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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

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 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.