German asylum law has been under fire from human rights campaigners for years, for what its critics call the unfair limitations imposed on refugees. Only in July this year, the German Constitutional Court threw out the German government’s current provisions for social services for refugees as ‘evidently insufficient’ and unconstitutional because they are under the German subsistence level. But now, a group of refugees has been taking their destinies into their own hands in an unprecedented way. AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig tells a story from Christmas time, featuring, among others, some young and angry refugees from Afghanistan.
In the background of this photo, through the Brandenburg Gate that once symbolised the East-West divide, you can see the traditional illuminated Berlin Christmas Tree. On exactly the same place, a group of refugees were camped out in protest at legislation governing – or one should say, limiting – their lives in one of the richest countries in the world. They held out for six weeks through what German columnist Hilal Sezgin called ‘a bizarre theatre of harassment‘; the authorities had ruled, for example, that the protesters could neither use tents, blankets or sleeping bags during the nights nor even umbrellas, in a time that brought freezing temperatures and the first snow. On 30 November, the protesters were finally removed from that square by the Berlin police. Authorities argued they were disturbing the holiday atmosphere there.
The biggest groups among the protesting refugees are young Afghans and Iranians(1) who fled war and severe oppression in their countries; most of the Iranians belonged to the brutally crushed Green Movement that had protested against vote rigging in the 2009 presidential election when Mahmud Ahmadinejad ‘won’ against the more reformist Mir Hossain Musavi. There are also Nigerians, Iraqis, Turks and others participating in the protest.
One of them is Ali Reza. He is 23 years old and was born in Iran where he started working on construction sites at the age of 8. His family are Hazara from Bamian province and had fled to Iran before he was born. He holds a temporary residence permit for Germany but, even so, has problems finding a job. When he goes to the labour office, he will get only one for which no German or other legal immigrant has applied before him. Like some others in the group, he speaks German well meanwhile. His compatriot Maiwand Nuri even refuses to answer questions by the media in any other language. But he, like most other Afghans in the group, most of them under 25, did not want to give away too many details of his life, fearing this might be used against him at some point.
The protest in which Ali Reza and Maiwand participate is really unique. For the first time, refugees broke one of the most limiting provisions of German asylum law: the so-called Residenzpflicht (duty of residence) which confines those seeking asylum and not yet finally ‘processed’ (this often takes years) to the district where authorities have sent them. Germany has 295 districts, along with 107 towns and cities that do not belong to any, which are often rather small, and refugees are evenly spread over them by a distribution ‘key’. There, they have to live in community homes in most cases which often are former army barracks or abandoned buildings out of town.(2)
15 of the group that was, until recently, camped out at the Brandenburg Gate had come from the same home for asylum seekers in the Bavarian city of Würzburg. There, they had already protested, virtually unnoticed for six months. After one asylum seeker in Würzburg had committed suicide out of desperation, they 15 decided to march to the boundary of ‘their’ district where they tore apart their documents and crossed the border on 8 September. The police decided not to treat this protest as a crime – which is what it is under German law. Indeed, just this boundary crossing could result in the rejection of their visa applications.
From Würzburg, they marched on. Four other refugees joined them on their way, Maiwand Nuri being one of them. Maiwand had been sent to Greiz in Thuringia state, and he would rather go back to Afghanistan, he says – ‘too many Nazis’ in Greiz. After 26 days, the group reached Berlin, as autumn turned to winter, marching through storm and rain and spending their nights at camp sites and in shelters provided by sympathisers. They held public meetings at every stop. When they reached the square in front of state parliament in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, they faced a Neo-Nazi counter-protest but sympathisers of the refugees repelled the racists. Later in Berlin, a group of followers of a small anti-Islam party confronted the refugees and were similarly beaten back.
Apart from lifting the ‘duty of residence’ provision, the protesters are demanding they be recognised as political refugees, that deportations are stopped and other denigrating provisions of German asylum law lifted, such as the bans on working before an asylum application is approved and on moving in with relatives who are already legally living in Germany. They are also unhappy with the way food allowances are handed out. In Germany’s federal system, district authorities have a great deal of autonomy and may decide to hand out food allowances in the form of coupons which can only be used in certain supermarkets or shops, or food in kind, with refugees then only getting ‘pocket money’.(3) Refugees complain this limits their choices, both in where they can shop and what they can buy. The minimal allowance given often also forces them to pick less healthy packaged or junk food. This is particularly difficult for refugees from countries or religions that have certain diet habits that do not usually figure in German food production. Sometimes, local authorities are not even aware this is a problem.
