On Tuesday, the world remembered the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camp Auschwitz. The same day, the German city of Augsburg decided to turn a branch of the former concentration camp at Dachau into a refugee center. The asylum seekers were slated to live in a building where thousands of slave laborers suffered and died under the Nazi regime.
The Dachau outpost is not the only concentration camp site that is being turned into a refugee center in Germany.
In the middle of January, the German city of Schwerte started to move asylum-seekers who had volunteered to be relocated into a branch of the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. Regional integration secretary Guntram Schneider had previously criticized the plan, saying that the city's intentions would be misunderstood abroad.
Birgit Naujoks, a representative of a local council of asylum-seekers, voiced similar skepticism about such projects, speaking to The Washington Post on Friday: "Generally, the use of former concentration camp compounds as refugee centers awakens associations with the site's Nazi-era [use], where people were forcefully herded together," she said.
She added, however, that the refugees living at the former concentration camp compound in Schwerte were so far happy with their accommodations, despite its history. "They say that they have much more space there compared to the building they had previously lived in," Naujoks said.
Schwerte's mayor had pursued his plans despite the criticism. At a news conference this month, he defended the plan to house the refugees at the prison camp site. According to him, there were no short-term alternatives, given the growing influx of asylum-seekers into Germany. He added that refugees were being accommodated in a house built after World War II on the grounds of the site, rather than a former concentration camp barracks. The building in question was also used as a refugee center nearly two decades ago.
In Augsburg, city officials are trying to emphasize their good intentions. "One cannot only commemorate [at this memorial site], one also has to act," city official Stefan Kiefer told local newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine, referring to the pressing need to find housing for refugees. According to the paper, local politicians welcomed the proposal, saying that turning the former barracks into a refugee center would make it a "better memorial site than a museum would be." Antje Seubert, a representative of the Green party, celebrated the decision as a "victory over fascism."
To understand why the accommodation of asylum-seekers on former concentration camp sites is celebrated as a victory in Germany, one has to take a deeper look at the country's current struggle to deal with a growing influx of refugees.
In 2013 and 2014, more asylum claims were submitted in Germany than in any other country, leading to a shortage of available housing to accommodate the refugees.
To absorb the growing number of asylum seekers, city representatives have turned to such unusual alternatives as empty warehouses, military barracks and tents. Officials have also had to deal with protests by locals opposed to the mass accommodation.
In recent weeks, the anti-Muslim Pegida movement has gained support, particularly in eastern Germany. Among the movement's goals is the creation of a new immigration law that would make it more difficult for refugees to come to Germany and easier to deport asylum-seekers.
Most national German politicians are opposed to Pegida's goals, and momentum for pro-tolerance marches and protests has grown in recent weeks. Local politicians and city officials, however, are increasingly concerned about the lack of housing and support for new asylum-seekers. In 2014, German refugee centers were attacked about 150 times, presumably by right-wing extremists, according to a recent report by the Amadeu Antonio foundation.
Given such worrisome trends, some consider the current debate about the accommodation of refugees on former concentration camp sites as overblown and a distraction from more pressing concerns.
On Thursday, German newspaper Handelsblatt commented that the real, underlying problem was far worse than the accommodation of refugees in former death camps: "The use of decaying buildings, containers or even tents as refugee centers does neither enable people to live in dignity, nor will it promote assimilation."