Lamine explains how he places his bet in a betting parlour in Bonn, Germany | Photo: Marco Wolter
Lamine explains how he places his bet in a betting parlour in Bonn, Germany | Photo: Marco Wolter

Solitude, too much time to kill and a need for money: All these factors make sports bets or gambling tempting for asylum seekers. We investigated the phenomenon in Germany, an Eldorado for slot machines and sports betting shops.

There are just a few minutes left of the game between the teams Espanyol from Barcelona and Bétis from Seville. The Espanyol players are leading by one goal to zero. Lamine has placed 50 euros on Seville equalizing before the final whistle blows. “To win you have to follow the match closely,” explains the Guinean who has become a regular client at his local sports betting shop in the center of Bonn, Germany.

Here coffee costs around one euro, you can come and go as you please. No one asks to see your papers. And that is how Lamine likes it because he is only in possession of a temporary residence permit. His asylum claim, lodged in 2016 was rejected.

Lamine left Conakry (the capital of Guinea) where he says he was threatened with death. He traveled through Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, before waiting eight months in Libya for his chance to board a boat to cross the Mediterranean. From Italy, he made it to France and finally Germany where he wound up in the Bonn area.

In Germany there are around 326000 people who have some kind of problematic behavior linked to addiction to gambling and betting according to official figures  Photo Picture-alliancedpaMScholz

The appeal of an instant win

On the screens which are dotted all around the small betting shop, the match has reached its conclusion. The players are in extra time. In a last volley, a Bétis player sends the ball into the penalty area. They line up and one of his teammates receives a pass on the rebound and manages to equalize in the 94th minute.

The referee blows his whistle for the end of the game. This evening, Lamine has been lucky. He pockets 136 euros.

What makes people addicted is the sustained frequency of events
_ Anja Bischof, researcher

This type of sports betting, just like gambling machines, are some of the most addictive types of gambling because of the way they appear to offer an instant win. “No one becomes addicted to the lottery,” explains Anja Bischof, researcher at the University of Lübeck. “When I am buying my lottery ticket on Monday, it would be pretty hard to keep up that level of heightened adrenaline until the draw on Wednesday. There is just not that level of suspense.”

That is not the case with sports bets where you can even put bets on during the course of the game. “What makes people addicted is the sustained frequency of events, the constant availability of an event you can watch in real time. I put money on and I quickly have a result. Sports bets are pretty fast, like all the games you can find in a casino.”

In Germany, there are around 326,000 people who have some kind of problematic behavior linked to addiction to gambling and betting, according to the German Federal Center for Education and Health (BzgA). These individuals are overtaken progressively by the need to play until they drop all other activities in their lives.

It is at the point that they are unable to control the time they spend on this and the money they put into it that they reach that addictive state. Nearly 180,000 people are suffering from this kind of addiction in Germany, which can lead to family conflict and dramatically large debts.

The people who have the highest risk of addiction are young men; those younger than 25, who have a relatively low level of education and set of qualifications, a low income and often come originally from another country. Those of Turkish origin can be particularly at risk.

Some gambling parlors like this one in Cologne are often open 24 hours a day  Photo Marco Wolter

‘Explosive cocktail’

There is not yet a definitive study or statistics in Germany on the subject of how many of the more than one million migrants, who arrived in Germany from 2015 onward, could be affected by this kind of addiction, but it seems probable that many of them could be at risk.

The lack of financial means, not being allowed to work and having a lot of time on their hands, possibly paired with an experience of trauma -  all these factors can contribute to an addiction to gambling.

“Everyone needs some sort of distraction and reward,” explains Jens Kalke from the Research Institute on addiction and drugs in Hamburg.

Even if he cannot yet definitively prove any link between the experience of those who have lived through war and conflict and a tendency to addiction, he says there are studies indicating that there is a strong correlation between traumatic experiences and this kind of addictive gambling.

According to Jens Kalke, “we are always looking for that constellation of triggers.” The scientist explains that there are not yet any figures related to this, but the fact of being alone in society, of perhaps accompanying other migrants to gambling halls just to pass the time, the need for money and the fact that many have lived through traumatic experiences could all constitute an “explosive mix” which could, over the years lead to an addiction.

People deny the chance factor
_ -Jens Kalke, Researcher

Addiction to gambling is an illness which develops over several years. Like most other addictions, its symptoms can be recognized when there is an inability to stop gambling. There is a certain kind of isolation which comes with it.

Those who are addicted can only think about gambling, whether that be when they are at work or during evenings with friends. They constantly plan their next outing to a gambling hall and begin to stake more and more money on their bets.

