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A German Plan: House Refugees In An Old Concentration Camp

A housing shortage for asylum seekers in Germany has led one city to propose a controversial solution that would place 21 refugees in a barracks on the grounds of a Nazi-era concentration camp.

Carsten Morgenthal, who is a spokesman for the city of Schwerte in North Rhine Westphalia, tells the Westdeutsche Allgemeine newspaper it isn't the first time this would be done.

Two decades ago, Schwerte officials also placed refugees at what was once a forced labor branch of the notorious Buchenwald camp during World War II.

Schwerte officials say the building they plan to use for the latest asylum seekers was actually built after the war. In addition to lodging the earlier refugees, it's been used as a kindergarten, a warehouse and an artists studio.

But other German officials — including the premier of North Rhine Westphalia — say the plan is unacceptable.

A growing chorus is criticizing Schwerte for being insensitive toward the refugees and the camp's painful history. Rikola-Gunnar Luettgenau, who is deputy director of the Buchenwald memorial, told DPA news agency that what the city is proposing is a "bad solution."

Schwerte's leaders say they are surprised by the outcry, and they refuse to budge.

"All buildings can't be taboo 70 years after the Second World War," Mayor Heinrich Boeckeluehr told Zeit Online.

In an interview with German public radio's Mitteldeutschen Rundfunk, Birgit Naujocks, who heads the NRW Refugee Council, called on the city to instead use repurposed shipping containers for the refugees. The city dismissed that idea as too expensive.

With an ever growing number of refugees arriving in Germany, the national government is asking local governments to contend with the newcomers.

The figures are still being tabulated, but United Nations officials say that in 2014 Germany likely had its highest number of asylum seekers in the past two decades — more than twice as many as France and 20,000 more than the U.S.

One in five of those coming to Germany is from Syria, while significant numbers are also coming from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Kosovo and Serbia.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.