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Berlin's tug-of-war over gyms for refugees

Ben Knight, Berlin
December 3, 2015

Berlin's City Hall is in a clinch with local districts over the use of indoor sports facilities to house refugees. As the influx creates more pressure for action, critics argue that these halls are incubating tensions.

Berlin Reinickendorf- Wittenau Brand bei Flüchtlingsunterkunft
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

The struggle to find shelter for refugees in Berlin is becoming increasingly fraught, as local authorities in the nation's capital play tug-of-war over any publicly-owned real estate still available. The city is already housing refugees in old aircraft hangars, disused department stores, and even the former Stasi headquarters, but one ongoing battleground remains the city's indoor sports facilities, of which 36 have been requisitioned and repurposed as emergency shelters.

Last weekend, Berlin's sports federation demanded that the city council find somewhere else for the refugees. "We're calling on the Berlin government: maintain a sense of proportion, don't confiscate any more facilities to shelter refugees," the organization said in a statement. "Requisitioning gymnasiums to shelter refugees can only be a temporary emergency measure."

The organization called for the government to check for better alternatives, arguing that the city's sports facilities would be better used to help refugees integrate. The Berlin Field Hockey Association offered a similar statement, saying that sheltering refugees would "cripple" the power of sport to integrate new arrivals.

Sports for integration

"What we're saying is that the government did not activate other property in time," said Klaus Böger, head of the Berlin Sports Federation, told DW. "But otherwise our argument is that the sports clubs organize a lot for integration, and they want to do that. We provide opportunities for movement, community, distraction from the misery of waiting. Also sports help people to learn - including a bit of language."

Böger also pointed out that many locals had complained to their clubs about the occupation of indoor halls, and some had even canceled their memberships. "Of course, sports clubs, children, and parents get annoyed when games and classes aren't possible, when appointments aren't kept. They see it as an invasion of their lives," he said. "That hasn't yet turned into anger against refugees, though - and I am working to keep it that way."

Berlin Lageso Flüchtlinge Polizei
The lines at Berlin's LaGeSo registration center can last for daysImage: picture alliance/CITYPRESS 24

The mayor of Treptow-Köpenick has also received a number of complaints from citizens because they now had to travel further to sports facilities. "The fact that there is increased discontent among the population shows that the rising number of refugees in Berlin is having an affect on the citizens," spokeswoman Christine Herm told DW in an email.

The complaints from the clubs and the districts came in response to a demand made last week by Dieter Glietsch, the former police president who Berlin has made its refugee coordinator. "As you know, the shelter situation in the state of Berlin is highly strained because of the continuing high refugee numbers," Glietsch wrote to the mayors of all 12 districts in a letter leaked to the press. "In order to avoid homelessness, we are unfortunately forced to take gymnasiums to house refugees."

Glietsch called on each of the city's district councils to name four more halls to be made available for refugees, giving them until Friday, November 27 to respond. Four districts - including Treptow-Köpenick - refused to comply, while many others said they could not come up with enough indoor facilities.

"I think everyone is aware that occupying sports halls is not the ideal solution," Daniela Augenstein, spokeswoman for the Berlin government, told DW. "At the moment we don't have the choice between using sports halls and other, larger shelters. At the moment, the choice is between sports halls and homelessness."

"Around 50,000 people have come to Berlin since September 5, and we have found shelter for 22,000 people in publicly-owned property in that time," she pointed out.

What's more, if the districts don't volunteer sports halls, she added, there is only one solution. "We requisition them," she said. "This was already mentioned in the original letter to the districts, ... so that there would be a clean legal situation. It was clear from the beginning, and the districts want that too, so that the responsibility lies at state level."

Inhumane conditions

Many local authorities have found that sports halls make relatively good refugee shelters, because unlike aircraft hangars, they have showers, toilets, and have already passed health and safety checks. Not only this, Berlin has over a thousand of them (though Böger says some of these can't be used because of renovation work).

Nevertheless, districts have been growing increasingly disgruntled at the demands coming from city hall. "It can't be that we always have to jump and make new sites available within hours," Oliver Igel, mayor of the southeastern district of Treptow-Köpenick, told the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper. "We need a big solution for housing refugees, and that should include big sites, like the ICC or the trade fair premises."

Flüchtlingsunterkunft im ehemaligen Flughafen Tempelhof
Some 2,500 refugees are currently housed at Tempelhof airportImage: Andrew Wasike

Other district mayors also took to the media to suggest alternatives. Christian Hanke, mayor of Berlin's central district of Mitte, where three sports halls are now refugees shelters, said large venues like the Velodrom and the Ostbahnhof Arena would make better shelters. Hanke announced as early as January this year that he would not repurpose any more sports centers.

Meanwhile, Franziska Giffey, mayor of Neukölln, told local broadcaster RBB that it would be "very, very difficult" to find four sports halls in her area that could be converted, before adding that anyway sports halls were not good places to house refugees. "Every confiscation of a sports hall means a lot of social dissatisfaction and a limitation of public care on the one side - and on the other side a kind of shelter that is not humane," she said.

The city has been struggling to find space for what authorities say are 600 to 700 refugees currently arriving every day. The inhumane conditions faced by many refugees when they arrive have been exacerbated by the glacial pace of Berlin's bureaucracy - hundreds have been queuing for weeks at the LaGeSo registration center in the north of the city, and many of those waiting are dependent on local volunteers for food.

Meanwhile, refugee organizations have said concentrating mass numbers of new arrivals in large halls, with no sanitation apart from portable chemical toilets, is creating tension. Last weekend saw a mass brawl break out at the former Tempelhof airport, where some 2,500 people are being housed in shelters inside aircraft hangars. Despite the trouble, Berlin City Hall intends to build more temporary structures on the airfield so that 5,000 (and possibly more) refugees can be housed there.