How the refugee crisis has taken its toll on German sports clubs | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 23.02.2016
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How the refugee crisis has taken its toll on German sports clubs

More than a million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, many fleeing places of conflict. This has caused major problems for German sports clubs, with many of their facilities now being used to house migrants.

In the Buchheim district of Cologne, around 50 per cent of the residents come from a migrant background, and among children and teenagers that figure is even higher, at up to 70 per cent.

Some of them are members of MTV Cologne, which, with more than 5,000 members, is the western German city's biggest amateur sports club. They used to take advantage of the affordable participation sports offered at a nearby multi-purpose facility. That is all over for now, though, since the city of Cologne decided it needed the gymnasium to house migrants.

The club's managing director, Holger Dahlke, told that it all happened quite quickly. "One Wednesday we learned that by Thursday the gymnasium in Buchheim would no longer be available," he said.

The sporting activities that used to take place in Buchheim are now offered at another facility, but many families simply can't afford the cost of getting there - even by public transportation. And this isn't the only MTV facility affected.

"Four multi-purpose facilities are currently unavailable, that is a major loss," Dahlke said, before adding that the club has had to move between 170 and 180 practices or games per month to other facilities. "This is a massive inconvenience and simply not doable for a lot of families," he said.

The consequences of this have been measurable - in the last quarter of 2015 the club saw a record number of its members quit. "There were about 400, whereas normally we would expect to lose 280 to 290," Dahlke clarified.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that some of the sports, which are usually offered in these gymnasiums, can't be done just anywhere. "Take the trampoline, for example, that's something you cannot do in a small school gymnasium, because people would fly through the roof," Dahlke explained. Beyond that, there is also the issue of storing the equipment.

The DOSB and DFB sound the alarm

MTV Cologne is by no means alone in its plight. The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) estimates that across the country, around 1,000 gymnasiums are currently being used as shelters for migrants.

"It is unacceptable, to either recklessly embark on the path of least resistance and simply occupy the gyms, when you don't take into account the damage that this can do to society," warned DOSB President Alfons Hörmann. "When people can no longer exercise in the usual way, there will come a point at which the mood in the clubs and the municipalities will change."

Deutschland Rainer Koch DFB Vize-Präsident

Interim DFB President Rainer Koch

The German Football Association (DFB) has also sounded the alarm. "Gymnasiums may be suitable for short-term measures to house displaced persons, but alternatives such as halls that are standing empty or air-inflated tents, which can be put up quickly, need to be found very quickly," one of the two interim presidents of the DFB, Rainer Koch, told the "Sport Bild" weekly.

Sports clubs demonstrating great solidarity

Hardest hit has been the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's biggest, and home to 19,000 sports clubs. According to a survey of towns and municipalities, by the start of last November, 400 sports facilities in the state were being used to house migrants. According to Frank-Michael Rall, spokesman for the Sports Association of North Rhine-Westphalia (LSB), no current official figures are available.

"There is a lot of movement on this issue, so it would not make sense to try to pinpoint current figures. We see movement both ways," Rall told He also noted that while there were nothing but complaints before Christmas, gyms in some cities have actually been freed up again.

"The fact is that there are a few clubs who say 'yes, it has cost us members.' Around a third of the clubs have had to deal with this problem, but we know of no club that has had to suspend operations," Rall added.

Deutschland, Kinder auf Trampolin

Space is needed for some activities, so not all fits indoors.

So far, all of the clubs have been happy to help out. However, the LSB association has called on municipalities to keep an eye out for other facilities. "There are so many empty public buildings, hospitals, old schools or cultural facilities. They too have sanitary facilities, electricity, and light. You need to consider these cultural or facilities. It is not just gymnasiums that are available. But it is often the easiest thing for the municipalities to do," Rall said.

Sport as a means of integration

In an effort to help people in need, the LSB sports body has repeatedly made funding available for special programs, including a total of 250,000 euros ($275,000) to 500 clubs that offer sports for recent migrants. This is due to the fact that sports clubs take seriously the role they play in society as a whole, giving people, including school children, the opportunity to engage in physical activity.

"To do this, sports (clubs) need access to their sports facilities," Rall said, before adding that the clubs were happy to make their facilities available as a stop gap "but not as a permanent solution."

Holger Dahlke takes the thought one step further. When the facilities are not available for their intended purpose, this also affects the sports programs that can be offered to refugees. "This prevents us from doing the good that we do in society. I would say it is almost perverse, when you take into account that other sectors of society have been either hardly or not at all affected," he said.

MTV Cologne is among the clubs that have applied to the LSB and the city of Cologne for special funding earmarked for work with migrants. "That's a nice gesture, no more and no less. It is well intended, but it won't help us in the medium or long term," Dahlke said, pointing to an array of costs incurred by his club in its day-to-day operations, such as personnel costs or compensating volunteer coaches for their travel expenses.

On the other hand, the number of members quitting has also led to a reduction in revenue. Dahlke warned that this problem could get worse as the club is forced to use smaller gyms.

"The big gyms can be used for sports such as handball, volleyball, badminton, basketball, which require a lot of space, so you have only a few users per square meter. In the small gyms it is exactly the opposite. We can easily have 20 or 25 people - all of whom are paying members. If they all left, it would be a major blow ."

'Welcoming sports culture' torpedoed

According to Dahlke, as a general rule, all of the sports programs offered by MTV Cologne are open to migrants.

Holger Dahlke

Holger Dahlke, the club's managing director

"We have integrated a number of migrants, four to six people per group. Almost half of one volleyball team is made up of displaced persons." There are also basketball and football programs set up exclusively for the migrants accommodated in the adjacent multi-purpose facilty. "We are trying to do things with as little red tape as possible," Dahlke said. The club would like to do even more, but he said they don't feel they are getting enough support from the authorities.

"You don't get the impression that things are well organized in this area. At the end of the day, they have torpedoed what volunteer and non-profit associations have to offer," he said.

Currently, more than 11,000 migrants are being accommodated in Cologne and there are more arriving every day. With the ongoing crises in places like Syria and Iraq, Dahlke doesn't expect the flow of migrants to Germany to end anytime soon, which is also bad news for his club.

"It is the path of least resistance. The (sports) clubs are always at the ready, they don't fight back - unlike others, who are quick to take legal action if they feel that the migrants are getting to close," he said.

Dahlke is also irritated by the argument that the sports clubs need to do their bit to prevent the migrants from being homeless.

"We think this is unfair to those who volunteer their time. It is not enough to say 'We can do it,' we need to have an idea of how to do it," he said, referring to a statement Chancellor Angela Merkel made when asked last August about the problem of integrating of the record flow of migrants to Germany.