Nazi-Era Tempelhof Airport Reborn as Shelter for Refugees

Refugee housing in Tempelhof Airport

Bundeswehr soldiers help build tents in a hangar at Tempelhof Airport where a reception center for refugees is being set up in Berlin. P

hotographer: Gregor Fischer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
  • About 1,000 refugees to live in football field-sized hangars
  • Berlin says capital running out of options to house refugees

Tempelhof Airport, built by the Nazis in the 1930s and used by Allied pilots to save West Berliners from starvation during the Cold War, has been given a new lease on life sheltering refugees as Germany struggles to house the biggest influx of migrants since World War II.

Tempelhof, which closed as an airfield in 2008, will provide emergency housing to a total of 1,000 refugees in the coming weeks, after the first 300 moved into 55 tents with bunk beds set up by soldiers in a football field-sized hangar over the weekend.

“Tempelhof had to be selected because smaller sites simply won’t do anymore,” said Regina Kneiding, a spokeswoman for the German capital’s health and social ministry. “About 700 refugees arrive in Berlin every day, and we’re at the edge of our capacity when it comes to available housing.”

Built in 1936 by Hermann Goering’s Reich Air Ministry and the world’s biggest building until the Pentagon trumped it, Tempelhof in recent years has hosted corporate events, rock concerts and fashion events and even a beer festival. Using the iconic structure for refugees underscores the challenge of housing the at least 800,000 people expected to arrive in Germany this year, driven by Syria’s civil war and conflicts in other parts of the Middle East. The crisis has eroded support for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party as she insists that Germany, Europe’s largest economy, can’t wall itself off.

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“They are very, very many, but we are 80 million,” Merkel said of the influx at a town-hall event in Nuremberg on Monday. Refugees in Germany shouldn’t have to compete with students or low-income residents for housing, she said. “We have to build apartments.”

Aluminum Crates

Until they’re ready, cities are housing people any place there’s space, including in empty schools, at campgrounds, on a boat on the River Elbe and even in aluminum crates that resemble shipping containers. The country’s real estate market was already under pressure before the influx: more Germans migrating to urban areas, coupled with a construction slump a few years back, has led to apartment shortages in cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich.

While the influx is expected to cost Germany billions of euros, helping refugees is more important than a balanced budget, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Wednesday at a conference in Berlin.

The German capital has 91 refugee sites and is preparing new ones “almost daily” to prevent homelessness during the coming winter, Kneiding said. About 1,000 refugees living at the the city’s congress center will have to be relocated by mid-December because the halls will be used for an agriculture fair. “It’s hard to find normal houses, so we’re turning to alternatives including factory halls,” she said.

At Tempelhof, the airfields have been turned into a recreational area -- where locals ride their bicycles, fly kites and walk their dogs -- that’s almost the size of New York’s Central Park. Last year, Berlin voters rejected the government’s plan to build homes, schools and a library at the site, preferring to keep it undeveloped even as demand for housing increases.

The structure housing refugees looks out onto the large airstrip-turned-recreational park. There’s a separate space for women, children and families, and a shuttle bus takes residents to showers at a nearby swimming pool until mobile ones arrive.

For now, the refugees are “largely just thankful they’re here,” said Michael Elias, head of the company operating the site.

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