It is mid-March. For the past few days a white tent has been standing on Washingtonplatz, right in front of Berlin’s main train station. It’s twice the size of a tennis court. “Welcome Hall Berlin” is written above the entrance.
Fan heaters provide heat. Benches and tables stand on the wooden floor. Daria and Viktoria are seated at one o’clock, in hooded sweatshirts and down jackets. They are 13 and 17 years old. They look shyly at the ground. There are their backpacks and a red travel bag.
Escape from Odessa to Berlin
The two sisters come from Odessa and arrived in Berlin by train via Poland. The box for a SIM card is on the table in front of Daria and Viktoria. It is available here for free. They keep in touch with their father in Odessa via smartphone. He is not allowed to leave Ukraine, like all grown men. They know from him that there are repeated air raid warnings in their hometown. Odessa is now also the target of Russian attacks.
“We would like to go back to Ukraine, but obviously it is not without danger right now,” they say. The two sisters still don’t know where they will sleep tonight. They have no relatives in Germany. They only know one thing: they don’t want to stay here in Berlin, they would prefer a smaller city.
The other refugees in the “Welcome Hall Berlin” are likely to feel the same way as Daria and Viktoria: they are safe from war in Ukraine; but I don’t know how to proceed.
Vent in the welcome tent
Barbara Breuer is the spokesperson for the Berlin City Mission and is now helping herself so that the refugees can rest for a moment. “People can catch their breath here for a while and I think that’s the most important thing.”
The city mission organizes the tent in front of the main train station on behalf of the Berlin Senate. After a few days, Breuer got used to a certain routine. He says that 14 trains full of war refugees arrive every day. Here you can find out where your next point of contact is. On this day, the buses are ready to go to Bielefeld. There should still be vacancies there.
Berlin hub: emergency housing for thousands of people
Many continue alone, on the train. Or they stay in Berlin: it is estimated that so far 60,000 Ukrainians have been. The Berlin Senate and humanitarian organizations have set up emergency shelters throughout the city.
The impromptu help earlier this month is slowly turning into a professional recording. It is going too slowly, criticizing some of the volunteers. Barbara Breuer shows understanding. “Nobody can ask for all the structures to be in place overnight and for everything to slip away,” says a spokesperson for the Berlin City Mission.
Tent camp on the former Tegel airport
To accommodate the many refugees, at least improvised, three large tents were erected in the former Berlin-Tegel airport. 450 double-decker folding beds are each in a bed curtain, white partitions are meant to give some privacy. The total of about 1,000 seats is a kind of emergency solution, if there are no other free beds.
On this day, Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser (SPD) visits the accommodation. The tent city includes a mobile medical office and its own energy supply. After one or two nights in the emergency shelter, the refugees must be distributed in the federal states according to the so-called Königstein key.
Stronger control by the federal government called for
The Königstein key divides federal states based on tax revenue and population. For Bavaria, for example, this means that the Free State should welcome a good 15 percent of those arriving.
At first, Federal Interior Minister Faeser refused a fixed distribution key. But the more people came from Ukraine, the stronger was the demand for more government control.
According to Interior Minister Nancy Faeser of the SPD, the federal government has been working for weeks to help distribute incoming Ukrainians to federal states so that solidarity within Germany can be better represented, as Faeser says.
Meanwhile, special trains from Poland go not only to Berlin, but also to Cottbus and Hanover. The federal government also organizes buses to other cities. This should mainly relieve large cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.
Complicated distribution between federal states
Faeser believes that people go to big cities because they think they can get back to Ukraine faster from there. This makes distribution more difficult because you have to convince people not to stay in Berlin but perhaps to go to Baden-Württemberg or Rhineland-Palatinate.
“This complicates distribution,” said the Interior Minister, stressing that Ukrainian refugees – unlike when refugees arrived in 2015 – enter the country without a visa and can move freely.
European solidarity is needed
It is also complicated because there is no precise overview of how many Ukrainians there are in the country and where. The federal police have so far registered around 250,000 refugees. But the real numbers are probably higher. As people only have to report to the authorities when they are looking for a job, children go to school or government support is required.
Faeser therefore focuses on an information campaign for distribution – and on European solidarity. Direct trains from Poland to France have been running for a few days. Also, according to Faeser, Germany is helping to create an airlift from Poland.