Shortly after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany opened its main refugee reception and registration facility in two terminals at the former Tegel Airport in Berlin. At the time of Tuesday’s fire, the center was housing about 4,500 refugees against a planned maximum capacity of 7,000.

Around 100 firefighters attended the scene but were unable to save the construction. A spokesperson for the Berlin Fire Department, said that fire broke out in a workshop attached to a large tent in which around 300 asylum seekers, some of whom are Ukrainian, were housed but, fortunately there were no serious injuries although a small number of occupants were treated for the effects of smoke inhalation.

The Ambassador of Ukraine to Germany Oleksiy Makeev said he was in touch with Nancy Feser, Germany’s Minister of Internal Affairs, and was waiting for further details and the results of the investigation into the incident.

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He said in a Facebook post “We are talking about a large international center of migrants, migrants from all over the world, a large number of whom are Ukrainians. So, we are finding out further details.”

The original aim was that those fleeing the war would spend two or three days being processed at the Tegel Arrival Centre before being moved to more suitable accommodation elsewhere. However, it soon became apparent that the numbers involved were simply beyond the capacity of the German capital’s resources.

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With the US dithering, the implications need to be recognized and decisive action taken to avoid disaster in the shape of a Russian victory in Ukraine.

Monika Hebbinghaus, spokesperson for Berlin’s State Office for Refugee Affairs said, “There were thousands of refugees coming every day and we needed a large area where we could both get registration going in large numbers and provide accommodation.”

The airport had closed in 2020 and was used as a mass vaccination clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tented buildings used were still on site and so the area was quickly converted to provide emergency accommodation which for some, two years after the war began, has become an almost semi-permanent home.

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The Berlin Senate has had to approve extensions to the use of Tegel as a refugee center, for Ukrainians and other evacuees, several times as the extent of the problem has grown. It is currently estimated that 1.1 million Ukrainians are currently sheltering in Germany.

The center, which has more than a thousand employees, is run by the Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs (LAF), supported by several charitable organizations, including the Samaritan's Purse and the Red Cross.

In addition to the more than 80,000 Ukrainians who have been processed at Tegel, around 750 cats and 800 dogs from Ukraine have been registered at the center.

The cause of the fire is not yet known and although arson is not suspected it has not yet been ruled out. In October 2022 a shelter for Ukrainian refugees near the town of Wismar in the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania burnt down and was investigated as arson by both police and the state security services as a racially motivated attack on Germans protesting about immigration.

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