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Berlin to extend Tempelhof refugee camp after vote

Ben KnightJanuary 28, 2016

Berlin's Tempelhof airport is set to become Germany's biggest refugee camp after the state parliament voted to put up more shelters. Opposition politicians warned the plan was a "total integration policy disaster."

Flüchtlingsunterkunft im ehemaligen Flughafen Tempelhof
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

The Berlin government has controversially changed a law to allow extra refugee shelters to be built on the airfield at the city's Tempelhof airport, overturning a 2014 plebiscite that had sought to preserve what has become a much-loved park.

Thursday's law-change promises to turn a fraction of the huge, flat park into the biggest refugee shelter in Germany - housing a total of 7,000 people in and around one of Berlin's most iconic buildings. Opposition parties and activist groups have warned the plan will only create a "ghetto" that will exacerbate social tensions.

The planned change will see five further temporary buildings being built on the area, as well as sports areas, a kindergarten, a school and other facilities. The law also stipulates that all the buildings be dismantled by December 31, 2019.

The government insists it has no alternative to Tempelhof to avoid homelessness among refugees, and that the shelters being built there represent a temporary solution. "We don't want anyone who has experienced war and terror to have to sleep on the streets," MP Daniel Buchholz told the parliament during the debate.

The plans were pushed through by Berlin's two governing parties (the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party) that together command a ten-seat majority in the state parliament - but they didn't do it unanimously. CDU representative Markus Klaer called the plans a "simple and quick, but not a good solution," before voting against the motion.

Flüchtlingsunterkunft im ehemaligen Flughafen Tempelhof
Up to 12 people are housed in the refugee tents inside the hangarsImage: Andrew Wasike

Opposition and fear

Berlin's Green party leader Antje Kapek dismissed the government's plan to build the "refugee village" as a "strategy of despair." She also questioned the apparent desperation with which the plans were forced through: "To date there is still no feasibility study for sheltering 7,000 people," she said. "Acting quickly shouldn't lead to acting badly."

The Left party's Klaus Lederer went further, calling the plan a "total integration-policy disaster."

Underlying the opposition to the plans is concern that the government is planning to develop property on the airfield permanently, and is using the influx of refugees as a "backdoor" - something the referendum was specifically designed to guard against. Kapek argued that the law-change was not necessary for temporary buildings.

Felix Herzog, one of organizers of the 100% Tempelhofer Feld campaign in the 2014 vote, had mixed feelings about the new plan. Though he admitted that the government desperately needs emergency shelter, and is pleased that it isn't implementing its original plan to develop the green areas of the airfield, he still sees the current layout as a "bad temporary solution."

"It's really clear that the government has no concept of what to do," Herzog told DW. "You can't really call this a compromise, because there were no negotiation leaders to negotiate a compromise. We have to put a roof over these people's heads somehow, and unfortunately there are no visible alternatives at the moment."

"I'm enough of a realist to see that the circumstances in the administration are so catastrophic at the moment to see that there isn't enough time to look round for sensible alternatives," he added. "The Tempelhof field is the easiest solution."

Various citizen's initiatives - often with the support of architects - have come up with alternative concepts for housing Berlin's influx of refugees, including "Openport Tempelhof," which came up with a plan that would have preserved the integrity of the 2014 plebiscite while still making use of the Tempelhof airfield. Meanwhile an online portal has been set up that allows people to report empty property and find out if it can be used to house refugees.

Tempelhof shelter conditions

Many are also concerned that, despite the clause pledging to dismantle the new structures within four years, the refugee shelters will become permanent - indeed, the emergency shelters currently at the airport are theoretically only designed to be lived in for two weeks, but many of the refugees have been living there three months.

"Yes it's a warm animal barn," one refugee from Damascus told DW. "This place is good for animals, we thought, but if we talk about humans it's definitely different." He and his wife have been living in the hangars with ten others in one of the roofless "boxes" partitioned with canvas inside the hangars. Privacy is virtually impossible. "We try to cover around the bed and sleep - inside it becomes like a tomb," said the man, who didn't want to be named.

There are no cooking facilities, the only toilets are plastic and "smell bad," and the refugees have to get on a bus to shower at a separate tent. "We are afraid they plan to keep us here," the man said, when told of the plans to extend the camp.

"In the end the Germans ought to know that the Syrians like to work and they did not come here for the food we are here to build this country with you because our country is a country of civilization," the man added. "And we know what civilization means, so we want to get out to get life. Let's start the journey of success - don't believe if you deal with us like animals that it is better for humanity."