The illusion of control

To all these other symptoms, for those who are addicted to slot machines, there is a particular illusion of control, mixed with superstitions and beliefs. “These people deny that there is an element of chance involved and they think they are able to control the machine because they have worked out the system,” confirms Jens Kalke. That is also true of those who bet on sports, because they believe that it is about what they know about the game which can take away that element of chance.”

That is true in Lamine’s case. He explains that for him “gambling is like a gift or skill” and that he “doesn’t have any doubts in his abilities.” He says for instance that he would never play any slot machines because they are just too random. Even when he bets on football, he bets just on the European games because he knows the teams.

“It is not a game of chance,” claims the Guinean, pointing his finger at a game being broadcast on the screens in the betting shop. “If I see a team which are really dominating the game, like this one for example, I can tell who will win and who will lose.”

And yet, betting on sports is indeed classified as a game of chance in Germany. “Every poker player would tell you the same thing,” explains the researcher Anja Bischof. He would say that it is not just a game of chance but a game of skill. Except, at the end of the day, whether it be slot machines, poker or sports betting, they are all games of chance.”

The German center for addictions has come up with a smart illustration of the problem. It compared the number of world poker champions with the number of world chess champions, (the perfect example of a game of strategy). Over a period of twenty years, poker has had 20 different world champions, in chess, only three people shared that title across the same time period. That would seem to perfectly illustrate the role randomness plays.

When gambling becomes the only type of ‘legal’ work available

At the moment, Lamine thinks he is doing well, comforted by his regular wins which allow him to, basically get by. “I can win between 200 and 400 euros per month,” he says, stirring his coffee.

And that’s what it is all about for Lamine, earning money. The Guinean man explains that once upon a time he earned a living as a hairdresser but in Germany, because of his migration status, he is not allowed to work. He does a few odd jobs here and there, he cuts friends’ hair at home for 10 euros an hour for example.

The rules vary in Germany, depending on the region with regards to when an asylum seeker can actually work and how much; normally, though, for the first three months in the country an asylum seeker is not permitted to work. It is even more difficult for those who only have temporary leave to remain. As well as the problem of work permits, there is often a lack of qualifications and the language barrier which put a break on many migrants’ accessing the employment market.

Even if the overall level of unemployment is relatively low, there are nearly half a million refugees and asylum seekers who are looking for work at the moment.

“Today I would say betting is my job,” confirms Lamine. I am trained and I have skills but they won’t let me work in that field. If I want to buy say a telephone or a jacket and I don’t have any money then I come here to earn a bit more. If I buy a pair of jeans and they cost 70 euros and I only have 50 euros then I come here to earn the rest so I can buy them.”

While he is waiting to have his immigration status cleared up, Lamine is sharing a small studio flat with three other migrants in Königswinter, on the outskirts of Bonn. His flatmates come from Bangladesh, Morocco and Guinea.

“When I got here, there was a game on between Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain,” remembers the young man. “We don’t have the sports channels at home, and someone told us that we could take the train and see the match in Bonn. It was here that I started to bet, thanks to a Somalian guy who I met. He showed me how it all worked.”

Slot machines pose a huge risk of addiction You can play again and again in a short space of time which heightens the risk of addiction  Photo Picture-alliancedpa M Scholz

A sense of being at home

In Germany, there are thousands of sports betting shops and casinos. The market for betting, without even including sports betting, which is too complicated to calculate, is valued at nearly 46 billion euros.

The number of slot machines is, according to various sources, estimated at 240,000, or five times as many as the number of bank cash machines in the country.

“In some areas, there is a betting shop or casino on each corner and each casino is like a little village. It feels as though you are at home, there is a real feeling of welcome,” notes the addiction counselor Abuzer Cevik. He works in the help center in Hamburg. Most of the people he sees, more than 90 percent, are made up of people of foreign origin. The majority of them have been living in Germany for more than ten years. The majority of them are Turkish origin but there are also Iranians and people from the Maghreb among his clientele.

“They come from societies which have strong community networks, where it is normal to pass the time in a group. Whether it be in Turkey or Morocco, whether you are playing chess or cards. When you arrive alone here there is a huge need to be with other people. Casinos, sports bars and slot machine dens provide a place for those gatherings.”

After euphoria comes disappointment

Abuzer Cevik is sure that disappointment plays a huge role among those with whom he has talked. “A lot of them had a certain image of Germany before arriving. At first they were euphoric to be here, they told themselves that despite everything it would all go well, but then they realized that things weren’t really going well at all.”

