Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg district, Berlin, is a wide square surrounded by residential buildings and crossed by two lanes of car traffic. On its edges, trees are losing their last leaves and small shops shine their lights into the grey afternoon. The centre of the open space is occupied by a number of long tents that surround a cooking space with open fire. Small groups of people, mostly men in thick coats to weather the German November, are standing around the fire. Others collect garbage, keeping the camp clean. At the front there is an open tent with sofas, printed information and posters on the walls. Three men sit at an elevated table, as if presiding over a meeting, yet they do not speak with each other. One reads, the other browses through a folder on the table. As I approach, they do their best to welcome me, trying to answer my vague questions as to their current situation. I am urged to sit down next to a small electric radiator and the men offer to share a hot chicken stew with rice. It tastes of coriander.
The camp has been on Oranienplatz for more than a year now. Up to one hundred people have been camping on the square throughout this time and throughout the seasons as a living statement to protest the treatment of refugees and undocumented migrants in Germany and Europe. You can learn about the exemplary journeys to Berlin of the refugees Bashir Zakaria here and Ousmane Cissé here.
The protest movement which eventually gave birth to the camp on Oranienplatz started in January 2012. When 29-year-old Mohammed Rahsepar committed suicide in an asylum-seekers’ hostel in Würzburg, demonstrations sprang up all across Germany. The main demand was to abolish Residenzpflicht, a regulation that orders people without a European passport or visa to stay within a defined space, most often a municipality that they are assigned to, without the right to work legally. Also, it was protested that most asylum-seekers are forced to stay in communal residences of very low standard. And third, the threat of deportation at any point enraged refugees and their supporters. This spirit of outrage was channeled into a protest march that started in Würzburg in September 2012 and headed for Berlin, a distance of more than 400 kilometres. The camp on Oranienplatz expresses the will of those who concluded the march to stay at their destination until their demands are met.
Sitting at the table in the info tent, I observe reactions of passers by to the presence on Oranienplatz: tourists drop in and shyly ask how many people live in the camp; someone expresses their solidarity spontaneously by donating a day travel pass to Berlin’s public transport. A larger donation seems to consist of winter clothes and is stowed away in the corner, next to a large basket full of used shoes. A young German volunteer walks hurriedly in and out and the men next to me, who seem to know her well, mildly shake their heads at her haste. At one point an older German lady walks in and hands over some leaflets for a demonstration in Hamburg. There, a group of refugees calling themselves Lampedusa in Hamburg (after the Italian island of Lampedusa where they first set foot on European soil), has sparked similar local political mobilisation and demonstrations. “We should do some better networking,” she says. Then she has to rush off to catch her bus back to Hamburg.
Later, the men at the table discuss the name of the Berlin group. In Berlin, too, there is a Lampedusa group. But according to one man, it is important to stick together and form a unified block under the name Berlin Refugee Strike. The Lampedusa name does not represent all of them, as some have not come via Italy. Currently, the need to stick together is even greater, as local politicians have publicly said the camp has to be dismantled and a demonstration took place to thwart an attempted eviction by the police. Previously, the occupation by leftist activists of an old school-building nearby had been tolerated by the authorities. The building has since served as shelter for refugee women and children. Another shelter was recently made available further away in another district for the coming winter. That is why some officials now say the camp can go, as there is enough housing capacity and no one needs to live in a tent. But the men on Oranienplatz say otherwise. According to them there are not enough places to sleep, and besides, the point of the camp is to make a much more fundamental and far-reaching statement than finding just any accommodation.
Protest in Kreuzberg and throughout Germany is about a core of policies that essentially treat humans as a problem. At the level of the European Union, Germany has played a leading role in shaping the so-called Dublin regulations (the newest update, Dublin III, will enter into force in 2014). According to this system, the free movement of people in the Schengen zone is severely restricted for asylum seekers. They have to remain in the country where they first entered Europe, regardless of that country’s capacity to offer them adequate accommodation or opportunities to work. In Germany, this is used to threaten those who have crossed the Mediterranean and made their way here with deportation back to southern EU states. In the month of October 2013 alone, Germany has requested for other EU countries to receive close to 5500 returning persons. Also, German officials use the Dublin policy as an argument for continued repression under Residenzpflicht and tight control over people’s lives.
Government and society in Germany today are failing refugees. At the top levels, politicians work to make access to Europe harder and harder. Those refugees who make it here are treated with distrust by national institutions. The public welcomes them with a mix of indifference, fearful exclusion, occasional racism and guilty compassion. The only hope for meaningful change at the moment lies with municipal authorities and direct initiatives to help improve living conditions on a local level. But even countless small initiatives and tolerant attitudes of local officials cannot reverse the political trend that is geared to make life for refugees in Europe as hard as possible. Therefore, the activists of Berlin Refugee Strike are calling for a new protest march to take place all across Europe. They criticise both national regulations and the broader policies issued by EU bodies. The message is clear:
We are also human beings who refuse exploitation and discrimination. We decided to fight against it and those who oppress us, control us, exploite us, criminalize us. (…) We believe that stopping the circulation of people by reinforcing the controls and the repression is just another illusion fooling public opinion and the citizens. Because migrating is a necessity.
The VOICE Refugee Forum Germany, news and info blog on ongoing protests. http://thevoiceforum.org/
The Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants, activist platform with some background material. http://thecaravan.org/
Welcome to Europe, useful and independent information for refugees arriving in Europe. http://www.w2eu.info/
1. The term refugee is used in a broad sense here and refers not only to those who are legally recognised to have fled persecution and were therefore granted political asylum, but also to people who have fled poverty and might therefore not be entitled to asylum under the current rules.
2. Cf. numbers published by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees: http://goo.gl/qKY6qL.
3. Read the full call at: http://asylstrikeberlin.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/caravan-for-equality-dignity-and-social-justice/.