Refugee Crisis Part V: Tempelhof airport refugee centre, once Germany's largest asylum shelter, is now shutting down

At its peak, the Tempelhof Airport Refugee Centre had around 13,000 refugees living in makeshift tents inside the hangars. Today, there are around 300 of them.

Nimish Sawant August 18, 2017 17:22:18 IST
Refugee Crisis Part V: Tempelhof airport refugee centre, once Germany's largest asylum shelter, is now shutting down

Editor's Note: Refugee crisis is an oft-heard term in regular parlance. Ever since German Chancellor Angela Merkel's famous 2015 "Wir schaffen das!" (We'll manage it) speech, Germany has emerged as a European nation taking in the most number of refugees. Firstpost's Nimish Sawant travelled to its capital Berlin, as part of the Robert Bosch Foundation's India - Germany Media Ambassadors program, to see how refugees are trying to integrate into the German society. This process goes much beyond just learning the language and knowing the customs and traditions. While some are trying to keep their culture alive in a foreign land, others are building a case for talented migrants in a society that is ageing fast. While some hope to go back home when the situation improves, others prefer building their lives anew in Germany. This article is the last part of the five-part series which will explore the stories of refugees living in Berlin.

As I walk up to the Refugee Welcome Centre at the erstwhile Tempelhof Airport terminal in Berlin, I spot many fierce eagle statues. The airport, which was designed and constructed between 1936 and 1938 by Ernst Sagebiel, still has that pre-war Nazi-era vibe to it. Although apart from the eagles, the functional classical architecture and the vintage decor inside, there are few remnants of that historic past.

Refugee Crisis Part V Tempelhof airport refugee centre once Germanys largest asylum shelter is now shutting down

Representational Image. Reuters

After the Tempelhof Airport shut down in 2008, despite public protests, the 300,000 square metre terminal which spans over a 1.2-kilometre quadrant, was divided among multiple entities. Some of those include the Berlin Police, Berlin traffic control authority, the central lost-and-found property office and more. The runway, having an area spanning 386 hectares, is now a public park. Berliners resisted any move by the government to earmark the area for public housing, thanks to the dismal record of the Senate at keeping promises.

But post-2015, the terminal building had an additional use case.

Many of the hangars at the airport were taken over by the government and social authorities, to house the incoming refugees. At its peak, the Tempelhof Airport Refugee Centre had around 2,500 refugees living in makeshift tents inside the hangars. Today, there are around 300 of them, and the plan is to have as few as possible going forward.

The year 2015 saw Germany take in over a million refugees. That number saw a dip in 2016 to around 7,45,000 after the closing of the Balkan route (one of two routes for refugees to enter Europe, the other being crossing the Mediterranean Sea). It's expected that the numbers will drop further this year as well. While the politics of these decisions are being debated, the on-ground staff at the Tempelhof Airport Refugee Centre and many others across Germany have just one objective — to ensure hassle-free resettlement of the new asylum seekers.

Life inside the airport hangars

Tamaja is the social organisation responsible for managing the asylum centre at the airport. Each refugee centre in Germany is managed by third party social organisations or non-governmental organisations. The funding is primarily through government bodies, but the proportion varies from one centre to the next.

Refugee Crisis Part V Tempelhof airport refugee centre once Germanys largest asylum shelter is now shutting down

A general view of a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany. Reuters

Visitors entering the refugee centres need prior permission. I had to have an identification card on me at all times and had to go through the security checks before I was allowed to enter the hangars. Once inside, I realised why the decision to reduce the number of refugees the hangars can shelter was taken.

The large ceilinged hangars are bathed in natural light thanks to the large windows and the German summer. The makeshift living quarters were divided into two segments: One side housing families and the other side housing single men. The other hangars have sections for single women. The living quarters are divided according to the language the refugees speak.

The temporary living quarters are blocks of 25 square metres. For the single refugees, there are six double bunk beds per block which can sleep 12 at a time. There is no space to store luggage inside these blocks, so it is stored separately in another part of the hangar. A curtain covering the entrance acts as a door.

Children are running around playing games, young men are on the common sofas charging and checking their smartphones, women in hijab are chatting with one another. At every corner of the housing quarters, security guards are seen ensuring order.

Duration of the stay is still fluid

The idea is to provide refugees with emergency shelters for 72 hours and help them find better accommodation in Berlin after that. But the 72-hour deadline is not necessarily followed in every single case. While Tamaja hopes to have the hangars empty by September, it is currently difficult to say if that will indeed be the case.

"It all depends till when the refugees will move out from this shelter. It all depends on the LAF, which is taking care of organising the refugees' accommodations," says Theresa Jocham, one of the staff members at Tamaja, who showed me around the hangars.

Refugees are allowed to go out of the shelter and stay out for as long as they like. The social workers at Tamaja have a list of refugees which they fill into a central database to ensure that they keep a track of them. In some cases, refugees who do not like the shelters can even leave the premises.

Refugee Crisis Part V Tempelhof airport refugee centre once Germanys largest asylum shelter is now shutting down

Tempelhof Airport was built during the Nazi era and was the venue of the Berlin Airlift. Reuters

"Berlin is one of the last places in Germany which have emergency shelters. The idea is to shut down most of them, as we feel this is not the right way to house the refugees. The push is more towards having better long-term accommodation in the form of flats," says Jocham.

The lack of privacy and a constant noise, which has a tendency to echo inside the closed hangar rooms, and living in closed spaces while running back and forth to the National Office for Refugee Affairs (LAF) can take its toll on the mental well-being of residents. After all, a significant portion of the refugees are from conflict zones.

