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Germany

Berlin cuts ties with refugee housing firm after 'unspeakable' emails

A guillotine to behead migrant children? Berlin has fired a company operating shelters for asylum seekers after senior managers exchanged remarks to that effect - and more.

In a flurry of emails, they went on in great detail about children to be beheaded by a guillotine, the corpses later to be burned in a "large-volume crematorium." The senior PeWoBe employees seem to have greatly enjoyed their fantasies. Now, perhaps, they no longer find it a laughing matter: The city of Berlin has canceled its contract with the refugee housing management company.

PeWoBe, which stands for "Professional Housing and Assistance Company," runs 11 refugee shelters in the German capital, and several more in the states of Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt. The firm prides itself on offering residents an "adequate support service by professionally trained staff," a glance at its website shows.

Far beyond gallows humor

Now that the internal correspondence full of macabre remarks has merged, professionalism is the last thing that comes to mind in connection with PeWoBe. Via email, several senior employees discussed what they should do with a 5,000 euro ($5,600) donation.

A sandbox was out of the question because the residents "would quickly turn it into an ashtray or a local toilet," wrote Peggy M, director of one of the shelters. Instead, she suggested getting a "child guillotine."

Mario Czaja

Berlin minister Mario Czaja canceled the company's contract

Other employees sent her photos of guillotines and decapitated heads. Beheadings are so messy, another female colleague warned: "There's always splatter." They also discuss a crematorium for which they would award an environmental certificate because the waste heat "is used for a cause."

"We're so good," the employee concluded, adding that the "maximally pigmented" refugees could do the cleaning up.

The email correspondence was leaked to the city of Berlin, and over the weekend, the media began to pick it up.

"The current handling of the unspeakable - and as far as I'm concerned inexplicable and unjustifiable - email correspondence shows that we can no longer work with PeWoBe," Berlin Social Affairs Minister Mario Czaja said. Apart from the emails, indications of deficiencies in several shelters had led to doubts concerning the company's "suitability" for the job, he said.

"Even after repeated inspections, the problems hadn't been solved," Czaja said. The contract was canceled without notice, he added: "We're looking for a new management company. None of the shelters will be closed."

Litany of complaints

PeWoBe first made the headlines three years ago when crowds including far-right extremists protested for weeks against the company's refugee housing in Berlin's eastern Hellersdorf district.

Berliner Zeitung screenshot

The 'Berliner Zeitung' published some of the emails

The local "Hellersdorf Hilft" (Hellersdorf Helps) initiative has long complained about conditions at the shelter - and more recently, about the shelter's new director. Peggy M. has a far-right background and ran for a far-right party in local elections the town of Bernau in 2008. It turns out this is the same woman who raved about guillotines for children.

At the Hellersdorf shelter, she is said to have introduced herself to the refugees with the words "Me boss, you nothing."

The initiative says she immediately disconnected Wi-Fi at the shelter. "It's unfortunate that it took this email scandal for the company to be dismissed," the initiative's press spokesman Stephan Jung said, adding that there had always been sufficient grounds.

The refugees regularly complained of an atmosphere of intimidation, Jung said, but declined to give more details because PeWoBe has filed for injunctive relief, threatening a lawsuit against the initiative. "We're a small group of volunteers," Jung said, adding that "Hellersdorf Hilft" can't afford to go to court.

A look into the archives of local Berlin newspapers reveals irregularities in connection with PeWoBe. The company allegedly forged employee lists in order to conceal the fact that they had far fewer staff than the city of Berlin stipulates.

Also in connection with the company, the suspended head of Berlin's Department for Health and Social Affairs is being investigated for allegedly having referred assignments to PeWoBe because his godson was head of a firm entangled with PeWoBe through shareholdings.