Aino Korvensyrjä
Disagreement in the Heart of Europe – On the Self-Organized Refugee Movement in Germany

In the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, violent clashes with the police are not unusual. The neighborhood is particularly renowned for its May 1st revolts. Yet one of the largest police operations in the history of Kreuzberg was undertaken on June 24, 2014.

Depending on the source, between 900 and 1700 police arrived to evict the former Gerhart Hauptmann school on the Ohlauer Straße, which had been occupied by a couple of hundred refugees since late 2012. Despite resistance by the inhabitants and their supporters, most of them were removed from the building. Some 40 refugees and supporters managed to stay in the building and to resist eviction by climbing up onto the rooftop.

This was the beginning of a long stand-off between the police and the remaining inhabitants. The blocks which surrounded the school were closed off by some 400–500 police daily. The people living in the area could reach their homes only by passing through checkpoints where their identity and place of residence could be confirmed. Bus routes were redirected. On July 2nd the authorities and the inhabitants of the school reached a temporary agreement on the right of the remaining people to stay in the school, until the city subcontractor finished the building repair works. The police siege was eased, but the tug of war between the police and local administration in Kreuzberg-Friedrichshein continued, as did the pressure on the inhabitants of the school. Access controls around the school continued, in an effort to guarantee that no new people entered the building. The inhabitants were given a series of ultimatums dictating when they were to leave the school for good.
A public debate followed the police operation, it was argued that the money invested in it would have provided housing for the refugees for years to come. Why were the people who stayed in the school treated as such a threat?

You Can’t Evict a Movement

The squatters not only demanded a right to stay in the school and to continue to run it as an international refugee centre, they also demanded the right to stay in Germany, and the transfer of their asylum applications from other states of Germany to Berlin. Perhaps most important of all, they demanded the abolishment of the German reception centre system, as well as freedom of movement within Germany, the right to work, to freely choose where to live, social subsidies in money instead of vouchers and goods, and an immediate halt to all deportations. The latter demands concerning the asylum system are shared by the German refugee movement, which has gained in size and intensity over the last few years.

The so-called residency obligation (Residenzpflicht) has restricted the movement of asylum seekers within Germany since 1982. To cross the borders of the commune, group of communes, or the state, depending on the case, they have been legally obligated to apply for permission to travel. This has also been applied to people who have received a negative asylum decision but who cannot be deported (due, for instance, to lack of a passport, or to instability in their home country). They have received a document which designates a temporary impediment to deportation. This so-called Duldung is not a proper residence permit, Duldung literally translates as toleration.

The right to work has, according to law, and even more so in practice, been limited severely. However, the work prohibition placed on asylum seekers has been eased in recent years. They have in principle been allowed to work after the first nine months in Germany, yet in practice this has been prevented by a legal requirement that the employer must first demonstrate that there is no German or EU-citizen who can perform the job. Until November 2014, if one received a Duldung,working was allowed only after the first four years without this priority review which priviledges EU-citizens on the labour market. In practice this has often meant a four year work prohibition.

Both asylum seekers and those with a Duldung are in many German states still obliged to live in the reception centre to which they are assigned. The refugee movement calls these institutions “camps” (Lager). These are typically barrack-style housings located in sparsely populated areas. Their inhabitants rarely have access to education, proper health care, or language courses.

In Germany, many live in reception centres for years. A Duldung can be renewed numerous times, thus life inside the institution prolonged, even in excess of ten years time. Centres are often poorly maintained. Due to isolation, an imposed state of inactivity, and constant insecurity as to one’s status, many inhabitants suffer mental disorders.

Recent years have seen a wave of protest across Germany, which has been launched largely by refugees living in these reception centres. Undocumented migrants and people otherwise residing in Germany without rights have also participated in this movement. Instead of submitting to the official German categories used for regulating immigration, the participants have referred to themselves simply as refugees, stressing the equality of all reasons for flight, and refusing to be divided.

A banner was fixed to the roof of the former Gerhard Hauptmann school in Kreuzberg, inscribed with the slogan “You can’t evict a movement” which rapidly spread in various support campaigns all over Germany, both on the internet and in the streets.

The long march to Berlin 2012

A long and winding chain of events beginning in Bavaria brought the refugee movement to Kreuzberg in October 2012.

In January 2012, an Iranian asylum seeker by the name of Mohammad Rahsepar committed suicide in Würzburg, Bavaria. After his death protests were organized in the area. In March of that same year, ten Iranian asylum seekers went into hunger strike to protest against the miserable conditions in reception centres. In the following months, a group of refugees calling themselves Refugee Tent Action set up protest tents in five localities within Bavaria.

The idea of marching to Berlin together with the nationwide migrant network Caravan and a couple of other support groups emerged from this tent movement. On September 8th 2012, the march took off from Würzburg and arrived in Berlin on October the 6th. At this point the number of participants had grown to 70 refugees and about 100 supporters.