Instances of post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) are understandably high. And a large part — around 40 percent — of refugees suffering from PTSD have harboured suicidal thoughts. Incidents of self-harm among depressed refugees have been noticed quite often at the Tempelhof shelter.

And considering the Tempelhof Airport is a protected landmark, there is no question of having any sort of permanent housing quarters for refugees built inside the terminal area.

Facilities inside the shelter

Considering the shelters have to be managed in the most humane way possible, social organisations such as Tamaja have their hands full. Refugees entering the welcome centre have to first and foremost get a medical check up done, and only then are they allowed to enter the living quarters.

"First the refugees go through security checks, followed by their registration, where all their documents are checked. Then there is the medical examination to ensure that everyone coming in is checked for any contagious diseases. We quarantine the infected people and treat them separately because we do not want any spread of disease in the emergency shelter which has a lot of people," says Jocham.

Since refugees can come to the welcome centre any time of the day, there are times when some refugees have to spend the night in the waiting room, till the doctors arrive the next day for a medical check up. No one is let inside without a medical examination.

Refugees get three meals per day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Food is cooked by a third party caterer, and cooking by the refugees themselves is not allowed inside the shelters. Food is free of cost of course. No pork is served to ensure the dietary habits of a majority of the refugees aren't violated.

There are separate bathrooms. Then there are laundry facilities as well. For two hours each day, refugees can also avail of hygiene related products from the volunteers. Security has been outsourced to a third party, which ensures no untoward incidents take place.

Refugee Crisis Part V Tempelhof airport refugee centre once Germanys largest asylum shelter is now shutting down

One hangar has sporting facilities to keep refugees active

To ensure that refugees stay active while inside the hangars, there is a significant section of one hangar, that houses sporting facilities. One-half of the area is earmarked for a basketball court. The other fenced off section houses facilities such as a table tennis table, gym equipment, indoor football stadiums and more. At the entrance to this fenced off facility is a timetable telling you which sport is played when. The day I visited the shelter was the day reserved for women to play sports, so, unfortunately, I could not get a look inside.

According to Jocham, Tamaja staff members take care of the core requirements when it comes to helping the incoming refugees. So translator services, psychological counselling sessions, taking care of children in kindergartens, helping with bureaucratic documentation work and so on are areas that Tamaja specialises in. Tamaja does welcome external volunteers, who are regular citizens who want to interact and help out the refugees as well.

"The external volunteers are mostly here for playing sports with the refugees, helping them out with German language homework, tandem language partners or some other fun activities. Anyone can become a volunteer, but he or she has to register with Tamaja and need to have a police NOC clearance. The volunteers just have to select which projects they are interested in and come to the shelter on the right dates," says Jocham, as we enter a bright and colourful section of the hangar.

THF Welcome Cafe is an empty space that was converted into a coffee shop by volunteers and some refugees. This cafe is open to outsiders and gives a lot of citizens a good chance to interact with refugees, and maybe enrol as a volunteer. A portion of the cafe also houses a small library, called the Asylothek (a play on the world Asylum Biblothek or Asylum library). I could see a lot of tables filled with groups of refugees who were being helped by local volunteers with some homework.

Considering there are so many people living in such close spaces, tempers are bound to flare at some point. So how exactly are conflicts handled inside the shelters, I asked Jocham.

“There are security personnel to take care of any violent incidents that may take place. The personnel are specially trained to handle sensitive issues. But if ever a fight breaks out, the security personnel are expected to call in a Tamaja social worker before taking any action,” says Jocham.

Refugee Crisis Part V Tempelhof airport refugee centre once Germanys largest asylum shelter is now shutting down

Children take part in activities with a circus performer at a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany, December 9, 2015. Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

From emergency shelters to homes
During the peak of the refugee crisis, the Tempelhof Airport refugee welcome centre could see as many as 600 refugees lining up to be housed, on a daily basis. That number has come down between 30-50 refugees per day. Whether it will fall or rise again, is something only time will tell.

Organisations like Tamaja can only act as mediators between the refugees and the state bureaucracy. It is ultimately the refugee centre or LAF, which has to speed up the process. According to Angelika Schoettler of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), there has been a huge backlog when it comes to registering refugees quickly. "In retrospect, all over Germany, authorities initially reacted too slowly to the refugee crisis," says Shoettler.

The LAF check the documents of the refugees and are responsible for ensuring they get permanent housing.

"After LAF examines the refugees' documents and if everything is in order, their registration process is complete. After the refugees are recognised, they are free to look for accommodation. In exceptional cases, where the refugee is asked to search for accommodation outside Berlin, the LAF pays them the train tickets to whichever destination the refugees have to go," says Jocham.

The average duration for getting all the paper work done and getting a recognised refugee status varies from country to country. The Federal Office for Migrants and Refugees (BAMF) can take on an average of five-seven months to process your application and grant you a recognised refugee status.

It is this interim period when a lot of refugees had no choice but to stay in emergency shelters, as the application process would take time. They are not allowed to work, without the express permission of the BAMF during this period either.

Tamaja and many other social organisations like it, want to ensure that refugees are housed in a more humane manner in proper housing societies, rather than letting them languish in a sports stadium. Or an airport hangar.

Read more:

Part I:Berlin's ReDI school gives talented migrants the chance to integrate, contribute
Part II:Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing
Part III:Fatet hummus, burak, kawag give Germany a taste of Syria
Part IV: How Syrian migrants in Germany are rebuilding their lives and making new memories

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