Last sports hall in Berlin cleared of refugees | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.04.2017
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Last sports hall in Berlin cleared of refugees

Refugees are no longer being housed in Berlin's sports halls, the city's government announced - to the relief of helpers, refugees, and schools. But that doesn't mean living conditions have necessarily improved.

The Berlin government was able to celebrate a small landmark in its refugee management policy at the beginning of April, after it announced that the last 78 refugees living in a sports hall in the north of the city could finally be relocated elsewhere.

The relief was palpable when local politicians staged a photo opportunity at the hall on Fritz Reuter street on Friday. The announcement meant that, in Berlin at least, something was being done about one of the contentious planks of Germany's refugee policy - the use of mass shelters.

Both Berlin's Social Affairs Minister, Elke Breitenbach (of the socialist Left party), and the city's Social Democrat Finance Minister, Matthias Kollatz-Ahnen, were on hand to declare happily that "a target had been reached:" to clear all the sports halls of refugees by the end of the first quarter of 2017.

"I'm relieved, because we can finally end the miserable living situation of so many refugees in the sports halls," Breitenbach said in a statement. "All of them could move into better quarters. All of them have won a piece of private space."

Renovation and compensation

Kollatz-Ahnen, meanwhile, was there primarily to field the money questions. The finance minister told Deutschlandfunk radio that he expected the renovation of the 63 halls - which have been used to house refugees since September 2015 - to cost around 18 or 19 million euros ($19 - 20 million). 

Deutschland Flüchtlingsunterkunft Kruppstr. Moabit, Berlin (DW/B. Knight )

Last year, a refugee was killed by police in an incident at one mass shelter

Klaus Böger, head of the Berlin Sports Federation, called this a "good first step," and added that the leftist coalition that now runs the city has done a much better job of making this problem a priority than its more conservative predecessor.

"But all these halls need to be renovated now, and that needs to happen quickly," he told DW. "That all takes time: first there has to be an assessment, the district and the state need to agree on the costs, then there has to be a competition, and then all the work needs to be done punctually if possible."

Some of the halls will need repairs to the flooring, while others just need a paint job, but at the moment, Böger said, only six of the 63 sports halls are now usable. The aim is to get another 17 or 18 fit for purpose by the beginning of the next school year, in September. "I hope that will happen, but I doubt they will manage it," said Böger.

On top of the cost of renovation, Kollatz-Ahnen promised that sports clubs that had been financially impacted through loss of membership would be compensated - though he would not reveal exact figures.

Conditions for refugees still poor

Katharina Mühlbeyer, spokeswoman for the Berlin Refugee Council, welcomed the milestone - though with some caution. "Things have improved for many thousands of refugees," she said. "The conditions in the sports halls were so inhumane and so catastrophic."

But she also pointed out that most refugees are still being housed in mass shelters. "In general the housing situation for refugees in Berlin is still very, very stretched," she said. "We still have a lot of shelters that are not suitable for long-term shelter - they're still emergency shelters."

The influx of refugees into the German capital, which reached a highpoint of nearly 10,000 people in November 2015, has since dipped to under a thousand a month since April 2016. (Altogether, nearly 80,000 arrived in 2015, and another 17,000 last year, but not all of them remained in the city).

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Notunterkunft Sporthalle Lessingstraße, Berlin (DW/K. Salameh)

The UN has said that lack of privacy leaves children vulnerable to abuse

Nevertheless, thousands of Berlin refugees are being housed in inflatable "air-domes,"  department store warehouses, hangars at the disused Tempelhof airport, and inside conference halls. In such places, refugees live in partitioned sections that house 12 people at a time, and, as Mühlbeyer pointed out, they often have no privacy - even in sanitation areas.

That means that women and children are more prone to abuse. In an incident at one such mass shelter in September last year, a refugee was shot dead by police after he attempted to attack another refugee who was being arrested for allegedly sexually abusing his daughter. Last month, a United Nations report found that child refugees living in Germany are often not adequately protected from abuse, because they are being housed in such mass shelters.

"They're only supposed to be emergency shelters - people are only supposed to live in them for a few weeks, but a lot of people have lived in them for up to two years - including families," said Mühlbeyer.

"We're still missing a fundamental change in policy," she added. "There's not enough effort to get refugees out of mass shelters - the move away from camps to private living. For example, new containers are being built for several hundred people on the Tempelhof airfield. We think this camp policy is wrong. We still need a better total concept."

Berlin's housing problem

Christiane Beckmann, of the refugee help organization Moabit Hilft ("Moabit Helps"), was similarly dissatisfied with Berlin's progress. "This move into mobile container homes can only be a first step," she told DW. "There's no point in more or less ghettoizing people by putting them in closed-off shelters where they live beyond any participation in society."

She also pointed out that this was all part of Berlin's general housing problem. "This hasn't just happened since the refugees started coming," she said. "They just held up a mirror to the desolate situation on the housing market. There's no reason why there should just be shelters for refugees, because there's a lack of social housing, of student housing too. There's no point just moving everyone to the outskirts of the city."

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