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Overwhelmed German Cities House Asylum Seekers In Tents


Boatloads of refugees and other migrants land each day on Southern European shores, but few remain there. Instead, they head north to countries they've heard will welcome them - countries like Germany. As many as a half million new asylum-seekers are expected in Germany this year - a number that is overwhelming communities there. Even German cities that are known for embracing migrants want Berlin to take steps to stop so many from coming. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports one of those cities - Hamburg.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: This group of white tents set up last month in a local park is one place Hamburg officials send new migrants.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: A scabies outbreak has temporarily halted the arrivals, but hundreds of people remain here, including these children playing outside on a recent afternoon. The compound is enclosed by a tall fence, and a surly German security guard keeps watch at the gate. Area resident Birgit Nimscholz says the setup makes it hard to meet her new neighbors. Like many in her community, the 60-year-old doesn't approve of the tent city in their park.

BIRGIT NIMSCHOLZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: These people deserve proper housing, she says and adds they're treated like animals being herded into a pen. No one cares about them after that.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: A stone's throw away, three young migrants press their faces against the green tarp covering the mesh fence. We can't see each other, but the men are eager to talk, including a 21-year-old Iraqi who speaks a little English. I ask if he likes living in a tent.

HODEIFA AL QAISI: Of course not. I want to go to another place.

NELSON: His name Hodeifa al Qaisi, and he says he's traveled here from Baghdad by sea, rail and road.

AL QAISI: I want to study. I want to work. I want anything. I don't have anything in my country, but I stay - I stay here. I cannot find a job. I cannot study. I cannot anything.

NELSON: That's a common refrain among the newcomers, even from war-torn countries. Most tell NPR they came to Germany to study, learn a trade or find a job. All of those interviewed say they are fed up living in makeshift accommodations with nothing to do as they wait for their cases to be decided, which can take years. All the while, the pace of migration is increasing, says Marcel Schweitzer, who is the spokesperson for Hamburg's ministry that deals with migrants.

MARCEL SCHWEITZER: Hamburg is a well-known global city, but on the other hand, it's a very small city when you have to house two-and-a-half percent of all asylum seekers of Germany. And we are now really searching for areas - buildings - where we can house all these people.

NELSON: Connie Gunsser, who is a member of the Hamburg Refugee Council, says that's the city government's own fault.

CONNIE GUNSSER: The authorities say they cannot cope with all these refugees coming. They say about 200 come every day. But if you compare it, I know that in Italy, about 2,000 arrive every day and on a small island like Sicily. So I think they shouldn't complain and that they should have known that the number of refugees will rise because of all these wars and crisis all over the world.

NELSON: Gunsser believes poor planning, rather than shortage of housing, is the reason why so many new migrants in Hamburg live in tents.

GUNSSER: And now they want to make a policy that they separate the good and the bad refugees.

NELSON: She's referring to a government proposal to stop all migrants coming from the Balkans. Germany has already declared a number of those countries safe, which makes it easier to deport migrants who come here from that region. The latest proposal makes Fadmir Shalla nervous. The 28-year-old Kosovo native who came here from Montenegro seven months ago and wants to work at McDonald's is one of 170 asylum seekers living in repurposed cargo containers near the new the main train station in Hamburg.

FADMIR SHALLA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He says he'd rather kill himself than let Germany send him back because there is no work for him back home to provide for his children. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Hamburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.