1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Plenty of space at Tempelhof refugee camp

Ben Knight, BerlinMarch 25, 2016

Berlin is going ahead with plans to expand the big refugee center at Tempelhof airport, even though its population has dropped. Campaigners say it's a back door for developers in the much-loved park. Ben Knight reports.

Bildergalerie Tempelhofer Feld Grillen
Image: imago/imagebroker

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's new anti-asylum measures are beginning to pay political dividends in the nation's capital, though they are perhaps not as beneficial for the refugees stranded in Greece. According to Berlin's latest official figures, only around 50 refugees are arriving in Berlin every day - a long way below the 1,000 that sometimes arrived daily last fall.

The effects have been clear at the disused but much-loved Tempelhof airport, some of whose hangars were converted into a huge makeshift refugee shelter late last year. Though well over 2,000 were living in the hangars at one point, there are only 1,700 there now - and 600 free beds, the city's social affairs administration has said.

Families and refugees who have had their status as asylum-seekers confirmed are being moved to better accommodation around the city, government spokeswoman Regina Kneiding told the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Tempelhof Berlin
There are around 1,700 refugees living in the hangars at TempelhofImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Plans to accommodate 7,000

But Kneiding also confirmed that plans to build extra temporary accommodation on the airfield would go ahead anyway - in defiance of a referendum in 2014, when Berliners voted to keep the entire airfield free from property development. (The airfield became a vast and much-used park called Tempelhofer Feld after the airport's closure in 2008).

On January 28, the Berlin parliament imposed an alteration to the plebiscite that allowed construction on the field after all. Despite the drop in the refugee influx, the city wants to build extra shelters that would raise the total capacity to 7,000 and turn the area in front of the airport into a registration center for refugees, incorporating job-market advice, health care, social services and even a kindergarten. "That has nothing to do with the number of refugees," Kneiding told the paper.

Part of the concept for Tempelhof has already appeared, in the form of the "Blumenhalle" ("Flower Hall," because it was originally planned to host a garden show). What this building will contain is yet to be approved, since the planning permission for its conversion has not even been applied for - which means it will remain unused for at least another six months.

Esther Witt, spokeswoman for the "100 percent Tempelhofer Feld" campaign group, thinks this disorganization shows that the city doesn't even have a clear plan for the airfield. "What we criticize more than anything is that the law change that was pushed through on January 28 was done to add these two small green areas - but we can see that they don't even really have a proper plan for the concrete area in front of the building," she told DW. "For us the necessity for the law change just hasn't been justified."

"It's become clearer and clearer that the plans for Tempelhof are no longer primarily about helping the refugees and that there is no properly planned concept," she said. "The hangars are really below any minimum standard, and they're really awful places for refugees."

Flüchtlingsunterkunft Tempelhof Berlin
Critics say mass shelters incubate unrestImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

Centralization or decentralization

Campaigners and social workers have long complained that centralized mass shelters are pretty much the worst way to house refugees - they incubate social tension and hinder integration. "Penning people up together in large group shelters for months leads to frustration," Christoph Wiedemann, director of a refugee shelter in the Karlshorst district of Berlin, told the "Tagesspiegel." "The nights are the worst; that's when the lack of any kind of privacy becomes most obvious."

The Berlin government argues that it has little choice at the moment - official figures for 2015 showed that nearly 79,000 refugees arrived in the city last year, though only 54,000 stayed. The city council currently estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 will arrive this year, with some 11,800 having already arrived up to March 10.

Campaigners are suspicious that the government is planning to allow property developers onto the airfield permanently, and is using the influx of refugees as a "back door" - something the referendum was specifically designed to guard against.

"The question is, why do they so desperately want to build on the Tempelhofer Feld?" said Witt. "We do think it's about getting a foot in the door for the developers. We worked on this referendum campaign for three or four years, and if that whole debate can be taken away and hedged within two years, then of course we think that has damaged the belief in direct democracy."