CELLE, Germany (Reuters) - At a sprawling camp in the German town of Celle, refugees wearing thick sweaters sit around a heater smoking cigarettes as rain beats down on the cramped white tent that has become their home. Some of them are ill and worried it will snow.
“The weather is so cold that I can’t even leave the tent,” said Taher, a 25-year-old Syrian farmer. Sitting on his camp bed surrounded by wet washing that hangs limply from tent poles, he reaches for a box of cough medicine.
With the approach of winter, authorities are scrambling to find warm places to stay for the thousands of refugees streaming into Germany every day. In desperation, they have turned to sports halls, youth hostels and empty office buildings.
But as these options dry up, tent cities have become the fall-back plan: despite falling temperatures, a survey by German newspaper Die Welt showed at least 42,000 refugees were still living in tents.
The challenge of finding adequate housing is turning into one of the biggest tests for the government of Angela Merkel, who has stuck doggedly to her mantra “Wir schaffen das” (“we can do this”) in the face of rising public scepticism.
Struggling to cope with a record influx of migrants that could exceed a million this year alone, her aides say the winter may prove decisive in determining whether Germans take the view that the crisis is manageable — or not.
“Absolutely, we can manage this,” said one adviser who requested anonymity. “But you can envision a worst case scenario where we have rioting over the winter. And that could shape the mood.”
There’s space for 1,000 at the camp on the outskirts of Celle, an old ducal town in northern Germany that survived World War Two largely intact and boasts fairy-tale timber-framed houses dating back as far as the 16th century.
Diesel-powered heaters pump warm air into the tents at a cost of 4,000 euros per day. But the refugees, some walking around in flip-flops, say they are struggling to keep warm.
“The problem in winter is that I have to go out to the toilet, often twice a night, and a lot of times it’s cold and raining,” said Shahad Alabadi, a 26-year-old Iraqi dentist who keeps her coat on as she eats dinner in the vast hangar that serves as the camp’s canteen.
Temperatures dropped to near-freezing during the past week. Snow has already fallen in some parts of Germany and forecasters expect ground frost in some areas in the coming days.
Michael Lukas, a spokesman for Malteser, the aid organization that runs the camp, says the tents are not winter-proof and “too thin” to be lived in permanently.
They were due to be replaced by huts, but those have not been delivered despite being ordered weeks ago. “Everywhere has sold out of huts,” Lukas says.
Bernd Mesovic, deputy director of Pro Asyl, a group that campaigns for refugee rights, said the standard of accommodation provided in Germany, Europe’s richest economy, had fallen.
“In summer the official policy was to say we’ll make sure refugees are out of makeshift shelters, especially tents but also sports halls, before winter but now you just have to be happy there’s space in any kind of accommodation at all.”
In the state of Hesse, 380 refugees were evacuated from a tent city on Thursday and taken to fixed accommodation after the head of the camp said he could no longer take responsibility for people having to sleep in tents in the cold weather.
And in Hamburg around 100 refugees took to the streets last Tuesday to protest against sleeping in unheated tents, carrying posters saying “we’re cold” and “please take the tents down”, according to German media reports.
Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz has said while efforts are being made to make the tents winter-proof or find alternatives, the “top priority is currently to avoid homelessness”.
In Berlin, authorities say they will take down tents once three big new accommodation centers open. They’re also planning to put people up in Tempelhof airport, a Nazi-built structure that served as a lifeline for West Berlin during the post-war Soviet blockade, and in the former ICC congress center.
In many regions, people who have been granted refugee status are still living in buildings intended for new arrivals due to a lack of social housing for them to move to, Mesovic said. He believes it could take months to adapt other buildings for use.
Harald Loehlein, head of migration at Paritaetische, an umbrella organization of German NGOs, said the unexpectedly rapid influx of refugees had forced authorities to improvise.
But he also blamed delays in reimbursing the organizations that run refugee centers, saying this was deterring people from opening new accommodation.
Charities are concerned the cold and crowding mean illnesses will spread among refugees weakened by arduous journeys. Herbert Hessler, a doctor at the medical practice in Celle’s tent city, said two-thirds of refugees there have caught a cold.
One problem is that washing hung around the camp cannot dry properly so people get ill from wearing damp clothes, he said.
Aid groups warn that there is an increased risk of conflicts in the camps over the winter as refugees huddle in cold tents with little to keep them occupied.
“You can go outside and move around a bit if it’s warm, but your whole life happens inside in winter and that makes living in such close quarters even more depressing,” Loehlein said.
That’s a problem that Bilal says he knows all too well. Fights, fueled by alcohol in some cases, are a daily occurrence in the camp in Celle, the 30-year-old economist from Syria says.
There is some hope. Malteser says the first huts should arrive in Celle next week but if their delivery is delayed again, the refugees will probably have to stay put in their tents, the town’s mayor, Dirk-Ulrich Mende, told Reuters.
“People told me I was going to paradise and Aunt Merkel would make everything good,” said Khaldoon Kareem, 27, a dentist from Iraq. “When I saw the tent I thought, Aunt Merkel is bad.”
Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Reporting and writing by Michelle Martin; Editing and reporting by Noah Barkin