Germany turns to outdoor tents to house asylum seekers

Hamburg says refugees arriving from Middle East and Afghanistan risk homelessness

Syrians arrive in Hamburg, which like many German towns and cities, is struggling to accommodate large numbers of refugees. Getty Images
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The German city of Hamburg could be forced to put up asylum seekers in park tents as it struggles to cope with regular arrivals from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Officials say they will have to consider every option to stop people becoming homeless, in the latest sign of a migration crisis stretching the country's resources and voter patience.

Hamburg says its refugee accommodation has only a few hundred beds left after about 2,000 people claimed asylum in the first two months of 2024, primarily from Afghanistan and Syria.

New outdoor tents – evoking scenes of people sleeping around campfires during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 – could be used to find 250 more places to sleep.

It is understood that officials are first exploring whether they can fit tents into existing accommodation sites for refugees.

If that is not enough, putting up tents in public parks “must be taken into consideration”, wrote Petra Lotzkat, a Hamburg official responsible for integration, in a letter seen by The National.

While officials have scrambled to find space in hotels, hostels and empty shops, some are only on a temporary rent basis and about 870 spaces will have expired by April, she wrote to local officials.

“To prevent people seeking asylum or protection from becoming homeless, every space and property in question must be used,” she said.

The conservative opposition in Hamburg called the plans a “declaration of bankruptcy” by the city’s centre-left government.

“The situation in refugee accommodation is so precarious that we once again have to turn to Hamburg’s parks and fairgrounds,” said centre-right leader Dennis Thering.

If refugee numbers are not curbed, acceptance from the German population “will noticeably continue to sink and that will make integration ever more difficult,” he said.

In Berlin, senior opposition figure Jens Spahn is calling for a “migration pause” lasting several years so that Germany can handle recent arrivals.

The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party said “enough is enough” with regard to the Hamburg tents.

The National visited Hamburg in the aftermath of the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 2021, when charities, volunteers and teachers were gearing up to help Afghan refugees.

The burden has grown since then amid the war in Ukraine and a steady pace of new asylum claims, especially from Syria, Turkey and Afghanistan, with migrants picked up almost daily at Germany’s borders.

More than 329,000 people claimed asylum in Germany last year, the most since 2016. In Hamburg there were more than 13,500 new asylum seekers, more than a quarter of them from Afghanistan. The city's population is 1.9 million.

Hamburg's asylum system is running at 139 per cent of its usual capacity, and even with emergency accommodation included, it is 98 per cent full, according to official figures.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former mayor of Hamburg, is under pressure to act to limit asylum numbers.

States recently agreed that refugees should receive benefits on a prepaid card that cannot be used to send money home or to pay smuggling gangs.

Hamburg last month started handing out the cards to asylum seekers, who cannot take out more than €50 ($54) in cash a month.

Mr Scholz’s government also wants to speed up deportations by widening police powers to search homes.

Deals are being negotiated with countries such as Kenya and Uzbekistan to take more asylum seekers in exchange for favourable work visa rules.

However, the opposition wants Mr Scholz to focus on priority countries such as Turkey and Iraq, where large numbers of asylum seekers originate.

Syrians are the biggest group of asylum seekers but their claims have a fairly high success rate and Germany does not charter deportation flights there, nor to Afghanistan.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:51 PM