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Sports halls empty as refugee integration enters new phase

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Sports halls empty as refugee integration enters new phase
Photo: DPA
12:45 CEST+02:00
Seated on a wooden bench in a big sports hall in the southern German town of Puchheim, Adama was combing her hair carefully as she waited for her mobile phone to recharge.

"It's easier now, we don't fight about the sockets anymore," said the 26-year-old Sierra Leonean refugee.

Until as recently as March, Adama had to share her temporary living quarters -- the Puchheim sports hall -- with 200 other asylum seekers, as Germany registered a record influx of migrants.

With upwards of 600,000 new arrivals in 2015 alone, Europe's biggest economy has cleared out gymnasiums and army barracks, as well as pitched tents, to house the newcomers.

But by mid-April, the numbers of migrants put up in the indoor sporting facility in a suburb of Munich suddenly dwindled to around 60.

Likewise across Germany, only about half of the 350,000 beds in emergency refugee shelters are occupied.

The reason for the sharp fall in numbers: a decision by Balkan nations to close their borders to migrants at the beginning of March, which halted the influx of asylum seekers travelling on the route north to Germany.

"Since the beginning of April, we have not been asked to welcome new refugees. So we started to empty the hall, step by step," said Andreas Buchner, 29, who is in charge of coordinating the refugee relief effort in the

Fürstenfeldbruck district, where Puchheim is located.

Fürstenfeldbruck is home to around 3,000 refugees at the moment.

At the Puchheim sports hall, rows of bunk beds are lined up across the parquet floor, while basketball hoops which have not been used for more than a year hang overhead.

Many of the beds are now unoccupied. Some have been turned into shelving space by refugees, while around the beds being used, sheets have been hung for some privacy.

Tables in the dining area were also mostly empty, even during mealtimes.

'Crisis could start again'

"The situation is quite quiet now, and relaxed," said Thomas Epp, who is charged with finding lodgings for the new arrivals in Fürstenfeldbruck.

At the height of the crisis, when thousands arrived daily in Bavaria - the key southern gateway to Germany -- Epp had to rustle up beds for 80 refugees a week.

And to cope with the emergency, everyone in Puchheim found themselves having to pitch in.

High school students had to travel to another sports hall in the city as their regular facility was requisitioned to house refugees. On days when the sun was shining, they simply took their sports practice outdoors.

With demand for accommodation now falling dramatically, the sports hall is expected to reopen.

"We hope we can free up this hall during the summer break," said Epp, adding that some time was needed to carry out some renovations.

But even with the departure of the sports halls' temporary residents, authorities warned that the crisis was far from over.

"Our challenge now is to empty out the sports halls," said Buchner. "But if more refugees arrive, we will have to think up new emergency housing solutions. And it's becoming more and more complicated."

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere also warned against dismantling all the shelters.

"Given the unpredictable nature of these events, we should probably keep these emergency shelters, perhaps mothball them, but definitely not shut them down," he said.

The spokesman for Upper Bavaria's government, Martin Nell, said the refugee relief effort now had to move into a second phase.

"Being able to empty temporary housing, like in the sports halls, is a good thing. But we need to adapt to this new situation," he said, noting that the region now needs to distribute the thousands of migrants to suitable longer-term housing.

As the last refugees get ready to pack their bags and leave the Puchheim sports hall, city council employees were putting up a huge tent just outside.

Is that new mass housing for migrants?

"No," said Buchner, laughing. "It's for the city's beer festival."

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