Camps 2 Cities Project

Tempelhof Refugee Shelter

Tempelhof airport was built in the 1930s by the Nazis and had been closed in 2008. Following its closure, it became a protected heritage site in the middle of Berlin, its historical and spatial footprint eliciting continued and contentious debates regarding its contemporary function. 

The following is drawn from an interview with a Tamaja social worker (who I will call ‘M’ to respect her anonymity) who spent 2 years working in the inner-city refugee shelter set up in the former Tempelhof airport building in 2015. The interview was conducted in June 2017.

(TT) Can you tell me about the start?

(M) They said we had until December 2015 to get things ready. But we ended up taking in people from October 2015, when the numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Germany and elsewhere in Europe was at its peak. What happened was they would call us on a Friday night, saying they had people needing shelter. On the Monday people would move into the sports halls, housed at first in tents. Within three weeks we had 1800 people staying in the shelter. For those first few weeks, we didn’t even have shower facilities, and the only sanitation facilities were outside toilets. You can imagine. Refugees were bused to local public pools where there were public shower facilities once a week. We went 5 months without showers. Finally in April 2016, we got showers installed. Around that time, we had reached 3000 people staying here. That was the peak, and the admin was completely overwhelmed. People were waiting up to six weeks for registration. A country like Germany, we have everything here but nothing was working.

You see the different hangers of the airport? Well there is the arrival centre in hanger 5, where people only stay 5-6 days. Then we have 3 hangers that are considered emergency shelter where people are now only moving out. No one new is coming in. When people register, they are finger-printed and then the decision is whether they can stay in Berlin or have to move to another German state. Every German state has to take a percentage of refugees. 5% of all refugees coming to Germany are taken in Berlin. It all depends on the GDP and size of that German state. Some German states are responsible for smaller countries (so Berlin for example is responsible for Moldovians). But all can take Syrians. The biggest groups that have come are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

(TT) Can you tell me about the housing situation?

(M) That’s the biggest problem in Berlin. There is a lack of long-term accommodation. But they also don’t want to continue housing people in emergency shelter here. So from October 2017, the plan is that emergency shelter will be closed. It will have been 2 years. The intake numbers are slowing down now. But some people that you see around this shelter have been here since day 1.

We have gotten lots of attention because of Tempelhof’s history, which is both positive and negative. The positive is that we are well connected to organisations of all sorts, and we have good infrastructure now. You see the structures, they are 25 meters square, and there are max 6 people to a cabin. In 2015 there were 12 people to a structure. Of course the ones today are not perfect. There is still a lack of privacy, although we do try to at least keep language groups together. But the problem is if you have 2 families staying together, women can’t change or take off their hijab, they even have to sleep with it.

And it’s difficult because there is a laundry service but no washing machines. There is a canteen on-site, but no cooking facilities. So we have to tell people that they are not allowed to wash their own clothes, or cook their own food. This affects people’s sense of identity and agency.

As you might have seen outside the hangers, on the other side of the fence near the park, there are these structures called “tempo-homes” that have been built as a temporary solution for the housing shortage in the city. It’s an improvement  from the emergency shelter that we have in here, you know, at least there is a roof and doors, maximum 4 people to a living quarter, so more privacy. There will be 1200 people staying there, with some common spaces like a community garden, and a Rosetta Stone language container. But still, people are not happy. And there is a contradiction in the housing policy, because 7 people staying in a 3- room flat is considered too many people for that sized flat. But in another part of the city, 12 people could live in a 25 meter square cabin.

In Berlin today, there are still 12,000 people living in emergency shelter. But the numbers of new arrivals have decreased. In 2015, 800 people were coming every day. In 2017 only 30 are coming every day.

(TT) What is the long-term strategy? For example, what are the prospects for finding work as a refugee?

(M) The laws are constantly changing, which is difficult for us because we have to constantly keep up with these changes and what they mean for the refugees we are trying to advise. So for example something new has happened: after 3 months, as a refugee you can now start working in Germany. This is really positive, because people from Lebanon, for example, who have been here for 20 years in some cases, were not allowed to work. They had a kind of ‘tolerance’ status. So the fact that refugees can now start working is really good. Some of them are even working in Tempelhof. They are some of our best workers.

But to be honest, I don’t really see a long-term strategy. Our immigration policy is not clear at all. For example, at the moment there are many deportations of Afghans because now they say there are safe zones in Afghanistan. It’s all very political. I mean some have more probability of access to services and acceptance than others. So here you will see more Afghans because they are waiting to be deported, while Syrians are being processed. None get asylum, but they get protection, according to the Geneva Convention, because there is a civil war in their country. And unless you are from the IT sector coming to work, the only legal way to come here is via the asylum channel. And what is really missing are the clear 10 steps you go through when you immigrate here. In a way, there is lots of support here, but the clear steps to figure out the system are missing. And there is an integration law now, but most things don’t actually support integration. When it comes to integration, people need housing and work. Both are terribly difficult. You have to do 5 years of training before they can earn their own salaries. Even if you come with equivalent skills and experience, you need to convert it to locally recognized qualifications.

Let me give you a specific example. People want a job and access to society. But the contradictions is that there are no monetary incentives to get a job, because after bills and all that, you are left with about 130 Euros pocket money. Whereas here you have free food, housing, etc. So you see, what’s the motivation?

Another thing that is important to understand is the shift in support you get as you transition from the emergency shelter to having your own flat. At this shelter, there is a 1 to 40 social worker to refugee ratio. Social workers provide support and guidance to refugees who need to figure out everything in the city, from the transport system to finding language training, sorting out the family social welfare services, and knowing where to put your kids in school. They even have these ‘welcome classes’ in local schools now. But once you go to a long-term shelter, the ration changes: 1 to 100. And when you get your own flat, there is no support, no counselling unless you go to the job centre and go seek out counselling services yourself.

(T) I notice that as precarious as the situation is for so many refugees waiting for housing or trying to navigate the system, you don’t see people sleeping in the streets.

(M) That’s true. No one is sleeping in the streets here. The key stages are that at first a refugee is taken into emergency shelter no matter what until their registration is processed. Then if they are granted protection and allowed to stay, they are usually moved to long-term shelter in a certain district, and they have access to the job centre support, where they are even given training on how to write job applications. The problem is less people in the streets as it is the structural demotivation of the “beschaeftigung” (employment) system. For example, you could get offered a job with the municipal cleaning company that offers “ausbildung” opportunities (internships) and they say it is “work experience”. But it is basically underpaid cheap labour because companies don’t have to pay minimum wage if they hire someone for less than 3 months. So you see you have a situation where people go from one ‘training’ contract to another, but with no real progresion and prospects for secure employment. To be honest, the business sector could do more. Especially the big corporations, they are doing too little. Most of their efforts are corporate social responsibility activities.

(T) So what are you going to do next, now that everything at Tempelhof is in transition?

(M) To be honest, I need a break. It’s been intense.