Aino Korvensyrjä & Salomon Wantchoucou
Ninety-Five Theses from Wittenberg – a Skype-interview with Salomon Wantchoucou
Salomon Wantchoucou is a refugee and activist living in Germany. In 2009, the, he founded the Refugee Initiative Möhlau-Wittenberg together with other inhabitants of the Möhlau reception center in Sachsen-Anhalt. These isolated, run-down barracks are typical of the German asylum housing system, but the conditions in this one were particularly inhumane. The local government agreed to close the center in 2012 after persistent pressure by the group, who then continued under the name Refugee Movement Sachsen-Anhalt. Since 2001, German authorities refuse to recognize Wantchoucou’s Beninese nationality, and to grant him refugee status, thus rendering him stateless. Instead of bebeing granted a residence permit, he stays in the country by way of a temporary suspension of deportation (Duldung).
AK: You have been very active in the recent German refugee protests, both locally in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt and participating in nationwide actions. Can you tell a bit how the Refugee movement Sachsen-Anhalt got started and what you are doing?
SW: When I came here as a political refugee in 2001, my encounter with the German asylum system was quite horrible. I saw refugees being humiliated and intimidated, nobody was doing anything about it. The problem was not so much the absence of laws, but how the law was being applied in the state in which I was obliged to stay. In Sachsen-Anhalt the mentality is against refugees. The authorities trusted that the refugees didn’t know their rights and would not talk about abuses, so they could do whatever they pleased. There was nothing like a contra-control.
Another problem is that many of the places where refugees are housed are run by companies. Refugees are used as objects to make money, without themselves being aware of the details of the deal between the company and the local government, they do however suffer the negative consequences of it.
In 2008 I was sent to Möhlau, a camp (Lager) in the middle of the forest near Wittenberg. The housing conditions were simply terrible. They treated us like animals.
German authorities refer to reception centers as Gemeinschaftsunterkünfte, community accommodations. The refugee movement calls them by the word Lager, which means camp. The Möhlau reception center was located in the former military barracks of the National People’s Army of the DDR. The buildings had been left to rot after German reunification. Inhabitants had to walk or bike seven kilometers to the nearest shop. A bus stopped there twice a day but most of the refugees were not allowed to have enough cash for a bus ticket. Social and foreigner administration offices were located 30 kilometers away, in Wittenberg.
People were living in the place for years, many for more than 10 years, including families and children who had been born there, all kinds of nationals. Nobody knew about this. We had been abandoned in the middle of the forest with no right to work or to travel beyond Sachsen-Anhalt, many not even to have money, these people received only vouchers to buy goods. In general this voucher system was channeled to black Africans.
We had to find a way to protect ourselves against institutional racism. In 2008, a friend then took me to a meeting, the 10-year anniversary of the Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants. This gave me the opportunity to have contact with other refugee groups, in the Caravan, but also The Voice Refugee Forum and No Lager Halle, a German anti-racist platform against the abuse of refugees.
Following this, , I managed to convince other inhabitants to join in order to ameliorate our common conditions. We created the Refugee Initiative Möhlau-Wittenberg, as a grassroots group with precise demands concerning our living conditions in the camp, aiming to communicate them to the responsible authorities. We wanted them to recognize our right to a decent apartment, to work, to move freely, and to do other things that human beings do. We had already been persecuted in our own countries and we refused to take another persecution. Our aim was to perform contra-control to the bureaucratic policies.
We had to take all this through the political system in Wittenberg which is quite complex. With the help of the media, some political parties, the Refugee Council, and the important support of these refugee networks and platforms I mentioned, we were able to achieve our objectives in the local government.
Yet we succeeded also because we remained strict and uncompromised about our demands. We had a strong position as we had been victimized. The fact that we were independent and self-organized played a great role in this.
After the Möhlau camp was closed, we changed our name to Refugee Movement Sachsen-Anhalt, and extended our platform to protect the interests of all refugees in the state.
AK: Before you came to Germany you were a political activist and a critic of the dictatorship of Mathieu Kérékou.
SW: In Benin the government of the communist Kérékou was a dictatorship. Being aligned with the Soviet Union also created an obstacle to our country’s economic development. All this relates to the role the Cold War played for the African continent, and actually to the consequences of colonialism. After the European powers lost the second world war, our countries should have become independent but instead ended up being new war grounds for the US and the Soviet Union.
