The number of people seeking refuge and asylum in Germany has risen dramatically this past year. To cope with the influx, authorities in Berlin have created shelters, but they' are only temporary.
A gray, three-story box - that's the way this new home looks for some 90 people. It's a pre-fab building at a busy intersection in Grünau, in southeastern Berlin. Once built to house police headquarters, it's become a temporary shelter for refugees stranded in the German capital.
Michael Grunewald, a determined-looking 47-year-old, runs the home. He opens the door to one of the rooms on the ground floor, which contains six cots and a table. Blinds cover the windows; the sink hanging from the wall does not work. It is just enough to do the job for now.
"At least we've managed to furnish the rooms on one floor of the building with completely new items: beds, cabinets, tables and chairs," said Grunewald. He's been tasked with doing the next-to-impossible: turning the former police offices into living space for refugees virtually overnight.
The number of asylum-seekers growing
That refugees have to live in such emergency shelters has to do with the fact that more and more are coming to Germany, according to the Berlin authorities.
"We've managed to create a few extra places since 2010, but it's not enough to shelter all the new people who arrive," said Franz Allert, director of the Berlin Office for Health and Social Affairs. Now that winter has also arrived, the matter is all the more urgent, he said.
The number of people applying for asylum in Germany rose this year. 9,950 applications were submitted to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) in October alone - around double the number from the previous month. And similar figures have been registered for Berlin. While some 2,300 refugees arrived in Berlin for all of 2011, already by the end of October this year, some 2,850 have filed for asylum. "Berlin is popular, also among refugees," Allert said. "Urban life is more appealing than living out in the country."
Berlin has responded by turning empty buildings, such as former schools, hospitals, or police stations, into temporary shelters.
A sympathetic ear
The 90 people living in the former police precinct in Grünau must share four shower stalls at the moment, but shelter director Grunewald hopes more bath facilities can be installed soon. Even more important is responding to the other needs of the refugees, he says: "If they need medical care, we make an appointment for them and explain which tram they need to take to get there."
One hears a variety of languages in the hallways of the shelter: several African ones, Arabic, but most frequently: Bosnian and Serbian. The proportion of refugees coming from the Balkans to Germany has jumped, even though these people have little chance of gaining asylum. German authorities see them as economic refugees. Not a single Serbian refugee was granted asylum in October.
Attending school? Impossible
Asylum seekers spend most of their time waiting in the temporary shelters. Waiting for a letter from the German government agencies that determine whether they will be deported or can stay in Germany for a while longer. Should it be the latter, they then can move to more long-term asylum-seeker facilities. It can take up to six weeks for a letter from the agencies to arrive and it's difficult to be patient, especially for the 40 children currently in the Grünau building.
"They actually should be going to school because that is the law in Germany, but that simply isn't possible to organize," Grunewald said. "If they only stay anywhere from one day to six weeks here, how are we supposed to register them at a school? The schools would go crazy," he says.
The shelter director often feels like he's more of a manager of shortages. He's grateful for any and all donations: baby bathtubs, winter clothes for kids - all things people in Berlin pass his way.
Grunewald is supposed to run the temporary shelter until the end of March. By then, Berlin agencies hope to have set up more space in long-term shelters, bringing living out of a suitcase to an end.