The participants of this over 600-kilometer-long march firstly aimed to create a wider awareness of the abuses and dysfunctionalities within the German asylum system. Secondly, they wanted to break the residency obligation.

After having arrived in Berlin, the refugees and supporters set up a tent camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg. A demonstration on October 13, 2012, gathered around 6000 participants in front of the Reichstag. This was the biggest demonstration to date for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

By late October, a portion of the group, comprised of about 20 people, moved on to the tourist core of the capital, Brandenburg Gate, and began a hunger strike. The group remaining at Oranienplatz soon grew by hundreds of new refugees. These mainly came from Africa, having fled the war in Libya to Germany. They arrived in Berlin from reception centres from all over the country and soon about 200 of them had moved into the school in the nearby Ohlauer Straße.

Locally-organized groups of supporters have made possible the continuation of the protests in Berlin, both by demonstrations as well as by organizing accommodation and food supplies. Still, this German protest wave has essentially been a self-organized movement in which the refugee actors have over and again stressed the need to improve the conditions in which they themselves live. These vary from state to state within Germany. At the same time the actors are united by the broader frame of German and European asylum systems.

The intensified networking and coordination by various local refugee initiatives since 2012 across Germany has been facilitated by a couple of migrant- and refugee-lead networks which have been active for a while now, some since the mid-1990s.

The Voice Refugee Forum emerged in 1994 as a local action group initiated by African refugees. It has grown into a nationwide network of refugees, which struggles throughout the country against institutional racism and discrimination, as well as unacceptable living conditions faced by refugees in the German reception centre system, and which demands freedom of movement and the right for everyone to stay.

Caravan (for the rights of Refugees and Migrants) was founded in 1998. It has a similar structure based on the self-initiated activity of local groups. However many German citizens and refugees and migrants with a residency permit participate in the Caravan.

Buck-passing in Berlin

The Oranienplatz refugees negotiated with both the local administration in Kreuzberg-Friedrichshein, as well as the Berlin state government on their demands. The refugees insisted on the necessity of a collective solution, while the authorities attempted to interpret the issue on the basis of individual cases.

The negotiations finally ended in March 2014 in a compromise, an agreement which the federal state government and the refugees both signed. The refugees were to empty the square peacefully and in exchange the Senate promised that the applications of the whole group would be transferred to Berlin and each of them would be handled “thoroughly”. At first just a little over 300 people, and in the end 576 in total, were mentioned in the agreement by name. These people were subsequently housed in Berlin, either in reception centres, or through NGOs and individual supporters.

However the first refugee named in the agreement received a deportation order in June, and by October 500 asylum applications of 500 had been rejected. These people were subsequently thrown out of their accommodations, and left without any access to services. Other conditions of the agreement had been breached previously, many times over.

In the end, only three individuals mentioned in the agreement were granted asylum in Germany, and around ten received a Duldung due to poor health. There is no official information on the situation of the others at the moment, but many of them still live in Berlin without a residence permit, and many are housed by supporters or by the church.

The whole process was characterized, on the authorities’ and politicians’ side, by an unwillingness to solve the problem. Refugees were bounced back and forth between different levels of administration, promises were always presented when it was convenient for the situation to be neutralized. When the protesters refused to accept the conversion of common demands into individual cases, and insisted on a more comprehensive political solution, the authorities resulted to the use of force. As the next step, their promises were nullified.

The wide support movement organized around the refugees has not only helped the protest to persist on a practical and material level but also helped to enhance the visibility for the refugees’ demands in the media. Still the refugees’ perspective has been dramatically under-represented in the mainstream media in comparison to that of the authorities and politicians.

Lampedusa in Hamburg: We are here to stay!

“Lampedusa in Hamburg” has been another particularly visible protest movement in Germany. The name refers to a group of around 300 refugees who fled the war in Libya. These African migrants escaped or were forced to leave Libya along with other migrant workers during the chaos of the civil war in 2011. In Italy they got residency permits, but when the emergency housing program ended, they landed on the street in the winter of 2012. Each received 500 euros and were told to travel north. With their Italian permits they would have the right to stay as tourists in any Schengen country for three months.
In March 2013, some 300 of them arrived in Hamburg and realized that their Italian documents didn’t grant them the right to work in Germany, or the right to housing, or any social benefit. When the emergency shelter program of the city of Hamburg ended for the spring in April 2014, they found themselves once again on the street.

In May 2013, the group got organized and took the name “Lampedusa in Hamburg”. They sent a communiqué on their situation to the Parliament of Hamburg. They demanded the right to work, to housing, and to stay. This was the beginning of a prolonged battle between politicians, the Lampedusa group, and their supporters.

The CDU and the SPD would have wanted to return the group immediately to Italy, pointing to the rule of law. As in Berlin, the left and the green party in turn made a plea for “warm heartedness” and humane treatment. This was also called for by the representatives of the church, who opened the doors of the St. Pauli cathedral for 80 members of the group.

