Gleaming white tent city rises near Hamburg as Germany absorbs more refugees

In what was once an overflow parking lot near a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Hamburg, a ghostly, white tent city has recently taken root.

Europe's destination cities, mostly in Germany, have had to repurpose buildings and public spaces

In what was once an overflow parking lot near a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Hamburg, a ghostly, white tent city has recently taken root.

It is gleaming clean. The fence, and the constant rotation of security guards, give an air of exclusivity. On a still-clear stretch nearby, an impromptu game of soccer is on.

But this is still, ultimately, what you'd label a refugee camp — in the heart of one of the wealthiest nations in Europe.

And that doesn't sit well with those responsible for caring for the asylum seekers who have come looking for safe haven.

"It's making a funny feeling in the stomach, because you would like to give them roofs over their heads," says Christiana Kant, of Fordern und Wohnen, a state company normally charged with dealing with the homeless, and which had already housed countless refugees before having to resort to tents.

"But if there is no place, there is basically nothing we can do."

This tent city near Hamburg, Germany, is still, ultimately, what you'd label a refugee camp in the heart of one of the wealthiest nations in Europe, Nahlah Ayed writes. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

In the face of the largest influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in recent history, Europe's destination cities, mostly in Germany, have had to make do, repurposing buildings and public spaces to accommodate all those arriving on their doorstep.

All along the route to Germany, the stream of so many new people is also leaving discernible marks on a continent likely changed forever by their arrival.

Whether it's the newly arrived young men in the streets of Catania, Sicily, the families roaming Steindamm street in Hamburg, changing money in Subotica, Serbia, or squatting in buildings in Amsterdam — asylum seekers have, for one, become inescapably visible.

Migrants wait on the bridge at the Austrian-German border between Braunau and Simbach near Passau, Germany, on Oct. 27. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

Unsurprisingly, many of the changes that have come as a result of such an influx start with the borders they cross.

The starkest example of course is Hungary's four-metre high border fence, built along the country's southern and western borders. The gleaming metal and barbed wire fence is now a permanent feature on the border, as essential as the cornfields nearby.

Austria also announced Wednesday it would build a fence on its border with Slovenia, to better manage movement of people. A few months ago, such fences would have been unthinkable.

On the once mostly invisible border between Austria and Germany, too, there are perceptible changes: a police checkpoint now keeps watch.

Syrian migrants Torin, left, and Ellen play along the street after arriving with their father Zake Khalil and family at the Austrian-German border in Achleiten near Passau, Germany, on Oct. 27. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

A few dozen metres away, the back of an electric power station and dam straddling the Saalach River has now become a temporary pedestrian bridge exclusively for the use of asylum seekers.

The walk — occasionally watched by the passing cyclists — takes just two minutes, and only a few can cross at any one time.

On one side, Austrian soldiers control access, behind a fence on which someone had scrawled "Farewell/good luck" in Arabic.

On the other, German policemen wait to receive the asylum seekers before transporting them on police buses onward into Germany.

Farther down the road, what was once a car repair centre is now the site of a huge tent; a makeshift reception centre, full of cots, blankets and people, holding as many as 1,000 a night.

Syrian migrants Zake Khalil, left, his wife Nagwa, right, and their four children Joan, Torin, Ellen and newborn Hevin arrive at the Austrian-German border in Achleiten near Passau, Germany, Oct. 27, 2015. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

For some en route to Germany, it is the first proper shelter they've come across since they set out. Eventually, they will be moved out of the tent and into the concrete building now under repair.

And, in nearby Salzburg, an underground parking garage at the main train station has been commandeered by authorities and transformed into temporary shelter for the travellers.

With the arrivals continuing unabated — and affected countries trying to settle into an orderly routine for processing and moving people along, such changes are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

UNHCR wants more shelters

As temperatures drop, tents will become a more common sight along the Balkan route that asylum seekers now take since the closing of Hungary's border. And, despite early reluctance, the UN's refugee agency — and its tents — will become more prominent.

One high-ranking UN High Commissioner for Refugees official said that the agency wanted to help provide more shelters earlier in the crisis, but few affected governments in Europe relished the sight of UN refugee camps in their backyard.

"You need government co-operation, and we're not getting government co-operation," the official said.

With the weather hovering around freezing at night, those governments now have no choice.

But it's the urban tents that perhaps make for the starkest change — and the biggest shock for the refugees themselves.

One family in Hamburg from the Syrian city of Hama says they have been in its tent city (built by the state agency) for a month waiting for the outcome of their asylum case.

They say, out of frustration, one of their friends has just returned to Syria.

"I am also thinking of going back," said Abdullah, a young man who lives in one of the tents with an uncle and his wife.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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