Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Germany Is Displacing Afghan Refugees to Make Way for Ukrainians

Hundreds of Afghans who fled the Taliban have been evicted as an even larger flood of Ukrainian war refugees arrive.

By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.
Afghans fleeing the country are evacuated from Kabul Airport in 2021.
Afghans fleeing the country are evacuated from Kabul Airport in 2021.
Afghans fleeing the country are evacuated from Kabul Airport on Aug. 25, 2021, after the Taliban's takeover. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

BERLIN—The knock on the door came when Parwana Amiri was having breakfast with her husband and two small daughters. An unexpected visitor—a social worker—stood outside, bringing even more unexpected news: The family would have to clear out their home for newly arriving refugees from Ukraine. No questions, no negotiation, just “out within 24 hours,” they were told.

Amiri, 33, a social activist and refugee from Afghanistan who arrived in Berlin in late January, fleeing the Taliban with the help of the German government after receiving threats for two consecutive years, is one of hundreds of Afghans across Germany who have been shunted aside to make way for newly arrived refugees from Ukraine. She requested to use a pseudonym to protect her security.

“The evictions purposefully weren’t publicized. Some people had lived in their homes for years and were ripped out of their social structures, including children who were moved to locations far from their respective schools,” said Tareq Alaows, a board member of the Berlin Refugee Council, a collaboration of different organizations helping to improve conditions for refugees in the German capital and making sure their rights are adhered to. Alaows said the government justified the evictions by claiming that Afghans were evicted from so-called “arrival centers” where they should only be staying short term anyway. But some families had been living there for years, while other families were living in accommodation other than arrival centers. 

BERLIN—The knock on the door came when Parwana Amiri was having breakfast with her husband and two small daughters. An unexpected visitor—a social worker—stood outside, bringing even more unexpected news: The family would have to clear out their home for newly arriving refugees from Ukraine. No questions, no negotiation, just “out within 24 hours,” they were told.

Amiri, 33, a social activist and refugee from Afghanistan who arrived in Berlin in late January, fleeing the Taliban with the help of the German government after receiving threats for two consecutive years, is one of hundreds of Afghans across Germany who have been shunted aside to make way for newly arrived refugees from Ukraine. She requested to use a pseudonym to protect her security.

“The evictions purposefully weren’t publicized. Some people had lived in their homes for years and were ripped out of their social structures, including children who were moved to locations far from their respective schools,” said Tareq Alaows, a board member of the Berlin Refugee Council, a collaboration of different organizations helping to improve conditions for refugees in the German capital and making sure their rights are adhered to. Alaows said the government justified the evictions by claiming that Afghans were evicted from so-called “arrival centers” where they should only be staying short term anyway. But some families had been living there for years, while other families were living in accommodation other than arrival centers. 

“Few people’s living conditions improved, but most were afraid to speak up, afraid it could impact their immigration status,” Alaows said, explaining that around 10 residences had been emptied in Berlin.

A 30-year-old Afghan man, who asked for his name to be withheld, also arrived in Germany in January with his mother and two younger brothers, one of whom suffers from a heart condition. He said that after the family was evicted from the same complex where Amiri had lived, he—the family’s only English speaker—was separated from his brothers and mother and offered accommodation in a different part of the city. While some families had been housed in the sort of arrival center Amiri had called home in her first months in Germany, others lived in hotel-like housing, all paid for by the German government. 

“Of course it’s not the Ukrainians’ fault, but we have to reflect on our solidarity if it’s only targeting certain people. The last months showed that different treatment of refugees is possible, and this needs to be systematically anchored in our society,” Alaows said.

The decision was made by Berlin’s Senate Department for Integration, Labor, and Social Services, arguing that it was “based on operationally necessary and difficult considerations” and that there was no alternative because Ukrainians, including many women with children, needed a roof over their heads and a bed.

“We regret that this caused additional hardships to the Afghan families [and that] the affected people had to move out of their familiar surroundings and now possibly have to keep up with their social connections with great difficulty,” said Stefan Strauss, the department’s press secretary. He said Berlin had a total of 83 different accommodations for refugees, already housing some 22,000 people, but that arriving Ukrainians needed to be consolidated to a few defined arrival centers to simplify processing. Strauss said evicted Afghans were given other “permanent” accommodation of equivalent quality, excluding shared bathrooms and kitchens.

It’s not always quite so rosy.

