sexta-feira, 4 de março de 2016
Terminal test of Merkel’s migration mettle
Terminal test of Merkel’s migration mettle
A fight over disused Tempelhof airport brings to surface political divisions in Germany.
By JANOSCH DELCKER 2/29/16, 5:32 AM CET
BERLIN — Just five kilometers from Angela Merkel’s office, at Berlin’s mothballed Nazi-era airport, the German chancellor’s refugee crisis slogan — “We can do it” — is sorely tested.
Inside the now defunct hangars of Tempelhof airport in the southern part of the capital, city authorities keep adding housing units to the sprawling facility. It was meant to be a transit camp, an emergency shelter for refugees waiting to get asylum papers and then moving on to more permanent accommodation within days, weeks at the most.
Since Tempelhof opened for refugees in late October, 3,500 refugees have come through. Like the rest of the country, the refugee-friendly capital has filled up quickly with many of the million newcomers who entered Germany last year. Now thousands could be stuck in transit at Tempelhof for months, if not years, turning the airport complex into a “city within the city,” or “refugee ghetto,” depending whom one asks on the political spectrum.
Officials with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) acknowledge that despite their leader’s other famous proclamation in the refugee crisis — “I have a plan” — to integrate refugees into society as fast as possible, city and state authorities are scrambling to find temporary fixes. It leaves them, they say, little time to find permanent shelters. Robust as it seemed five months ago, when Merkel rallied Germans behind her cause (what some understood as an attempt to redeem the country from its World War II past by putting out a welcome mat), Germany’s infrastructure is creaking under the strain of far higher than expected number of new arrivals.
Michael Elias manages the company running the refugee center in Tempelhof, inside a makeshift office on the first floor of the former airport hangar. | Janosch Delcker
Michael Elias manages the company running the refugee center in Tempelhof, inside a makeshift office on the first floor of the former airport hangar | Janosch Delcker
“The core of the problem is that we don’t have other possibilities to accommodate them,” said Dirk Gerstle, a CDU official and deputy state minister of social affairs.
“It wouldn’t help anyone to transfer people from Tempelhof to a gym,” Gerstle said. “They need to be transferred into more permanent community housing, and we have to build that first.”
Merkel’s critics, politicians and activists say it’s too late to be pouring over construction plans. Earlier this month, a coalition of 31 Berlin-based volunteer groups published an open letter to the mayor of Berlin, accusing the local authorities of “state failure,” demanding that all refugee centers below minimum standards, like Tempelhof, be closed.
“Tempelhof is nothing but a strategy born out of despair,” said Antje Kapek, head of the opposition Green Party block in Berlin’s state parliament during a session in late January.
Criticism is growing in Merkel’s ranks with one CDU MP Kai Wegner calling Tempelhof a “ghetto, which people were initially trying to avoid.”
Those are words not often heard in connection with Tempelhof, the site of one of city’s finest hours – the Berlin Airlift.
When the Soviets erected a blockade of the city in 1948, the first major showdown of the Cold War, the U.S. and U.K. responded by sending in the so-called “Candy Bombers” to maintain the flow of essential supplies to the western part of the city that was under their control. During the airlift’s peak, the western allies transported about 4,500 tons of cargo per day on some 1,500 flights.
The herculean effort saved West Berliners from having to beg for food and other essentials from the Soviet authorities, earning the US and U.K. the enduring allegiance of grateful locals.
In contemporary Berlin, the airlift is as much a symbol of West Berlin’s hardy Cold War resistance as it is of Western solidarity. An imposing sculpture memorializes the event in front of Tempelhof on Platz der Luftbrücke, or “Airlift Square.”
Those memories have added another emotional layer to the debate over the refugees, but there are no signs that Tempelhof will be closed for them any time soon. Of 3,500 asylum seekers that have landed there since late October, only 400 have been moved to more permanent housing. About 1,000 people took off on their own, their destination unknown, but new ones keep coming. If they keep arriving, officials say there could be up to 7,000 people living there by the end of the year.
