Camp Tambach (Neues Haus)
Fotos: Jadwiga Henkel, 12.04.2022
Camp Tambach was the first asylum camp of the federal state of Thuringia. Between 1991 and 1996 it was also the reception centre (ZASt), meaning that all asylum seekers arriving in Thuringia had to register and apply for asylum in a make-shift office built out of containers on the camp site in the middle of the Thuringian forest. Following the registration process, the refugees were transferred to other asylum camps. During these years, camp Tambach was the administrative central of the Thuringian asylum infrastructure.
When the territories of the former GDR joined the FRG in October 1990, the West German political system was transferred to the new states, including the asylum system. In the unification treaty, the newly founded states were obligated to take in their share of asylum seekers from the beginning of 1991. In the GDR there had been no comparable asylum system and therefore no infrastructure of camps, offices and courts to reuse after the system change. The Thuringian government therefore had to set up a new asylum system within only three months. The opening of the first reception centre at „Neues Haus“ near Tambach on very short notice and without informing the people living in the vicinity was a part of this rushed effort.
Following the Western German example the Thuringian government chose the place „Neues Haus“ as the location of their first asylum camp, because it was distant from the next settlement and many people could be housed there at once. During the GDR, the area had belonged to Gesellschaft für Sport und (GST) (engl.: Sports and Technology association), which held paramilitary training camps for the socialist youth there. When the GDR broke down, the GST camp was closed. For the new government looking for a site to set up an asylum camp in a short time, the place was very convenient. Everything at „Neues Haus“ was still in place and ready to use. The beds, wardrobes, bed linens, the cutlery and the kitchen. The GST staff, experienced in providing for large numbers of people, was also available for reemployment. In January 1991 the first refugees moved into the former paramilitary camp, where nothing had been changed.
The inhabitants of camp Tambach came from more than 35 different countries. Many of those arriving in 1991 had fled desintegrating socialist states such as Romania or the Soviet Union. Later many refugees from the Yugoslavian wars lived in the camp. In the second half of the 1990s the majority of the inhabitants were from formerly colonised countries, which they had left because of wars (eg. Congo or Sierra Leone) or because of political persecution (eg. Algeria or Kurdistan).
In the first year, the camp was only surrounded by a wire mesh fence with many holes. After a racist arson attack on the camp in September 1991 the Thuringian government ordered the installation of a hight metal fence around the premises. On top and on the inside it was enhanced with barbed wire. The government claimed that the fence served the asylum seekers protection. However, visitors and inhabitants felt that the camp became similar to a prison. Life at camp Tambach was hard for the refugees, not only because of the barbed wire surrounding them. They also suffered from the crowdedness, loudness and isolation in the middle of the forest with few and expensive means of transport as well as the canteen meals and the inadequate medical care.
During the night of the 25th September 1991 twenty youths from Tambach-Dietharz attacked the asylum camp. They pushed the inhabitants out of the buildings, smashed the phones and furniture and threw molotov cocktails through a window. All inhabitants survived the arson attack, which was one among many during that time. The week before, a right wing extremist mob had attacked the houses of asylum seekers and foreign workers in Hoyerswerda (Saxony) for several days, while the neighbours cheered and applauded.
The fence was made of steel poles, which were more than two meters high. Several rows of barbed wire were mounted on top of the poles. Rolls of NATO barbed wire were also placed on the ground along the inside of the fence. The only entries to the camp were fitted with electrical turnstiles. A security guard controlled and took the identity card or passport of everyone entering the camp. Other security guards patroled the grounds with dogs.
In 1996 camp Tambach was turned from a reception centre into a regular camp, where people stayed for several months or years to wait for a decision in their asylum procedure instead of a few days or weeks for registration. Due to the longer duration of their stay people found the isolation of the camp in the middle of the Thuringian forest even more distressful. The asylum seekers began to organise protests against their remote accomodation. They founded a camp committee to represent their interests. In August 1998 many inhabitants of camp Tambach joined a hunger strike to protest against the bad quality of the canteen meals. They demanded the possibility to cook food for themselves. The police ended the uprising violently.
After several newspapers published reports on the severe conditions in the camp, the government decided to install kitchens. They gave the asylum seekers vouchers instead of money to buy groceries. None of the supermarkets in the area accepted the vouchers, so the inhabitants of camp Tambach regularly had to be driven to the town Friedrichroda ten kilometres away to buy food.
The refugees were supported by activists outside the camp. The migrant organisation „The Voice“ from Jena, the West German organisation „Menschlichkeit“ and the refugee council in Erfurt supported the protests at Neues Haus and made the demands of the refugees public. The parish priest from the near by town Tambach-Dietharz and the organisation „L´amitié“ in the next larger town Gotha advocated for better living conditions in the camp. However, most people living in the vincinity ignored the circumstances, under which refugees were forced to live in their neighbourhood. When the inhabitants of camp Tambach went to the shops in Tambach-Dietharz, they often experienced racist insults and even violent attacks on their way back to the camp through the forest.
In 2000 the protests reached their high point. In March the refugees handed in a petition for the immediate shut down of camp Tambach at the Thuringian parliament. Afterwards they succeeded in drawing the attention of many people on the central square in Gotha to their demands with a protest under the banner “We are living behind barbed wire”. The Thuringian government subsequently announced that the camp would be closed in 2002, when the contract with the firm managing the camp would expire. The last refugees were able to move out of the camp in August 2003.