Catastrophic conditions for refugees in Hamburg

By Benjamin Hader
22 October 2015

Conditions for refugees in Hamburg have deteriorated severely in the past two weeks. The colder weather and the beginning of overnight frost are impacting their already weakened health. Yet autumn has only just begun and a cold winter is predicted. Of the 35,000 refugees who have entered the city this year, 4,200 are living in tents, 3,000 of them without heating.

The tent village in Jenfelder Moorpark

The tents are not only extremely cold, but also wet and drafty. People’s clothing is damp and never dries properly. Newly installed heaters do not work or supply only cold air, but continue to run the whole night, according to helpers and refugees. Some of the entrance doors do not close properly. Some refugees, particularly children, spend the night in the toilets, if there is space, because they are at least minimally heated. In some cases refugees removed heaters in order to set them up in the tents.

Heaters were not purchased in sufficient quantities, because the Hamburg Senate maintained it would accommodate refugees in containers or wooden houses during the winter. The appliances take between six to eight weeks to arrive, meaning that no additional heating can be guaranteed to the people living in the 260 tents.

The floors of the tents, which are neither wind nor watertight, are totally sodden after the recent spell of heavy rain. There are no sandbags for emergency measures to dry them out, and the fields are muddy. The Senate nonetheless described the camp as “manageable,” as the Hamburger Abendblatt of 16 October reported, only in the next breath to provide a detail to the contrary: “Due to fear of attacks, a supply of blankets was not distributed to the freezing residents, according to a camp report.”

In Moorpark in the Jenfeld district, firemen covered 56 tents with foil, because rain was getting inside. It is uncertain whether this protection will withstand the next round of bad weather. At the main train station, tents have been set up for the arrival of refugees and provisional first aid since they have no floor and rain is running in.

Refugees report sleeping in scarves, pullovers, trousers, and thick socks, in a sleeping bag and under blankets and, if they are available, towels. But in the fold-up and bunk beds on freezing fields it is hardly possible to sleep. Instead, they survive the nights only by keeping constantly on the move. At the camp on Schnackenburgallee in the district of Bahrenfeld, hundreds of beds are lacking.

Many camp residents have colds, are extremely sick with fever or bronchitis, and ear and tonsil infections. Some cases of lung infections have also been reported. According to statements from doctors, almost all children in the camps are sick.

The horrific conditions in a tent camp

The conditions are particularly chaotic and dramatic for around a thousand refugees in the Schnackenburgallee camp, located next to the noisy A7 autobahn.

Refugee tent in Jenfelder Moorpark

“Severely ill residents are sleeping on wooden pallets,” said one worker. “The workforce went on strike for several hours this week to protest against the conditions,” the Hamburger Abendblatt reported. “There is neither power in the medical ambulance, nor in the tents. More than 100 people are seriously ill. Fifteen tents had to be closed because of outbreaks of mould.”

“The majority of children are ill. In addition, there are scabies and other infections among the older ones,” another worker reported. “The doctors are doing all they can, but under these conditions the chances of recovery are virtually nil.” Pregnant women are also affected.

The eyes of children appear as hollow holes and their bodies shake with coughing. Small children appear blue, helpers report. A pregnant woman gave birth to a baby with the help of the guards.

“By midday, the supply of medication ran out and we organised some extra pullovers and sent a lot of children back to their tents. It was grim,” said someone familiar with the reception centre at Schnackenburgallee.

The current accommodation is considered extremely problematic by medical personnel, who have shown a great willingness to assist. “Refugees with infections which never heal cannot be accommodated in tents without floors in these freezing conditions, absolutely not children,” said Professor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, President of the Federal Doctors’ Association.

Over the past three months, there have been 370 cases of suspected diseases where there is an obligation to report, including hepatitis and malaria. “We have three isolation rooms which are almost always full,” report social workers. “We can be satisfied if we identify the most serious conditions on time.”

The medical personnel engaged in the refugee camps is inadequate, especially for children and women. A list of examples of how the Hamburg Senate has failed to meet its responsibility for medical care is not required. It is therefore also not surprising that the authorities are not particularly bothered about hygiene. The last hygiene check took place in the Schnackenburgallee camp in May.

The atmosphere among refugees, in line with the conditions, is characterised by conflicts: they are enraged, aggressive, angry and desperate. Some refugees attacked the management of the camp and tried to storm the administrative rooms. Police described the camp as “close to collapse” and “highly explosive.”

After weeks of silence, Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz saw fit to mention the refugees’ situation on October 14. “It is impressive to see the openness to the world with which the citizens of this city have turned to this task,” he said in a government statement. He hailed the “intact and prosperous city, with the resources to deal with this task”. However, he cannot be accused of actually deploying these resources.

Scholz also made clear that the refugees would have to live in tents over the winter. “Our primary goal at the moment is the avoidance of homelessness.” In the context of previous experiences, the mayor’s pledge to “deal with it”, can only be understood as a threat.

The unbearable conditions are creating fertile ground for attacks from the right. There have already been numerous attacks, not only on refugees, but also on helpers. For example, workers at the central reception centre in Hamburg Wilhelmsburg reported that the wheel nuts were removed from the tires of their cars. A worker almost suffered an accident on their way home.

“Please help us!”

At a protest against the deteriorating conditions on October 15, this writer spoke to volunteers helping refugees and participants.

A group of young people who found themselves in the protest by accident spoke about tent cities in their district. They were angered by the inhumane treatment of refugees, particularly small children and babies. They were deeply shocked when told that refugees would have to spend the winter in tents. “But that can’t happen, they will not manage, how bad are things for refugees already?” one said. One demonstrator summed up the widespread anger, “How is it possible to come to the conclusion to keep people in tents during winter?”

A volunteer who assists refugees at the main train station asked exasperatedly, “How can something like this happen in Germany, in Hamburg, that people are treated like the worst dirt. The authorities are not interested if the people are seriously ill or threatened by death. It has been cold for three days now, where will it lead? It is risking lives. There is enough space and enough money available for accommodation, helpers and aid organisations. But the city thinks it is too good for that; nothing is being done. I don’t understand it.”

The malevolence of the Hamburg authorities and politicians was expressed in a statement by Frank Reschreiter, spokesman for the interior affairs department, that tents which could not be readied for winter should be replaced as quickly as possible with wooden pavilions and containers. In other words, accommodation in tents will continue, and the time it will take for something to change, if at all, is not known.

Several spontaneous protests have taken place over recent days. In front of the city hall and on Jungfernstieg, 100 refugees protested with signs reading, “We are cold, take down the tents, please”, and “Please help us!”

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