Community & Education HKFP Voices

Regina wants refugee camps? We can do better, as German example shows

Regina Ip has suggested placing refugees in a detention camp in Shenzhen. Leung Chun-ying, rejecting the idea, said it would “take too long”, which hints at something more drastic. Before they proceed, they might consider Germany, and the story of Jonas.

I met Jonas Kakoschke in Berlin last year. Besides possessing all the attributes that are de rigeur for any self-respecting Berliner — job: graphic designer, beard: yes, demeanor: gechillt — there was something else notable about him. Jonas was living with a refugee.

Jonas Kakoschke. Photo: Joyce Man.

When Jonas’s flatmate left for ten months in Egypt, they had a choice: Rent her room out to just anyone, or to a refugee. A friend was teaching a Malian refugee called Bakari German and introduced them, and they clicked. Jonas and his flatmate turned to crowdfunding for rent, and with some effort, they raised enough. “We thought: Why not?” he said: “I got to learn about a completely new culture, and it has been easier for Bakari to learn German and integrate.”

The point of Jonas and Bakari’s story is not that it feels good. It demonstrates an idea: When refugees live among residents, it dispels fear, contributes to their wellbeing, and in some cases, takes up some of the slack from the government.

It’s an idea that informs the way many Germans think about housing for refugees. And Germans have been thinking about this a lot. Last year, Germany registered 441,899 applications, double the number a year earlier. That’s 45 per month per 100,000 residents, compared with six in Hong Kong.[1] But this is a slightly misleading way of looking at the need the government must meet from our point of view. Germany allows those who receive protection status — last year, that was half of all applicants — to remain, sometimes permanently, meaning demands on public resources are cumulative and long-term. In Hong Kong, successful claimants have no right to remain and are sent to another country.

Bremen Arberger Heerstrasse Transitional Residence for refugees. Photo: Joyce Man.

Admittedly, with rising numbers, bringing asylum seekers into the fold of resident communities has become less idea than ideal and extremely difficult to achieve. But it remains, in the words of Daniel Wesener, head of the Greens in Berlin “worth the try.”

That might be because there’s experience to back it up. Take the state of Northrhine-Westphalia, which receives the highest proportion of asylum-seekers. Frank Stein, previously head of the department of social welfare in the city of Leverkusen, said that under normal circumstances, it was more cost-effective to house asylum seekers in private accommodation among the populace than building unwieldy complexes that cost the state in staffing and maintenance. The city of Muenster found that making refugee homes architecturally indistinguishable helped lower tension. In 12 of 18 administrative divisions of the state of Thuringia, housing refugees in private accommodation cost the state less than communal centres, according to a study by Pro Asyl and the Muenster Refugee Council in 2014.

refugee accommodation

Photo: Joyce Man.

“When they’re in the community, it helps integration, and the refugees can take part in society,” Stephan Gruenwald, from the NGO GGUA-Fluechtlingshilfe in Muenster, told me. Karl Michael Scheufele, president of Swabia, an administrative region in Bavaria, said experience contact between residents and asylum seekers in daily life — at the supermarket or on public transport — eases their fears.

To be sure many, particularly the ruling Christian Democrats, do support communal housing, arguing that it allows authorities to ensure the departure of rejected applicants and attend to logistical needs more efficiently. But even then, they are thinking outside the box. “Communal” doesn’t have to mean “camp”. Officials are resorting to sports halls, hotels, disused hospitals and industrial buildings, even ski cabins and the old Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

Meanwhile, Kakoschke, his flatmate and others have created Refugees Welcome, where residents with rooms to offer can link up with refugees. Volunteers in a dozen countries have now replicated it. In Bremen, I met architects at Feldschneider + Kister, who designed a transitional reception centre that incorporates features to meet the needs of the largely Muslim applicant pool.

refugee accommodation

Photo: Joyce Man.

The current system in Hong Kong, where the government provides rental help for asylum seekers to find housing on the private market, theoretically works. There is, however, the question of subsidy, which stands at HK$1,500.

Apparently the Germans have thought a lot about this, too. Some cities apply the rental assistance levels used for those on unemployment benefits to asylum seekers. Berlin calculates rent and utility allowances using an annually adjustable index based on the private property market prices in what authorities categorize as “modest residential neighborhoods”. Social housing laws determine the attributes that units must meet to be deemed appropriate for different household sizes.

Under a 2014 court ruling, officials must disaggregate official housing assistance level by rent and heating to increase transparency. The reasoned approach mirrors the stance that the German Federal Constitutional Court took in a separate but related ruling in 2012. The court ruled that authorities, in determining “existential benefits” for asylum seekers, must not deviate arbitrarily from the method of calculation applied to German citizens.

Not all the ideas are viable or good, or would work in Hong Kong. But if there’s a lesson to be had from the biggest recipient of asylum seekers among industrialized nations, it is this: Ideas that are innovative, reasoned, balance needs, and pay attention to the basic rights of those who are most vulnerable will generally function better.

With applicants having no chance of remaining and 440 new claims a month, it is questionable whether Hong Kong should think in crisis terms. But it should think, to improve the wellbeing of refugees in the city, and to ensure we are prepared if we really do receive higher numbers.

[1] These calculations are as follows. 2015 asylum applications in Germany: 441,899 according to Federal Office for Migration and Refugees monthly statistical report for December 2015 “Asylgeschäftsstatistik Dezember 2015”, in other words 36,824 per month, divided by population of 81 million and multiplied by 100,000 = 45. Hong Kong received 440 per month since commencement of Unified Screening Mechanism in March 2014 according to Administration’s paper LC Paper No. CB(2)648/15-16(05) page 2, divided by population of 7.188 million, multiplied by 100,000 = 6.

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Regina wants refugee camps? We can do better, as German example shows