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A sheltering case study: Transforming community facilities for asylum seekers in Essen, Germany

By Madeleine Lebovic | OMC 2024

A room awaiting transformation at the former St. Vincenz Hospital, where DRK Essen has run a shelter for refugees and asylum seekers since June 2022 (photo courtesy of the author).

In 2015, Germany received a substantial increase in asylum seekers due in large part to political instability in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Its comprehensive accommodation of forcibly displaced populations earned it a reputation of being particularly financially welcoming compared to other European countries in the years that followed. By 2022-2023, Germany was welcoming more first time asylum applicants than any other country in the European Union and by February 2024, Germany was host to the most displaced Ukrainians in Europe. 

To address the sudden increase in population, cities contracted local chapters of public service organisations to establish temporary shelters. In June of 2022, the city government of Essen, Germany asked its Red Cross chapter (DRK Essen) to open a shelter in a previously closed hospital. I happened to be working for DRK Essen at the time and transitioned teams to support its establishment; seven months later, I supported the opening of a second shelter in a previously closed hotel.

While logistics had to be sorted in order to prepare for arrivals, including the acquiring of supplies and coordination of staff support, the primary responsibility that fell to those of us running the shelter was prioritising the protection of residents and their sense of dignity. Here are operational questions to ask when transforming short-term facilities for migrants and those forcibly displaced that go beyond logistics:

What advantages and disadvantages does the space offer?

An old hospital might have medical and office supplies that are still usable; it may also have dangerous instruments that need to be removed or locked due to safety concerns. An old hotel might offer more comfort for its residents; that privacy might pose a risk for vulnerable residents and staff due to easily locked doors. While this question is worth considering when planning where to open a shelter, it is also important to ask amongst staff once residents are being received to plan how best to work with the space given. 

Whose needs are being considered?

Residents may be deaf, practise different religions, use mobility aids, need to breastfeed, have terminal illness, or require any number of accommodations – in addition to the challenges of coming from war. When preparing to receive residents, active thought must be given to how policy can be built to include all potential residents, from risk management procedures to bed allocation to food options. 

What are the contingency plans?

Lice breaks out. Someone tests positive for Tuberculosis. Interpersonal violence is reported. It is essential that rooms are allocated for quarantine and safety purposes and that plans are in place to support each resident in your care. 

According to UNHCR global trends, the total number of those experiencing forced displacement appears likely to remain high in the coming years. A response framework that includes asking localised questions as a component of sheltering training may better prepare team members to support beneficiaries in both domestic and international field operations for humanitarian assistance. 

Madeleine Lebovic has worked with displaced populations with the International Rescue Committee, American Red Cross, and German Red Cross in casework, programmatic, and operations capacities. Most recently, she helped establish and supervise two shelters in Essen, Germany in response to the war in Ukraine. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Tufts University and is currently a graduate student at the University of Denver, where she splits her coursework between the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and the Department of Media, Film, and Journalism Studies. Madeleine is also a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician and teaches with Denver Health Paramedics. 


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