Amiri and her family have already been moved twice since their March eviction and now live in a former hotel on Berlin’s northern outskirts in Reinickendorf that is advertised as a temporary shelter for people who are “homeless”; it’s the family’s third home within a month.

“Securing permanent accommodation isn’t the goal,” a Facebook post drafted by the Reinickendorf district office said of the accommodation, and the two small rooms with a shared kitchen certainly don’t seem like it. It’s still better than the previous residence the family was put up in where even bathrooms were shared and Amiri soon found out that some of the residents had criminal backgrounds; she worried that it wasn’t safe for her daughters, one 5 years old, the other just 8 months old.

The family now lives mostly with other refugees, but the facility’s manager, Rädnitz, who refused to give his first name, confirmed that the accommodation is for people who are “involuntarily homeless.”

The new place doesn’t come cheap. Amiri showed a letter detailing how much the German government is paying for the two small rooms and shared kitchen: 37 euros a night per person, or about 4,500 euros a month—an exorbitant sum even for the expensive capital. And it’s not even clear how long they can stay: The family’s first residence, a small but fully stocked container apartment, was theirs until they would be able to find their own apartment (tough in the overcrowded capital, even with the German government still paying those costs); time in the new shelter runs out at the end of July.

“We don’t know where we’re sent to next,” Amiri said. “My daughter had already secured a kindergarten spot. We were slowly settling in until we were told to move. Since then, I’ve had no luck finding a nearby kindergarten with an opening.” And while English-speaking social workers were available to assist with immigration paperwork and help enroll newly arrived refugees in German classes, no assistance was provided at the new shelter.

The family’s first residence—the container apartment—was empty and deserted when Foreign Policy visited in early April, weeks after several families had been kicked out. Social workers voiced frustration over the government’s treatment of Afghans, as well as other Middle Eastern and North African refugees.

They pointed to one of the issues with Afghans arriving in Germany after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. Most people seeking safety in Germany enter the asylum system, which grants them temporary residency that is reevaluated every six months. Depending on the situation in their home country, extensions, and eventually asylum, are often denied. But most Afghans evacuated since last August skipped this process entirely, immediately receiving three-year residency permits.

“This means that soon after their arrival, Afghans fell into the same category—and are treated—as asylum-seekers who have been granted asylum and who have already been living in Germany for years, able to speak the language and to navigate the system,” a social worker explained on condition of anonymity. “That’s why, even though [Amiri] has just arrived here, she’s not [been] offered the same assistance. According to her immigration status, she should have already been living in Germany for years,” the social worker added.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany was Europe’s biggest host country for refugees, opening its borders in 2015 to people mostly fleeing war in Syria. More than 1.24 million refugees live in Germany, although Poland has welcomed some 2.8 million Ukrainians in the weeks since the Feb. 24 invasion.

When the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital last August, Germany flew roughly 5,000 people out—most of them Afghans. “Since then, the German government further evacuated roughly 4,000 people, and we managed another 3,000,” said Theresa Breuer, a co-founder of the nonprofit Kabul Luftbrücke. That brings the total number of Afghans who arrived in Germany after the Taliban’s takeover to roughly 12,000.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive at Berlin's airport.
Refugees from Ukraine arrive at Berlin's airport.

Lena Mandolina (left), 48, with her 3-year-old daughter, Anja, arrive from Ukraine, alongside their German friend, at Berlin’s former Tegel Airport on March 30. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

But since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany has registered at least 316,000 Ukrainians fleeing war. Berlin, in the country’s east near the Polish border, is a first arrival point for many and has so far registered 60,000 newcomers. Berlin’s former Tegel Airport, already empty, has since been turned into the city’s biggest arrival center for Ukrainian refugees, with a capacity to host up to 2,600 people a night.

Just like most Afghans, only a handful of Ukrainians will be staying in the German capital indefinitely; the majority are headed to one of the country’s 16 states. Amiri, who came to Germany in late January, registered in Berlin, where she now holds a three-year residency permit.

“My former boss was killed in Kabul, and after receiving personal threats, I always feared for my life. My daughter keeps asking if the Taliban will come here, and I can finally tell her ‘no.’ This is the first time I’m feeling safe, and I’m grateful because Germany is building a future for my daughters,” Amiri said from her small but bright room.

“When images first emerged from Ukraine, I cried for its people. I know war and its horrors. I still cry for them. I just ask that we’re all treated the same. Refugee is refugee.”

Update, April 22, 2022: This article has been updated to replace a source’s name with a pseudonym due to security concerns.

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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