. PRO ASYL, a German non-profit that provides legal advice to asylum seekers has been publishing information on Covid-19 and how to protect against it in several languages, along with the various precautionary measures being taken by federal offices, on its website. Similarly, a Facebook page run by Dutch volunteers seeks to provide contextual information to immigrants in the Netherlands by translating coronavirus-related news broadcasts into English.

READ ALSO: How translators in the Netherlands are making Covid-19 information more accessible

Spreading awareness and adequately informing the public is important, especially in times of disinformation. However, following these guidelines and regulations, especially that of social distancing, has been a problem amid Germany's housing crisis. Reception centres have been accused of being cramped and inadequate, with several NGOs calling for the decentralization of accommodation for asylum seekers. 

“While numerous measures to restrict contact are prescribed to protect against the coronavirus, tens of thousands of people in Berlin live in refugee [and] homeless shelters, in confined spaces in multi-bed rooms, with shared bathrooms and/or shared kitchens… another 20,000 live in collective accommodation of the State Office for Refugee Affairs LAF. In this situation it is impossible to adhere to the prohibitions on contact and distance,” said Women in Exile, We’ll Come United Berlin/Brandenburg, the Refugee Council Brandenburg and other organizations in a joint statement in April.

A sign pointing to an asylum centre in the town of Halberstadt in Saxony-Anhalt, which was placed in quarantine in April after a number of people tested positive for Covid-19. Photo: Jens Schlueter/AFP

In June 2020, the city council of Potsdam agreed to slowly do away with shared accommodations for refugees and house them in apartments or units with private bathrooms and kitchens. Meanwhile, a human rights NGO, the Bavarian Refugee Council, appealed for an immediate dissolution of mass accommodations, suggesting that the residents be housed in apartments or empty hotels.

When asked about the feasibility of such a solution, Langenbach commented: “If they can achieve it then that’s wonderful. Good for them. However it is not possible in city states such as Berlin or Hamburg. It is logistically not possible to house refugees in these empty hotels because it would disrupt their routine lives and they would have no facilities to cook or clean. Moreover our staff would not be able to attend to them efficiently if they were scattered across the cities. The families would feel uprooted if they had to worry about how to send their children safely to school in an unfamiliar locality.”

As for apartments, Langenbach alludes to the country’s growing housing problem where locals and newcomers alike struggle to find affordable long-term accommodation. “I have had to change accommodations several times this year. I moved into my apartment very recently. So I’m sure it is hard for the others as well.”

READ ALSO: How locals are helping refugees navigate Hamburg's crowded housing market

At present the LAF’s facility in Reinickendorf houses around 18,600 asylum seekers in condominiums and has a maximum capacity to house 20,000 people. In addition to this, the LAF has also repurposed one of the “tempo-homes” or container villages that were built in the outskirts of Berlin between 2014 and 2016 as a quarantine station.

These temporary accommodations were initially set up as a measure to deal with the huge influx of asylum seekers in 2015. They were intended to be a short-term solution and were viable for a maximum of three years. The container village being used as a quarantine station has the capacity to house 300 coronavirus positive-tested residents for a 14-day period along with medical staff who speak a variety of languages.

A project to replace these tempo-homes is also in the pipeline. The plan is to build around 38 concrete buildings over the next few years that should be durable for at least 80 years. The Berlin Refugee Council, an NGO that has repeatedly stressed the need for flats for refugees to live in, says that the new buildings will at least ensure privacy for the residents and their families.

Even beyond the coronavirus pandemic and Germany’s national lockdown, the problem of finding appropriate housing persists. As Langenbach pointed out: “Many asylum seekers stay on for much longer in the reception centres and short term accommodations even after having their applications approved due to the housing crisis.”

Tanushree Basuroy is a keen traveller and cultural storyteller from India. She is currently pursuing an Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Globalization at the University of Hamburg, Germany. She is especially interested in travel journalism and the representation of women in pop culture. Find more of her work here.

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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.