Even the German Constitutional Court has confirmed that parts of Germany’s refugee laws are unconstitutional. In July this year, it threw out the German government’s current provisions for social services for refugees (asylum seekers whose cases have already been approved) as ‘evidently insufficient’ because they were way under the German subsistence level. The 1993 law had fixed allowances at 15 per cent less than the social service allowance for Germans. The official justification was to avoid creating ‘pull factors’ which might attract asylum seekers to Germany. But allowances have not risen in line with inflation since 1993 which means they now get 30 per cent less than Germans – 224 Euro per month, compared with 374 Euro for Germans. Effectively, refugees in Germany have been forced to live under the poverty line for almost two decades.
In Berlin, the protesters have faced obstruction from the side of the authorities, some overtures by politicians – including the federal government’s commissioner for integration Maria Böhmer and Berlin’s Senator (minister) for Social Affairs Dilek Kolat, herself of Turkish origin – and support from parts of the population, including the Berlin Association of Iranian Refugees that has received funds to take care of Afghan refugees in the German capital as well. The police removed their tents and took away blankets, sleeping bags and even umbrellas during the strong November rains after a court ruled the use of such equipment was not covered by the German law regulating demonstrations. Finally, a bus was provided and given permission to park nearby where the protesters could take turns resting and warming up.
With a spectacular, almost two week-long hunger strike, the group forced politicians to listen to their demands. On 22 November, for the first time ever, a parliamentary committee (for domestic affairs) debated refugee problems, with the protesters in attendance. But before the meeting, the government had already responded to a parliamentary query made by MPs from the party The Left on the protesters’ behalf – and rejected the protesters’ demands. ‘From sporadic cases of protest’, it argued, ‘derive no mandatory conclusions’, the current asylum regulations ‘continue to be necessary’ and ‘no further discussion is required’. This made the 22 November debate a futile exercise and the protesters (who had attended nevertheless, to show goodwill and in the hope that parliament might pressurise the government) resumed their hunger strike again. ‘They played with us’, one of them said, ‘but no one should be in doubt that we are serious with our demands’.
Then, Advent – the four weeks running up to Christmas – started, a time when historically Berlin’s Christmas markets open, attracting both tourists and shoppers. The Berlin authorities, in their desire to make the holiday season undisturbed and pleasant for Berlin citizens and visitors, increasingly saw the asylum seekers’ protest as a nuisance and decided to shift it out of sight.
On 30 November, the Berlin government called in a private security company that forcefully removed the bus. When it short-circuited the bus’ engine, the heating system was damaged what took the bus out of use for the protesters. On 9 December, the protesters suspended their hunger strike, organised a final meeting – at which they had their own small Christmas tree and supporters sung Christmas carols – and moved into a parallel protest camp in Kreuzberg, formerly a famous Bohemian and now increasingly gentrified quarter of the city. Finally, when snow started falling again, they occupied an empty school where they want to pass the winter and ‘recharge’ (read their statement in German here).
Kreuzberg’s mayor Franz Schulz, of the Green Party, visited the protesters on the same day and promised support. On 11 December, the local parliament agreed per vote that the protesters can stay till March. This helps them to get over the winter, but their demands remain unfulfilled. A banner saying ‘Freedom of residence’ is hanging at the school.
If you visit Berlin, take a short detour to see the group; the school is at Ohlauer Straße, near Moritzplatz underground station, still pretty much in the centre of Berlin.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
Follow this and other refugee protest actions in Germany here (some in English, some in German).
(1) 45,741 refugees applied for asylum in Germany in 2011, 11 per cent more than the year before. Afghans and Iranians have been among the largest national groups for decades; Afghans were the largest in 2010 (5,905) and 2011 (7,767). Less than 1 per cent of Afghans are officially recognised as refugees, but most receive a temporary residence permit because of the war in their country.
(2) On 25 July 2012, the Berlin-based daily Die Tageszeitung reported about a home for under-age and often traumatised asylum seekers in Munich, many of them Afghans where they are prevented from meeting non-cleared guests and are guarded by security guards who have no pedagogical training. ‘50 to 60 young people share one kitchen,’ it reported, ‘with five grime-coated cooking plates, washing machines and fly-infested toilettes.[…] The government of Upper Bavaria pointed to the young men’s own responsibility. “Principally, all residents are responsible themselves for treating sanitary and kitchen equipment with care.” […] “Compared with this place, life in Afghanistan is much better,” one of the young Afghans is quoted as saying.
This group also protested in January 2012.
(3) I came across an Afghan refugee family – husband, wife, two children – whose ‘pocket money’ did not even cover a bus ticket for all of them to go once a month from the village where they had been sent to the district centre where there were at least some social facilities; their village barely had a shop.
Photo from: asylstrikeberlin website.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020