After 1990, there was in Benin an attempt at a national reconciliation process in order to develop a democratic system of government. But Kérékou insisted on continuing his rule. This generated criticisms and oppositions which I found important and supported. Our aim was an open and transparent democracy and we fought on a grassroots level, by publishing texts, sharing information, and establishing local contacts. Kérékou was well connected and had his agents to watch us. I became the victim of an assassination attempt which I was lucky to survive, but had to leave the country.
AK: When you came to Germany in 2001 it was a very different context to continue your political activity.
SW: When I first came here, I was traumatized and just quietly watching the world. I became active after I had been put in prison in Switzerland for no reason. After ten months I was released and they told me that they were sorry. Sorry?! The impact of all this was to give me more courage. It convinced me to do something to change this system that is oppressing innocent people.
I am really somebody who cannot stay quiet when seeing certain things. I don’t believe that somebody is supposed to abuse another person just because he himself is privileged. I am a humanist. Meaning that I believe that we are all humans. And we humans make the law. So law does not just come from somewhere. It is through political engagement that different kinds of opinions are negotiated. Law should protect all human beings. Anything else is a manipulation! And as I said, it is crucial how we implement the law.
In Benin, I wanted to study law at the university but I couldn’t because of all these political problems, and as I had to flee. Now I’m lucky because finally, since this last year, I have been studying International Relations.
Until 2012, Wantchoucou was forced to live in a reception center without the right to work and study. Even Wantchoucou’s submission of his Beninese birth certificate has not yet prompted German authorities to acknowledge his Beninese nationality and accord him legal protection They have repeatedly tried to deport him and sent him to the Embassy of Nigeria and later to that of Benin in order to get the necessary travel documents issued for a deportation to either of these countries. However, neither accepted his nationality and thus he could not be deported. The Nigerian Embassy notoriously collaborates with the German government to help to deport African refugees by issuing them travel documents regardless of their actual origins. During Wantchoucou’s hearing however a protest was organized in front of the embassy, which likely had an influence on the outcome.
AK: Do you have some news about your own case?
SW: Well my case is not unique. There are hundreds of thousands of Africans in Germany, and black men are always victims of ignorance.
My process is going on in court right now, they could call me any time. I had to get a lawyer because they intentionally manipulated my asylum procedure, ignoring all international agreements on the protection of refugees. Any mistake and I would be a dead man in Africa. At one point I even had to get out of Germany because of the pressure. I went to Switzerland just in order to survive. Germany then informed Switzerland that I had been in Germany before. And Switzerland applied the Dublin regulation: I was to return to Germany. I came back here and had to renew my asylum procedure. At the same time I became very sick. Imagine suffering an assassination attempt, leaving your family and future career, and then being treated in this way. I was in constant fear of being deported and killed, going through the trauma of persecution again, now by the German bureaucratic system.
They gave me a Duldung. We don’t know what a Duldung is, they gave me that, and just to repress me: To prohibit me to work, or learn anything, and to restrict my movement. Finally I was lucky to receive treatment in a medical hospital here. Now I am also demanding compensation for all these things.
AK: You have been also part of the larger wave of self-organized refugee protest in Germany, participating in actions outside of Sachsen-Anhalt, like the refugee march from Wurzburg to Berlin in 2012.
SW: This march was a very important moment for us. It was a great way to show the nation what is being done to refugees here. Because part of it is that many respectable Germans don’t know about this. We marched to tell the world that we wanted the work prohibition, residency obligation, and restriction of movement to be abolished. We wanted protection as refugees, and humiliation, and mistreatment ended. I call it the March of Freedom. We did it just to exercise our freedom.
It was the suicide of an Iranian refugee which provoked a local group of Iranians to come up with the idea of the march. They presented it in a big meeting in the summer of 2012 in Jena with the Caravan, The Voice, us, and some other groups. We were then just at the point of closing the Möhlau Lager. The Iranians then started walking from Bavaria, and while walking other groups joined in, from Bavaria through Thüringen, and then over to Sachsen-Anhalt, until Wittenberg, where our group joined them to continue the march to Berlin. At arrival in Berlin, we had become many.
While ongoing, the march generated a lot of attention in the press and television. It greatly helped to sensibilise the public and the government. In this way, the impact of the march was remarkable. Until today it continues to have an effect on things that are happening. In Berlin, we made a big demonstration and we created the Oranienplatz camp, which also generated a deep awareness about these issues.
After that, I had to return to my zone, and concentrate on our local movement. Germany is a federal state, so each state has its own law, and a way of applying rules and regulations. Our movement has to follow this decentralized system to achieve immediate changes.
