Documenting the Spatial Practices of Global Migration

Refugees Welcome

Category : FIELD TRIP 09/23/2015

Nothing exemplifies the discrepancy between nation-state policies on migration and the local impact migrants have on cities more than the current refugee crisis in Europe. While European leaders struggle to come to an agreement on how to reform their policies, cities and towns across Europe are confronted with desperate people arriving on their doorstep with real needs and immediate spatial impacts on these communities.

On a recent trip to visit family in Germany I took a closer look at the spaces, refugees encounter along this leg of their journey to safety.

Germany uses the “Königsteiner Schlüssel”, a key to determine the distribution of asylum seekers across its 16 states based to 1/3 on population and 2/3 on tax income of each state. States then distribute refugees among the cities and towns within their jurisdiction and distribute funding accordingly. The federal, state and local government share the costs of providing housing and services to newly arrived asylum seekers. The recent massive influx has made it difficult to stay on top of the system. Municipalities are notified often no more than 48 hours in advance that they have find or create accommodation hundreds of refugees.

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Königsteiner Schlüssel, 2015

My hometown Langen in Hessen, just south of Frankfurt is a town of 35,000 with a history of accommodating refugees. In 1956, it opened an Übergangswohnheim (interim housing)  to house refugees temporarily until they could find permanent housing.

Initially the residents were primarily ethnic Germans displaced from Eastern European countries and Russia after World War II. It wasn’t actually a camp the way we imagine refugee camps. It was a cheaply built complex of several apartment buildings made out of pre-fab concrete with real street addresses that housed about 1,200 people. Nevertheless, growing up in the 70s and 80s we would always just refer to it as the “camp”. Over the decades, the neighborhood around the camp developed and grew. Many residents of the camp found permanent homes nearby. It is estimated that about 20% of Langen’s population have lived in the camp at some point in their life.

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The “camp” in Langen 1964

In the 1990s, it was filled again with people from Russia and the former Soviet Union until its closing was announced in 2002 and the entire territory was sold to a developer. Several buildings were demolished to make way for a new neighborhood square, others were renovated to become rental apartments. The town of Langen and the state of Hessen have since adopted a different strategy for housing refugees. Rather than accommodating large numbers in improvised “interim” camps for a long period of time that as in this case, turn into permanent housing, the goal is a decentralized approach that distributes families into existing housing after a brief initial period in a reception center or transit camp, where refugees stay while filing their asylum claim, beginning a spatial integration process early on.


Neighborhood Square “Platz der Deutschen Einheit” with the renovated buildings in the background. THe art installations on the facade were a commissioned work by a former resident

Today Langen is not designated as an early reception center. (In a nearby town of Neu-Isenburg, the decommissioned printing press and warehouse of a large daily newspaper was recently opened as such for more than 700 refugees on the first weekend that Chancelor Angela Merkel decided to welcome everyone stuck in Hungary.)

Instead, asylum seekers are settled in Langen after the initial paperwork is filed and while they wait for their asylum application to be processed. This can take months. Given the opportunity to appeal negative decisions means, it could take years. The city decided early on in 2014 to try to accommodate refugees in regular apartments. It sent an open call to developers and landlords to offer vacant apartments to the city for refugees instead of finding tenants. The city pays market rate rent. 240 refugees have been accommodated in 90 apartments using this decentralized strategy. City representatives see a big advantage for integration. Refugees become part of the fabric of their block and their neighborhood surrounded by German neighbors. It also leaves school gymnasiums or community centers to their original purpose -often easy targets for emergency shelters. Despite the current outburst of “Willkommenskultur” (Culture of welcome) that refugees experience these days in Germany, the use of such facilities to accommodate refugees creates inconvenience for everyone and in the long run will lead to complaints and protests.

The recent increase of new arrivals means that Langen can no longer continue its decentralized strategy. It will need space for a lot of refugees quickly. Next up is a decommissioned day care facility that was closed because no longer adequate. Now, toddler-size toilets are being replaced with regular ones and the entire facility will be renovated to house up to 65 refugees.

If these numbers seem ridiculously small, they do correspond to earlier estimates of the total number, when Germany’s politicians assumed, the country could cope with 800,000 new arrivals in 2015 or roughly 1% of its population. According to these numbers, a small town like Langen is taking in its share and so do the 1,300 or so other towns of similar size. Only a few weeks into “Willkommenskultur”, these estimates are already outdated and officials in Langen are seeking additional alternatives, still adamant that large spaces like gymnasiums or rooms for cultural organizations are off-limits “to not threaten the social peace” and the willingness of citizens to help.

Across the country municipalities are seeking ways to create these spaces of migration -primarily housing, but also places for services, language and integration classes, spaces for children to play. A big problem for municipalities is financing and capacity. While the states reimburse municipalities for their efforts, the money often comes late, involves a lot of paperwork and local governments have no personnel capacity to actually do this work.


The next stop on my trip was Berlin-Moabit.  It is the site of a different moment in the long journey to become an official asylum-seeker in Germany.


A map of Berlin, highlighting significant sights for newly arrived refugees

Here, the Landesamt for Gesundheit and Soziales or short “LaGeSo” (Department for Health an Social Services) is the first step in applying for asylum. In the fall of 2014, the city set up two tennis bubbles on a nearby soccer field to be used as interim accommodation for approximately 300 people while they file their paperwork. I used to work across from the soccer fields and remember hearing the shouts and ball-kicking noises through the office window on lush evenings. Now, my former colleagues hear murmurs and voices, babies crying and children playing inside the silver bubble.

It was estimated that newly arrived would remain here for 3-5 days maximum. The tents could be heated in the winter and were not expected to remain throughout the summer, when they were thought to be inefficient because cooling would be needed.


Emergency Shelter in Berlin-Moabit Fall 2015

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kids area


Inside the Emergency Shelter bubble via rbb

Needless to say, the tents are still there, soccer practice here has been canceled indefinitely and the number of asylum seekers that arrive daily in Berlin-Moabit for their first step in the process of asylum has long outweighed the capacity of the two tennis bubbles. It is estimated that up to 600 people arrive daily in Berlin, a total of 23,000 have made their way to register at the LaGeSo. A short walk away in front of the offices of LaGeSo, on a large green open space and parking lot, the scene is a strange mix of chaos, makeshift picnic, improvised medical assistance and the constant affirmation that everybody here is just simply human. Before the crisis, I imagine the space in front of the office as a quiet park with lush old trees used only by employees of the department perhaps for a lunch or cigarette break. The office was built in the 1970s, but several other buildings on the grounds are much older. It could be a University campus. And there are moments, where the scene in front of us could pass for the first day of class, where students roam between buildings, signing up for classes, housing or IDs, chatting with each other to exchange information, sitting in the shade for lunch, volunteers handing out flyers, campus maps or water.



Waiting in front of the Office of LaGeSo to register



But these are not students starting a new life –or at least not right now. Their new life is in limbo. The office is so overwhelmed by the shear numbers that many of them have to come every day, wait for 10 hours in hope to draw a number, which then enters them into the official waitlist to actually enter the office to register. I spoke to a young Palestinian who had just completed the process. He had been here for 3 weeks, sleeping at an Islamic center nearby, showing up every morning to wait in line. (Many others sleep in the park in front of the office, because they couldn’t find accommodation). Now he was finally ready to move onto the next step. He showed me a train ticket he was given. His train to Friedland left the next day. Even I couldn’t tell him where or what Friedland is or what to expect from this next space along his route. (I since looked it up and also learned that it is the same camp in which my father arrived when he fled from socialist East Germany in 1961. It is a camp similar to the one in my hometown built to receive ethnic Germans after World War II, still used as a Durchgangslager (transit camp) for refugees. Here he will have to stay for 3 months, he won’t be allowed to work during this time period and he will receive benefits primarily in the form of vouchers. After 3 months, refugees are transitioned into regular apartments, if possible, will receive an allowance that is close to, but still less than the minimum social security and are allowed to find work, although several restrictions apply while their asylum application is not decided. On average, this takes 5-6 months, but it can be much longer in certain cases, especially, if the applicant does not have identification. Those who are denied, can appeal, which in turn can prolong their existence without status and with limited ability to work, hence fully integrate into society for years.)


Transit camp Friedland in Niedersachsen

Here in Berlin-Moabit, Caritas and Red Cross have set up shop in two historic buildings on the campus. Refugees waiting to be registered receive medical care, clothes, diapers and food. Volunteers distribute water or offer their assistance to translate, help with filing paperwork or teach new arrivals how to navigate Berlin. Residents of the neighborhood have organized to alleviate the chaotic situation. The group Moabit-hilft disseminates information about what and where to donate goods, and coordinates the thousands of volunteers willing to help endure the chaos. They cannot help with the registration process, in Berlin currently the most painful bottleneck for refugees. This leads me back to the discrepancy between national immigration policies and the local impact they have without appropriate coordination or recognition of the local circumstances.

Less than a mile from the LaGeSo is chancellor Merkel’s office, where she declared 3 weeks ago “Wir schaffen das!” In tone and vagueness, perhaps intentionally close to Obama’s “yes, we can!” While the majority of Germans is very supportive of her attitude in general and came out in throngs to welcome trains of refugees, volunteered to hand out water and food or donate clothes, local municipalities were not ready to manage the flow. A week after Merkel and her Austrian colleague decided to open the borders to thousands of refugees stranded in Budapest, the German tabloid Bild declares the collapse of Munich. More than 10,000 refugees per day arrived in the city in the first week since “Wir schaffen das!” Even for the well-organized Germans, it was impossible to manage to arrange for initial help, accommodation or transport to other cities. On a European scale, progress is slow in convincing other nations to take their share and while internally, the federal government has promised additional funding for managing refugee resettlement, officials across all scales of government are slow to adapt to the pace of refugees pouring in, reluctant to ease bureaucratic procedures and regulations. Especially building regulations inhibit the ability to create more space for accommodations quickly and efficiently. The district of Berlin-Lichtenberg 10 km east of Moabit currently houses approximately 3,000 refugees mostly in container villages and in previously vacant  housing or office buildings.

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Open house at the container village in Lichtenberg for press and residents via Tagesspiegel


More than 50% of Lichtenberg’s housing stock was built by the socialist East German government by using prefab concrete slabs arranged in large-scale estates. Despite a recent housing shortage in Berlin, there is a substantial amount of these buildings that fell vacant and unmaintained over the years since reunification, their market value not enough to cover the costs of renovation to provide desired housing. In addition Lichtenberg has been struggling with a reputation of right-wing anti-immigrant cells. Not the most promising starting point to relocate thousands of refugees from the Middle-East. Nevertheless, in a recent conversation with the district mayor, she mentioned that owners of these dilapidated housing now see an opportunity, knocking on her door daily to offer these buildings for additional refugee accommodations. Hoping the state would cover the costs for fixing up the buildings –and would loosen up regulations to do so quickly, it could be an opportunity to revitalize some of the existing housing stock and working towards a long-term spatial solution rather than working with tents and containers. Other housing developers are contemplating building new housing quickly and cheap using the outdated pre-fab methods of former East Germany only to perform upgrades for energy efficiency and quality later, when the pressure for more housing quickly subsides. Again, regulations would have to be loosened or exceptions granted to build housing that doesn’t comply –at least initially- with Germany’s strict regulations.

lichtenberg leere platte via architektur forum

Vacant  pre-fab building in Lichtenberg via architektur-forum

In the near future, German towns and cities will continue to improvise and seek to utilize unconventional spaces to house refugees. Berlin just converted one of its large athletic centers near the Olympic stadium to put up another 1,000 people. Such spaces are convenient because they already contain toilets and shower facilities, but its location is far from the center of the city, isolating newly arrived refugees and putting a strain on the expansive system of non-profit sport organizations who use the facilities for practice which could be a great asset to integrate foreigners into their soccer teams and other sports groups, if they still had the space.

Demonstrating the role of innovative architectural solutions, Jörg Friedrich , Professor at the Lebniz University in Hannover recently published the work of his students in Refugees Welcome. The goal was to design accommodation for refugees that can be built quickly but as an integrated part of existing urban life.

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Example from the publication of student work: Housing on top of low-scale University buildings

There is a great need and potential for architecture and urban planning to find smart solutions that are not only more cost-effective than temporary tents and containers, but also have the potential to foster the massive task of integrating newly arrived into cities and societies.