Of the few authorities and politicians who paid any attention to the problem, their political colour notwithstanding, there was a tendency to offer mere individual solutions as their colleagues had done in Berlin. In the end, the Lampedusa group was divided. Under pressure by the authorities, one group gave their names and fingerprints so that their cases could be processed individually. The fact that the St. Pauli church wouldn’t respect the autonomy of the refugees’ organization nor their demands, but negotiated with the Hamburg state government without them, also contributed to this result. Those registered were later given a Duldung without the right to work. The rest of the group keeps up the struggle with the help of supporters.

Supporters have emerged particularly from the leftist circles of Hamburg. Frequent demonstrations have gathered thousands, up to ten thousand at a time, to support the demands of the refugees. The police have often taken a hard line against the demonstrators.

We should keep in mind that the Lampedusa group is a mere handful compared to the 4,500 undocumented refugees and migrants living without rights and in unacceptable conditions, for instance in the abandoned containers of the harbor district. They live in constant fear of tightening police controls. This situation calls into question the self-image of Hamburg as a cosmopolitan and open port city, a “gateway to the world”.

Achievements of the protest wave?

The demand of the Lampedusa group for a collective solution regarding residence was not consented to by the state government. Their demands to reform the unsustainable European asylum policy, and to stop bouncing people to and fro, from country to country, under the Dublin system were not heeded. Few noticed the critique concerning the responsibility of European states on the aftermath of NATO bombings in Libya, or on a wider level, the complicity of European states, companies, and financial institutions in the deteriorating conditions of many refugees’ countries of origin, followed by the inhumane treatment of those who fled to Europe. In this sense, the protests cannot be considered a success.

However the German refugee protests have succeeded in bringing the grave problems of the asylum system into a considerably broader national, and in some cases even European awareness. They have also generated new networks among refugees and migrants, as well as important alliances with a diverse body of support groups. In addition, contacts with other European movements have been strengthened. This is remarkable as similar demands have been presented and means of protest used by refugee and migrant resistance elsewhere in Europe, which has been on the rise in recent years.

There is disagreement as to the significance of the concrete political changes, though in the wake of these protests some important legal changes have been introduced in Germany.

The law concerning the restriction of movement of asylum seekers in Germany (Residenzpflicht) was changed in late 2014. After three months all asylum seekers can now, in principle, move freely and without special permits across the whole of the federal territory. In practice, additional clauses have given the authorities many tools to restrict the movement of asylum seekers and people with a Duldung. Reasons considered sufficient for movement restriction are for instance committing a crime of minor offence, such as possession of narcotics or under circumstance where deportation measures are imminent. Given these exceptions, the restrictions of movement stay in vigour, at least for many people with a Duldung. Regulations and practices of selectively applying the law also vary from state to state. All in all, critical groups and refugee activists have strongly criticized the arguments with which the law was pushed through, as these arguments often claimed that the law would effectively abolish the movement restrictions (Residenzpflicht) in Germany for all refugees.

What also proved problematic was that the reform was combined with the easing of the deportation of Roma from the Balkans. At the same time, there was a positive reform that improved refugees’ chances of getting social subsidies and benefits in money as opposed to receiving vouchers and commodities.

Another reform eased the work prohibition by partially removing the priority test for asylum seekers and people with Duldung residing in the country for more than 15 months. In order for them to receive a work permit it is no longer required that the authorities verify that there is no German or EU-citizen to do the job. The reform entered into force in November for a limited time period of three years. The passing of the reform was aided by the currently strong demand for workforce in the German economy. The practical application of this law has provoked a strong critique from refugee activists, however the long term, concrete impact of this reform still remains to be seen.

Even if insufficient, the reforms can be regarded as significant achievements which affect the lives of a great number of people. The amount of asylum seekers has risen considerably in Germany in the last few years. In 2014, 173 000 new applications were submitted, and for this year BAMF (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge), the German office in charge of immigration, is expecting at least 250 000 new applications. In 2013, there were around 95 000 people residing in Germany with a Duldung.

A breathing space?

At the present moment refugees in the Kreuzberg school on the Ohlauer Straße are still hanging on. Promises made in the summer concerning the autonomous refugee centre have been buried by the Green Party’s local officials.

What will happen to the remaining inhabitants when the repair works on the building are finished, and the subcontractor firm starts to run the reception centre commissioned by the city, is unclear. At this moment, a couple of squatters are held in prison. Also the Lampedusa group in Hamburg has seen its position weakened.

Still, in the autumn of 2014 new protests emerged throughout Germany. For instance, in Berlin refugees squatted several other buildings in 2014, and particularly Berlin and Munich had to get used to a proliferation of hunger strikes taking place on key sites of their city centres, which are often frequented by tourists. At the moment, the German refugee movement seems to be recovering its strength.

Links: (Asyl Strike Berlin) (Information about the planned eviction of the GH-School) (Refugee Tent Action) (The Voice Refugee Forum) (The Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants) (Refugee Tribunal against Germany)