AK: So different people came in after the marchers left?
SW: Oranienplatz was created as a platform for anybody to continue political activities around this issue. It helped a lot of refugees afterwards, people who had nothing to do and nowhere to go. And there are still refugees in Berlin who continue actions there.
Our aims and objectives had been accomplished as we arrived in Berlin. We had given people and the government a signal: “Do not destroy us anymore.” It was a big one and it is still there. I suffered, while walking, I had a lot of wounds. All of our friends – the Iranians, the African refugees, all. We all suffered. It was a kind of a sacrifice, for all refugees. Without exception on account of where you come from.
AK: I also think that it was a very powerful action. But it is unfortunate that many of the demands which you have made have not been heard by the German politicians. There have been legal changes, but they seem vague, not really changing the asylum system too much.
SW: As I told you, my first political priority is to generate public awareness. Having established that, the next step is to make the politicians and the other groups to know what they can do regarding the concrete demands. Some changes can be immediate, some can take time, many years, depending on the complexity of the parliamentary debate. The public in general learned through this march more profoundly what is going on, so that they can make the change.
In the immediate wake of the German refugee protest wave from 2012 to 2014 important changes to German law concerning asylum and residence entered into vigor. For instance the Residenzpflicht, a law prohibiting the free movement of refugees living in reception centers beyond the borders of the commune, group of communes, or the state, depending on the case, was eased. The work prohibition was also eased for both asylum seekers as well as persons with a Duldung. Critical refugee groups have however already denounced the legislative changes as squarely insufficient.
There is this new law about the Residenzpflicht now for instance, which is supposedly abolishing it. But the law contains exceptions (which continue to restrict the freedom of movement of certain refugees). What we need is to get rid of the Residenzpflicht altogether. We want refugees to be free and to be able to go anywhere they want. Period! And to really have the right to work and so on. We want to stop deportations.
Refugees are actually doing good things in European countries. So stop exploiting Africa and the so-called Third world countries, stop abusing people who escape and come here. What we are doing is building a world of interdependence with peaceful interactions, cultural, political, friendly and social, between nations and people.
AK: This is important to stress particularly at this moment when anti-Islamic and racist sentiments and movements are rising in so many European countries. What is the next thing, what are you preparing now?
SW: Our next project is related to the situation of all of the refugees who live here in Germany for several years without receiving asylum or any proper residence permit. Many of them have been living here for 10 years, some even more than 15 years. Most of them live here with the so-called Duldung, some with an Aufenthaltsgestattung (a temporary status for people whose asylum process is pending).
These people are not allowed to work, to have money, or participate in any way. They are deprived of all perspectives and criminalized. A Duldung means living constantly under the threat of being deported. But these people cannot be deported. They would be killed in their countries, or else wouldn’t know where to live anymore, after staying here for so many years. Go to any local asylum camp, and you will meet these people. They are everywhere, but forgotten!
We demand that all these people be regularized, without compromise. And depending on the case, they should be compensated for the damage done to them.
These people should be allowed to be subjects in the nation they live in, and to have their families here and their dreams here. We are here, and we will do it!
In 2013 there were around 95 000 people living in Germany with a Duldung, 110 000 with an Aufenthaltsgestattung, and nearly 200 000 without any kind of German permit or document. For 2014 and 2015, these numbers may well be higher due to increased amounts of asylum seekers. (Source: Statistisches Bundesamt).
AK: Thank you for your generosity. Do you have a message for people in Finland who are fighting for migrant and refugee rights?
SW: Insist on your demand for the improvement of the living standards of refugees. Stop the responsible authorities from developing the ideology of the inferiority of refugees. Refugees are human beings. They are refugees because one circumstance or another has made them refugees. And they should be protected.
Give solidarity and support to other groups. Connecting to a network can bring forward the interests of refugees and migrants everywhere in the world. Because refugees and migrants contribute to the development of the countries everywhere they are. The refugee’s country also has refugees. But he certainly cannot be a refugee in his own country. This is an international interdependency, a connection of people moving one way or the other anyway, so we should let them do so.
I thank all people and groups for being persistent in their struggle to support refugees anywhere they are. Solidarity to all refugees.
http://refugeeinitiativewittenberg.blogspot.fi/ (Flüchtlingsbewegung Sachsen-Anhalt blog)
http://www.thevoiceforum.org/ (The Voice Refugee Forum)
http://thecaravan.org/ (Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants)