BERLIN, Germany, Feb 18 (UNHCR) – The International Congress Center (ICC) in Berlin – a stout and futuristic landmark building – was formally the venue for large trade fairs. It now serves as the temporary home of almost 600 asylum seekers from mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
On his first visit to Germany as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited the ICC emergency shelter run by the NGO Malteser Hilfsdienst to receive a first-hand impression of the situation.
"Germany has seen a large influx of asylum seekers over the last year and has led by example in providing a safe haven to hundreds of thousands desperate people escaping the world's war zones", he said. "It is good to be on the ground and meet both the people affected as well as the many professionals and volunteers supporting them."
Among 300 families using the makeshift shelter are Sabha, and her husband Ahmad, and their two children Hamzeh and Alma and their Uncle Mohammad who arrived at the makeshift shelter just before Christmas 2015. Sabha was then pregnant with their third child.
The Malteser staff and the many dedicated volunteers are committed to support the family and the other "guests" – as they call them – as best they can but the reality is grim and loved ones back in Syria are still in their hearts.
"I cannot concentrate on German classes and my new life here because I have to think of my family in Damascus", said the uncle. The family may have found safety but with relatives trapped in the middle of the conflict zone they cannot leave their past behind and the future is unclear.
Berlin like many other cities in Germany has seen a surge in new arrivals and is scrambling to provide adequate services for all of them. Almost 80,000 people arrived in Berlin in 2015. Many of them are temporarily housed in gyms, former schools and other makeshift accommodation.
"I could see the challenges for the asylum seekers themselves and for the country receiving them but also the extraordinary solidarity provided to refugees and migrants that have arrived here over the last months," Grandi, who took office on January 1 this year, concluded after the visit. "Here, in a very practical way, solidarity works," he added.
The challenges facing Germany and its role in the current political situation were also the focus of the High Commissioner's meetings with key government officials and representatives of civil society.
"Without Germany's contributions we would find ourselves in a different Europe," Grandi said during a meeting with Federal President Joachim Gauck.
In a joint statement, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier thanked UNHCR for the "valuable work under difficult conditions" while the UN High Commissioner commended Germany's humanitarian leadership in supporting displaced people in Syria and its neighbouring countries.
"The first element of stabilization is to assist people in their own country", Grandi emphasized.
By Martin Rentsch, Berlin