Scene of Migration
The history of Marienfelde reflects political developments and caesurae in both Germanys, in Europe and throughout the world. Today, Marienfelde is still a place for people embarking on a new life: in 2010, a building on the grounds was established as temporary housing for refugees.
A Chronology of Reception in Marienfelde
For decades, the Marienfelde reception center played an important role in the history of migration in Berlin and Germany. It was the point of arrival for refugees and people who had left the GDR and for people resettling from Eastern European and the (former) Soviet Union. German federal authorities were in charge of their legal reception, but the state of Berlin ran the reception center and was responsible for organizing the care of the people who arrived there.
On April 14, 1953, West Germany’s President Theodor Heuss officially opened the Marienfelde reception center, a central refugee camp in the American occupation zone in West Berlin for people coming from the GDR and East Berlin. East Germans who wanted to stay in the West had to go through a special reception procedure here. The different agencies involved in this process had previously been dispersed throughout the city, but now they had their offices together in this new facility. The refugees were housed in the center’s fifteen residential blocks until they had completed the reception procedure. Those who received residence permits were flown out to one of the West German federal states; only a small fraction was allowed to stay in West Berlin. By 1953, the number of East German immigrants coming to the West had surpassed 330,000. Over the following years, people continued to leave the GDR, sometimes as many as 200,000 a year. When the Berlin Wall was built on August 13, 1961, bringing the exodus to a screeching halt, the East German state had already lost nearly three million of its people to West Germany.
Things quieted down in Marienfelde after the border between the Berlin sectors was sealed off. Retirees were practically the only people arriving in the West from the GDR after that. The GDR government allowed them to leave because they no longer contributed to the economy. In 1964, with newly available capacity, West Berlin authorities began taking in people from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union who because of their German “ethnicity” were entitled to German citizenship. Marienfelde became the central point of contact for these so-called “repatriates” as well. They were provided provisional housing, food and care at the center. The West Berlin facility functioned as the federal government’s processing center for ethnic Germans resettling in Germany. It was also a state reception center for people already registered in West Germany who wanted to move to Berlin. Marienfelde admitted 232 “repatriates” in 1964. This number fluctuated between about 300 and 700 persons over the following years.
Most of the “ethnic Germans” arriving in Berlin came from Poland. The basis for this had been set in the Warsaw Treaty signed by the Federal Republic and the People’s Republic of Poland in 1970. Following further negotiations, the emigration procedure was extended in 1975. Under this arrangement more than 800 people moved to West Berlin in 1976; an additional 1,000 people a year followed between 1977 and 1980. In the mid-1970s, this group made up the largest population in Marienfelde, along with East Germans in retirement age. During this time only a few refugees and political prisoners whose release from GDR prisons had been paid for by the Federal Republic came to Marienfelde. But the year 1975 also represented a turning point in migration from the GDR. In early August, the GDR signed the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference, in which the principles of human rights were codified. It was on the basis of this agreement that people demanded their right to leave the country. At first the number of emigrants remained low: in 1983, some 11,300 East Germans came to West Germany, including nearly 2,300 who went to West Berlin. But the emigration movement evolved into a growing problem for the GDR leadership.
The data collected by the GDR Ministry for State Security showed that since the early 1980s, the number of requests to leave the country had been unrelenting. To ease the pressure, the GDR leadership allowed some 35,000 applicants to leave for the West during the course of 1984. This, in turn, led to overcrowding in Marienfelde’s temporary housing. The people arriving now were young, working-age people and families. The influx of East Germans to West Germany began to wane after that, before picking up again in 1988. It reached its peak in 1989/90, when some 344,000 refugees and 240,000 emigrants arrived. The number of ethnic German repatriates also reached its highpoint at this time, especially in 1990 when almost 400,000 people arrived. To cope with the onslaught, emergency beds were set up in the former dining hall and meeting rooms in Marienfelde. The reception authorities used tents as offices and rented an extra building on a nearby street named Großbeerenstrasse. In addition, 240 provisional housing facilities and emergency accommodations were set up in gyms throughout the city.
In early July 1990, the reception procedure for emigrants from the GDR was discontinued. After operating for more than 37 years, the facility in Marienfelde ceased to serve its original function. The site continued to operate as a reception center for ethnic German repatriates, but the year 1990 marked a turning point for this migration, too. A new requirement went into force under the Ethnic German Repatriates Admissions Act demanding that the repatriate present notification of admission upon entry into the Federal Republic of Germany. Moreover, a “pressure to expel” was only assumed for countries that had been part of the former Soviet Union. As a consequence of this change, Russian Germans began replacing Polish Germans as the largest group of immigrants to Germany. In 1993, the West German federal government introduced a quota system limiting the number of ethnic German repatriates, it admitted to 200,000 a year. By 1998, the number of arrivals had levelled off to about 100,000 a year nationwide, including 2,500 who came to Berlin. The numbers continued to drop steadily after 2003 and the Marienfelde reception center stopped operating at capacity. By 2010, immigration had declined so much that the facility closed – at least for the time being.
For several months, the building on Marienfelder Allee lay deserted. But there was still a housing need for people seeking asylum. In 2010, these applicants included people from Iraq who had been persecuted by the regime there and who arrived in Germany as quota refugees. People in crisis and war regions such as Afghanistan, Syria and the North Caucasus were also forced to flee their homes. This led to a new rise in the number of people seeking protection in Germany. The former reception center in Marienfelde was reopened in 2010 as temporary housing for refugees and asylum seekers under management of the International Bund. The International Bund (Link) helps the residents manage their daily lives. But there is frequent turnover and a constant flux in the number of residents living in the building. A large number of people arrived in 2015/16 when the civil wars in Syria and North Africa intensified. About 700 people from ten countries currently live in the temporary housing.