Many refugees never learnt to swim back home. Now with the beginning of summer the risks this entails are rising – several refugees have already died in swimming accidents.
Many arrived for the first time in autumn and are experiencing their first summer in Germany.
Peter Astashenko, manager of the Bavarian Lifeguard Service, says that inexperienced migrants often do not correctly gauge the danger involved with bathing in ponds and rivers.
“They see that lots of people are in the water and that it looks fun. Suddenly the river bank slopes down, they slide into the water, panic, take a deep breath, and they drown,” he says.
In 2015, 27 refugees lost their lives while swimming.
This season in Bavaria alone at least two refugees have already drowned.
A 17-year-old asylum seeker died in Bad Aibling when he paddled a surfboard onto a lake, the board tilted over, and he fell off.
“He fell into the water ten meters from the bank and didn't resurface,” says Astashenko.
But this year the Bavarian Lifeguard Service is offering swimming courses for refugees, and language should be no barrier.
“Learning to swim is not a problem – you can even teach it with your hands and feet.”
But there is no state funding for courses.
“The state is not obliged to provide swimming lessons to asylum seekers,” says a spokesperson for the Bavarian ministry for social affairs.
“There is no federal or country-wide programme for refugees being taught to swim – that is a matter for the local authorities,” a speaker for the interior ministry of Schleswig-Holstein also explained.
Jürgen Steingreber runs a small indoor swimming pool in Harrislee, Schleswig-Holstein, where he teaches refugees to how to stay safe in the water.
“Their experiences on the Mediterranean Sea made many of them decided to learn to swim.
“I have refugees in my class who have had to witness children falling overboard and no adult being able to jump in after them – because none of them could swim,” says Steingreber. “That makes me terribly sad.”
Many of the refugees who come to North Rhine-Westphalia cannot swim either.
A speaker for the German Lifeguard Association (DLRG) says that members are always saying “the number of swimmers [among refugees] seems to be low.”
In the past year, the DLRG counted 70 swimming-related deaths in North Rhine-Westphalia, three of whom were refugees.
Since last year they have taken steps to better educate swimmers, providing safety information in Arabic, English, French, Persian, Urdu, Russian, Albanian and more. In addition, some local DLRG societies are visiting refugee accommodation and offering swimming courses.
According to the DLRG, a general problem with teaching swimming is that there are “fewer and fewer pools suitable for teaching.”
Refugees have also drowned while swimming in Hamburg: three on one midsummer weekend at the beginning of June.
The Safe Water Association on the Baggersee in Allermöhe has noticed that unattended underage refugees tend to swim in groups, but they are bad at judging their own strength.
According to Safe Water Association spokesperson Monika Retzlaff, swimming courses must be organized better: “learning German is important, learning to swim is essential.”