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Volunteers report refugee death at LaGeSo

Ben Knight, BerlinJanuary 27, 2016

A Syrian has apparently died of a heart attack after waiting in the cold at Berlin's LaGeSo refugee authority. The incident has again shed light on the chaotic bureaucracy and inhumane conditions in the German capital.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge in Berlin LaGeSo
Image: picture alliance/NurPhoto/M. Heine

Volunteers had been saying this would happen eventually, and now it has - or so they claim. The members of Berlin's local volunteer group "Moabit hilft" were distraught and outraged after one of their number reported that a refugee died of an apparent heart attack on his way to a hospital, having waited for several days outside the state LaGeSo authority - Berlin's office for health and social affairs.

The green-vested volunteers lit a handful of candles on Wednesday morning and placed them on the steps of the small building where "Moabit hilft" is based in the large muddy courtyard outside the LaGeSo. Few of those present knew the man personally, but as co-founder and spokeswoman Diana Henniges said, "We have been crying all morning."

Volunteers said the unnamed 24-year-old Syrian had been taken in at home by volunteer Dirk Voltz, who called an ambulance on Tuesday night when the man began shivering and showing a fever of over 39 degrees C (102° F). According to a Facebook chat later posted by "Moabit hilft" volunteer Reyna Bruns, the man's heart stopped beating in the ambulance. Voltz himself was not available for comment on Wednesday morning as he had, in the words of "Moabit hilft" spokeswoman Christiane Beckmann, "collapsed in bed exhausted."

At around 4:00 p.m., Bruns posted again on Facebook to say that while she trusts Voltz, she said that he has been unreachable all day, and that only he can confirm the details that she reported.

"Until Dirk calls and offers the information that everyone is missing about this incident - namely WHICH HOSPITAL, WHICH AMBULANCE, THE NAME OF THE AFFECTED PERSON - I ask you NOT to share the post any further," she wrote.

She went on to underline that Voltz's chat still seemed authentic to her, considering the conditions at LaGeSo and the fact that refugees are confirmed to have suffered miscarriages and hospitalizations as a result of waiting in line.

Berlin's state government have yet to confirm the death or the identity of the refugee - or even which hospital he was allegedly being taken to. "We have had 30 or 40 people phoning all the emergency stations and hospitals since 7 a.m.," Sascha Langenbach, spokeswoman for the State Ministry for Health and Social Affairs, told the AFP news agency. Berlin police also said on Wednesday that they had no information about the man's possible death.

Nevertheless, there was little doubt among the volunteers at LaGeSo. On the door of the small "Moabit hilft" building - inside which refugees were lining up to collect donations of toothpaste, diapers, and shampoo - someone had hung a black-bordered notice that read: "We mourn for you. You were 24 years old. You came from Syria. You survived so much. You did not survive the LaGeSo. You got a fever, a shivering fit, a heart attack. You died last night. We're crying."

Desperate conditions

"We've been reporting for weeks and months that people have to stand in line here in inhumane conditions," Beckmann told reporters outside. "People have been standing up to their ankles in mud in the rain, last week people were standing outside when it was below freezing - and that's for hours, six, seven, 10 hours. People have the flu, there are children with colds.

"It was only a question of time," she added. "[The young man] had been waiting for days and his health had been affected and he had come down with a cold."

She said the organization was working on the assumption that the man's death had been a direct result of the chaotic bureaucracy at the German capital. She said the group's members had not yet considered whether they would bring charges against authorities for a role in the man's death.

Henniges said the man had been in Germany for several months, had already been registered as a refugee but had been waiting to receive social care.

"He was completely without means, he had no health insurance certificate and could not look after himself," she said. "There is no alternative to waiting for days, to standing endlessly in tents, to standing outside in the mud. There are laws in this country to look after people who seek asylum, and the responsibility is very clearly with the government - especially the Berlin Interior Ministry administration."

State failure

Refugee organizations have long complained that refugees' basic needs are not being met. On Tuesday, the daily "Berliner Zeitung" reported that one refugee shelter in central Berlin had resorted to appealing to the Berliner Tafel, a charity that normally collects food for homeless people, after several requests to the state authorities had been left unanswered.

"We have long since taken on responsibilities which aren't ours," said Henniges of "Moabit hilft."

Meanwhile on Wednesday, hundreds of people continued to line up in the tents outside the authority. Berlin remains one of the few places in Germany where refugees are forced to wait at a single central office where there are no shelters.

"There's no normal waiting time," Henniges told DW. "We have people who wait four days and there are people who have been trying to get in for six weeks.

"There's no system - if you're lucky you're in the tent at the right time and you're let in and you get a waiting number for the next day," she said. "If you're unlucky, they close the door right in front of you. The systems change three or four times over a few weeks. Sometimes there are blue wristbands, then there are white wristbands, then there are appointment cards that expire then you have to try and get them extended. A lot of the refugees don't understand what's going on."