On top of loneliness and a realization that they find themselves in a much more individualistic society is the fact that it can be difficult to find a job, because of the lack of a work permit and, or qualifications. There is a particularly strong sense of frustration among those who had hoped to be able to send money to their relatives back home.

‘No, The state does not give you advice for that.’
_ Lamine

Abuzer Cevik has even counseled people who saw coming to Germany as a ‘mission’ in order to save their families. But that can take a while here. Sometimes they might need a few years before they can really start earning money. Then suddenly, when someone sees that there is the potential to earn 1000 euros in one fell swoop at a gambling center, with as little as two euros to start the ball rolling; they think, well, if it works, then I could really make my family happy and not disappoint their expectations.”

Back at the sports betting shop where Lamine is in Bonn, the Guinean has seen people lose. But he also says he has seen “some guys win 700, 800 or even 1,000 euros here.” When you ask him if, when he arrived in Germany, the authorities told him about the potential risks of addiction from gambling he responds, “no, the State doesn’t give you that kind of advice.”

Varying levels of awareness

When we asked the German Federal Bureau for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) whether there was any kind of program for the prevention of addictive gambling among asylum-seekers in Germany, the BAMF said that it was not part of their remit and passed the responsibility on to the regional governments (the Federal Republic of Germany is composed of 16 states), stating that it was “the regional governments who are responsible for accommodation and health care.”

At the state level, the approaches vary. The state of North-Rhine Westphalia where the city of Bonn is situated, responds that there are no specific measures or information packs for migrants on the subject of gambling addiction. However, they do have information available in various different languages especially at reception centers and accommodation.

Similarly, the state of Saxony-Anhalt, in the eastern part of the country, confirms that there are no specific prevention methods to guard against the risk of becoming addicted to gambling in the welcome pack for those seeking asylum in the state.

The same thing goes for the city of Berlin, Germany’s capital. The city authorities there stated that prevention “was not part of the standard welcome procedure for asylum-seekers. However, they would provide information, as part of an advice service (Projekt Guidance) which helps inform migrants about the dangers of addiction in general.

The state of Baden-Württemberg in the south of Germany, affirmed that it had set up working groups in 2017 on the link between addiction and migration, under the guidance of the state minister of health, to better understand and identify the problem.

Finally, Bavaria, also in the south of Germany, does give out brochures, translated into 14 different languages on the risks of addictive gambling. Furthermore, the authorities in that state have tried to keep in touch with reception centers in order to help set up round table discussions in these places on the issue. The Bavarian minister of integration added that “in reality, their experience has shown that only a very small percentage of those seeking help in centers catering for addictions are actually asylum-seekers.”

A gambling parlor in Bonn In Germany there are several thousands of these  Photo Marco Wolter

‘A lack of understanding’

For the addiction counselor Abuzer Cevik, “people are not just prepared for the kind of life they find here. They really have no concept of what it will be like. Of course there are integration courses, language courses but those are just not sufficient.” He also thinks that when courses of action to fight addiction are offered to migrants, they often are not designed with them in mind and don’t really correspond to the kinds of cultures from which they come.

Once again, “often in their cultures, problems are tackled in a collective manner, on a group level. Relatives are involved too, they are even more active in trying to solve the problem than the person who is affected.” According to Cevik, what is needed are hours of listening and talking the issues through with more than one person to really understand the mechanisms going on, that kind of depth of attention is just not part of the German model of treatment or intervention.

“People arrive here with nothing, as if they were naked,” concludes Abuzer Cevik. “There are so many reasons to start gambling. They can go from loneliness, homesickness, all the way to not knowing how to pass your free time in Germany. All those things compound a lack of self-confidence which is really at the origin of addictions which can then take hold. When I play, I forget my problems, the things which have traumatized me, loneliness, and my disappointment.”

The Liverpool-Barcelona game

Back in the sports betting shop in Bonn. Lamine is explaining how things work on a touch screen which allows him to gamble. The screen calculates and posts the sums he could win based on what he has wagered. “If you want to bet on Barcelona, then here are the odds. And here are the odds for Liverpool. If you choose to bet on Liverpool and you put 20 euros down, you could win 76 euros. If you put down 100 euros, you could win 380.”

Today it is the first leg of the semi-final in the UEFA Champions League. A match that Liverpool will go on to lose 3 – 0 away to Barcelona. For experts and football fans, the return match should be just a formality for the Spanish side. Their place in the final seems almost guaranteed.

One week later, the return match. Barcelona is knocked out of the competition by losing 4-0 to Liverpool. Who would have bet on that?

Author: Marco Wolter

Translation: Emma Wallis


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