Berlin’s hulking Nazi-era Tempelhof Airport was once the world’s largest building, with a 1.2km-long facade.
Closed for air travel in 2008, not even this sprawling building can cope with Germany’s renewed refugee crisis. Repurposed last year for emergency accommodation, its original 840 beds in two hangers have been topped up with additional white containers and tents erected on grass verges around the complex for arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan, Benin and more.
“Nothing more is possible here,” said Peter Hermanns, manager of the facility. “We already have too few rooms and the containers, as you see, are so closely packed together.”
The situation is the same all over Germany, where authorities have registered more than 204,000 asylum applications from January to August this year, up nearly 80 per cent on the same period last year. One regional politician warned on Monday of a “mind-blowing” number of daily border crossings through traffickers.
“We’ve never had a concentration like this, not even at the height of the refugee crisis 2015-2016,” said Mr Michael Stübken, interior minister of Brandenburg, where at least 50 people daily are picked up after crossing the 270km border from Poland, with many more undetected. “I think the time has come to trigger the emergency Schengen measures.”
On Tuesday morning, Germany’s federal government did just that: applying to set aside European Union free-travel rules temporarily by setting up stationary border checks on its Polish and Czech borders.
Federal interior minister Nancy Faeser was previously opposed to stationary border checks but says they are worth trying “to see what they bring, as an additional measure” to existing roaming border patrols.
“However, the only sustainable solutions will be European solutions,” she told German radio on Tuesday, “with greater checks on outer EU borders.”
But German local authorities cannot wait that long. They are on the frontlines of the revived migration crisis, trying to find beds and school places for new arrivals. Still grappling with over one million Ukrainians who arrived last year, they walked out of a meeting Ms Faeser on Monday without any additional financing.
This week Der Spiegel magazine, riffing on Angela Merkel’s famous 2015 “we’ll manage this” refugee crisis refrain, asked on its cover: “Will we manage again?”
A more accurate question would be: does Germany want to manage it again? According to a new survey, 82 per cent of Germans think too many people are arriving into their country; 84 per cent of respondents think the authorities cannot cope.
The sprawling state of Lower Saxony has warned that it has five times as many refugees living there as in 2015, with one state official warning: “We cannot expect society to deal with this in the long run.”
The tone in Germany’s migration debate began to shift in mid-September when former president Joachim Gauck, a leading moral figure in public debates, insisted it was “politically wise ... and not morally reprehensible” to impose upper limits on inward migration.
Breaking a political taboo, Mr Gauck warned that Germany’s “wonderful solidarity is vanishing” and urged politicians to “step back from wishful thinking” and embrace solutions which “we may initially dislike because they sound inhumane” but which will find broad political agreement.
Wasting no time to act was Mr Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). At the weekend he made Chancellor Scholz a poisoned political offer: “Let’s do a [migration] deal together and if you don’t manage it with the Greens, throw them out and we will do it, because we have to solve this problem.”
Migration concerns will be front and centre on October 8th, when some 14 million voters are called to the polls in Bavaria and Hesse. Those state election campaigns have been overshadowed by a vicious war of words in Berlin among Mr Scholz’s junior coalition partners.
The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) have baited the Greens, with their more liberal outlook on migration, as a “security risk” for Germany. Meanwhile, Green leaders are facing attack as too pragmatic and hardline by leftist grassroots, who oppose a planned common EU migration regime.
“The Greens will have to shift in government,” said Prof Klaus Schubert, political scientist at the University of Münster. “The question is: how many of their supporters will they lose in the process?”