“We’ve become bottled up. People don’t move on to other places,” explained Michael Elias, manager of the private company that runs the refugee shelter, explaining the standstill on a lack of permanent housing for refugees in the city.
Inside one of the capacious hangers, hundreds of people share the space. It smells like it. People live up to 10 in a large cubicle. A mashup of chatter, kids screaming, cell phones ringing, and the noise of men playing football provides the background noise. At the edges of the room, people gather around columns, to charge their phones at some of the few available power sources. Once in a while, fights over outlets break out. Employees at the center privately speak about a growing problem of alcoholism. Refugees themselves complain about poor hygienic conditions and lack of privacy.
“Most of the Iranians who arrived with me have already gone back to Iran,” said Kurosh Shahiriari, a 35-years old cook, who moved into Tempelhof four months ago.
Slow German reactions
The growing flap over Tempelhof also illustrates the limits of Germans’ willingness to lend a helping hand. The complex offers more than enough room to accommodate the refugees.
To many Berliners, however, Tempelhof is more than just an old airport: it’s an escape, a vast public space in the city center, a place that for many represents the qualities that make Berlin unique. On weekends the park fills up with families, cyclists and joggers, kite flyers and even kite surfers. People flock to Tempelhof to forget about daily worries like the refugee crisis, not to be reminded of them.
Across Germany, authorities have put up tents, remodeled gyms or moved newly arrived refugees into abandoned industrial complexes, gyms and halls.
Tempelhof stands out, and not just as the “birthplace of aviation.” After the airport closed down in 2008, Berlin split over what to do with the facility. This political fight is being revived by the debate over refugees and the airport, showing the refugee crisis has blurred the distinction between national and local politics in Germany.
Many groups that today protest the expansion of Tempelhof predate the refugee influx. In a 2014 referendum, a majority of Berliners approved a law preventing the city from opening the former airport area to investment. Now Berlin’s state government has altered the law to allow for the construction of temporary housing, saying it had to address an urgent need.
Volunteer activists like Kerstin Meyer of “100 percent Tempelhofer Feld,” who actively campaigned to stop development at the airport two years ago, have since revived their movements. They say the city of Berlin is using the refugee crisis to undo the outcome of the referendum and trying to hide the refugees in an isolated spot, out of public view.
“We want those people to be placed among the neighborhood of Berlin, inside pre-existing buildings that sit empty,” Meyer said about the emergency shelter at Tempelhof. “Where they are now, they are completely isolated.”
Merkel’s critics say the German chancellor is so preoccupied with enlisting Turkey to save her refugee strategy that she’s failing to honor her 5-month-old pledge to integrate refugees into society.
“In retrospect, all over Germany, authorities initially reacted too slowly to the refugee crisis,” said Angelika Schöttler of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the mayor of the borough where Tempelhof is located.
“When it comes to registering [refugees,] we still have a huge backlog,” Schöttler said at her office in the red-brick borough mayor’s office. Although she said that no one could have predicted the high numbers, local and state authorities should have started six months earlier to prepare, she added. “Hindsight is easier than foresight.”
For her part, Merkel deploys her chief of staff and head of the government’s migration coordinating committee, Peter Altmaier, out on the talk show circuit to give her rebuttal: An action plan is in place, just give the government more time to implement it. With a sense of pride, Merkel’s supporters say that while conditions might not be ideal, no refugee in Germany is sleeping rough or going hungry.
There are other Tempelhofs in Berlin. About 30,000 refugees, according to city data provided to POLITICO, live in temporary housing in the capital. Only about 15,000 asylum seekers live in permanent refugee accommodations run by the city. By the end of the year, Berlin is planning to create up to 34,000 new permanent units. Even if they are built in time, there’s doubt that they will be enough since new people keep coming.
The number of arrivals is steady, currently at 1,900 a day. Since the beginning of the year, 99,600 refugees have entered the country, according to the German federal police.
Matthew Karnitschnig in Berlin and Hans Von Der Burchard in Brussels contributed to this report.