Berlin's plan to build Tempelhof refugee district beset with problems

One and a half years ago, the people of Berlin voted in a referendum to keep their beloved Tempelhof

Thursday, the same people turned out to hear the government's plans to annul the referendum temporarily in order to build the largest refugee camp in Germany, a plan that has incited rage among opposition politicians and citizens' groups.

Berlin's government, a coalition of the centre-left Social Democratics (SPD) and the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is looking to use the huge plot of open land to house up to 7,000 refugees in former airplane hangars and newly built containers near the main airport building.

This will require the government to change a law from 2014 that prohibits building on the airport-turned-park, the government said at a public meeting Thursday, where it presented its plan to the public.

Activists and residents are up in arms about the plans.

"Any change to the [law] violates the decision of more than 700,000 people of Berlin," the activist group 100% Tempelhofer Feld, which opposes the government's actions at the former airbase, wrote in a press release Thursday.

"Additional changes would only be a small step," the group said, fearing that the government will seize the opportunity to entirely overturn the 2014 law.

Germany, which is bearing the brunt of migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East and northern Africa, is struggling to find shelter for the massive influx of new arrivals - about 1.1 million in 2015.

In Berlin alone, about 80,000 refugees arrived last year.

"Starting in December we couldn't create enough housing capacity to keep up with the pace," Berlin state secretary Dirk Gerstle said.

In October, refugees moved into the first airplane hangar.

Tempelhof Airport was, in the Cold War's early days, a lifeline for West Berliners isolated during the Berlin Blockade imposed by the Soviet Union.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the space has been used as a festival and fashion show venue, and as a film set for the Hunger Games.

In the meantime, 2,500 refugees have moved into the main airport building, living in bunk beds separated by exhibition-style portable walls.

Despite poor conditions at the facility, the 2 square metres of space that each refugee lives on costs the state 1,100 euros (1,190 dollars) in rent, according to Georg Classen of the Berlin refugee's committee, an organization dedicated to bettering the living conditions for refugees.

Tempelhof borders some of Berlin's most expensive neighbourhoods in districts such as Kreuzberg and Schoeneberg. "It's the biggest, worst and probably also most expensive refugee lodging in Berlin," Classen said.

"We all know that Tempelhof isn't a place where refugees should live for many months," said refugee state secretary Dieter Glietsch.

The plan calls for refugees to arrive at Tempelhof for registration and move into normal housing as quickly as possible, but the government hasn't been able to find other housing for the refugees living there, with many already living in the hangars for months.

In order for the stressful situation to get better at Tempelhof, an entirely new district with child care, doctors and recreational activities would have to be created, according to Angelika Schoettler, the mayor of the district of Tempelhof-Schoeneberg.

An original plan to build a school for refugee children has been scrapped.

"In terms of integration, it's better to spread the kids out," said Mark Rackles, the secretary of education for Berlin.

"Tempelhof is a strategy of pure desperation," said Antje Kapek, a member of the environmentally conscious Greens party, which is a minority in the Berlin house of representatives.

"Those kinds of mass lodgings put the biggest brake on integration possible," she said.

The government's plan to build not only on the concrete area in front of the main airport building, but also in other areas of the airport, has also come under critique by architects.

"If a first-semester student were to bring me a draft like this, I'd send the student home," said Wilfried Wang, an architect at Berlin's Academy of Arts, who says the space on a concrete slab directly in front of the main building should be sufficient.

After presenting the plan last week, the government is expected to temporarily annul the plan this week.

"With simple and expedited processes you can make about any structure that's already been built permanent and expand on it according to building law," the press release from activist group 100% Tempelhofer Feld says.

Last update: Sun, 24/01/2016 - 13:52

More from Europe

New bird flu virus type discovered in northern Germany

A new variant of bird flu has been discovered in domesticated animals in the northern German state of Schleswig-...

EU experts: Merkel has been main target of fake news

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the main target of fake news campaigns in Europe, including disinformation...

Romanian president plans referendum to save anti-corruption law

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis wants to hold a referendum on the country's plans to ease corruption laws, he said...

Seven casualties, 22 missing at Italian avalanche-struck hotel

The death toll at an Italian hotel buried by an avalanche last week has risen to seven, while 22 guests and staff...

Sinn Fein names new party leader for Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein on Monday announced a new leader for the Northern Irish branch of the party, following the decision by...