28.8.14

Swapping One War Zone for Another: the Refugee Situation in Oranienplatz


"Politicians do not just want to evict buildings like the school in Ohlauer Straße or the house we squatted. In our opinion they want to evict movements, they want to evict the possibility of free decision making and self-organization. They are sneaking out of their responsibility on the cost of marginalized people."

Squattinggroup Berlin, via Indymedia

August 27, 2014: Oranienplatz, Kreuzberg.

They all had different skin colours, and different accents.  But whether they were fat or thin, short or tall, young or old, they all shared a certain calm, resigned strength.  Their eyes, too, shared an intelligent gleam that had been dulled to a persistent, smouldering glow.   

A few words with any of them reassured me that these people - refugees, mostly male - had not come to Germany just for fun.  Their absolute certainty in their reasons for fleeing their homelands didn’t even need to be expressed in words; it just sort of emanated from every pore.  It was just a matter of fact.

I looked around Oranienplatz.  It was almost entirely encircled with police.  Close to a hundred officers of the law were circling, hovering at a safe distance, eyeing the mixed group of 30 or 40 activists and refugees who were clustered around a bowed-but-unbeaten info stand located near the center of the platz.  With tight jaws and grim faces, the police seemed to be on high alert: constantly, inconspicuously maneuvering themselves to cover every angle of Oranientplatz, like members of the SWAT team on field operations.  They were mostly male, too, but hulking and towering over the rest of us, padded in black, armoured uniforms.The kind of uniforms that they’d normally put on to face down stone-throwing rioters.   Many were staring at us with open expressions of contempt and disgust; some looked like they could barely stand the sight of us and yearned to erase us from view.

As I watched, a group of eight or nine police suddenly splintered off from their ranks and marched toward a group of black men sitting inconspicuously in the grass, off to one side of the square.  Six-foot tall officers surrounded a painfully-thin man with Somali features who was sitting on a low metal fence.  They waded through his friends and started hustling him to his feet with brute force.  The Somali man was almost a foot shorter than the officers and made no attempt to get away; he didn't even try to move.  His face crumpled with despair and physical pain, though, as one gorilla-like cop locked each of his arms in the crook of their elbows, with biceps tightly flexed. It looked like his arms might snap in half, they were so thin. He was frog-marched in this humiliating fashion toward the road that cuts through Oranienplatz.  On the other side of it sat a flotilla of parked riot vans.  The cops were moving so briskly that the refugee was lifted up off of his feet, clamped between these hardened, robotic beings that seemed like they were made of flexed brawn.   

He didn’t make a sound as he was dragged away and vanished into a van. 

“This is a police state," cried an older activist at them as they passed, looking visibly shaken.  A blonde-haired, muscle bound cop standing near the street laughed.

“Welcome to it!” he jeered.  

I ask one of the organizers of the Oranienplatz protest - a show of solidarity with 108 recently- rejected Berlin refugees - what was going on.  Had that Somali man just been arrested?  She was a nervy young woman with long dreads, her hair shaved at the sides.

 “They have a list of the people who are to be deported,” she said.   “They recognize them from and pull them out.  They have pictures beside the names.”

“What happens to them then?”

She shrugged.  “They take him in the van and tell him what will happen if he does not leave the country.”

Apparently, one of the refugees was held in a van, a kind of mobile intimidation chamber, for eight hours yesterday.   Presumably he was beig browbeaten the entire time by military-style police, threatening him to leave or else.  No one really knows, though.  Everything that happens to Berlin’s refugees happens in isolation, without witnesses or accountability, by design.   Is this Germany's idea of transparency?  If so, then it should consider painting the glass dome on the Bundestag black. 

August 26, 2014: Gurtelstrasse, Friedrichshain.

I spent the night outside of a hostel in Gurtelstrasse where 64 refugees were moved a couple of months ago, after being evicted from the abandoned school they'd occupied in Kreuzberg’s Ohlauer Strasse.  They'd squatted the abandoned school as part of an ongoing protest against the German refugee system.  Activists call this system the lager.  Lager is the German word for a basement or storage room.  It’s an apt term for the policy, which sees refugees confined to a single neighbourhood and residence, under close watch - not unlike inmates in a compound.  
While they’re waiting for their cases to be decided, refugees in the lager are subject to a curfew and must show their I.D. every time that they go in and out of their residence. Apparently, they're not even allowed to have guests visit them.  They have no right to work or move freely in the country and few chances to socialize.  Basically, they exist in a state of suspended animation for up to six months, where only the bare minimum of basic human needs stand a chance of being fulfilled.  The need to integrate and acclimatize, to learn the language, to socialize, to be productive?  They aren't included on the list.  

Out of sight is out of mind.

After they were evicted from the school, there was a brutal and un-photogenic standoff.  It made it into the mainstream media, despite an attempted blackout; police denied the press any access to the school and its occupants.  Despite the fact that nearly a thousand (that's right, a thousand) armoured police were present at the eviction of Ohlauer Strasse, they failed to evict the refugees, in large part due to public pressure to let them stay.  One hundred and eight of the refugees remained at the end of the standoff, and those were offered a settlement by the Berlin Senate: they got free accommodation in two hostels in Friedrichshain and Mariensfelde and an allowance of three hundred Euros per month to live on, while their asylum cases were being evaluated.   

It seemed like baby steps were being made towards meeting the refugee's demands, and they were finally being treated like human beings.  

Then, on Monday, the agreement was suddenly and inexplicably broken.  Scores of armoured police turned up in force at the hostels where the refugees now live, and they were told that their applications had been rejected en masse.  They were to be evicted on Tuesday, the following day.  According to one activist who I spoke to in Gurtelstrasse, the police were carrying deportation orders for some of the refugees when they arrived.   

The  eviction of Gurtelstrasse and the Mariensfelde hostel appear to violate the Ministry of the Interior's own guidelines for handling deportations.   The Bundesministerium’s website states: 'Asylum seekers are notified of the decision in writing and given information on legal remedy.'  There’s no mention of same-day evictions being executed by armoured police carrying deportation orders.   It seemed like this was a stealth attack, calculated to get the refugees as far away from the public consciousness as possible, as quickly as possible, without any opportunity for the decision to be appealed or the tactics questioned.  

The activists that I spoke to were understandably suspicious.  One of them told me  that asylum cases are never assessed that quickly, so something must have been done wrong.   There have been other unethical moves by the Ministry of the Interior, too: a number of refugees have been threatened with deportation before the minimum six-month period of temporary asylum has passed. According to the site Contra Info, quite a few applications have also been rejected without even being assessed.  Trust in the system’s fairness is at an all-time low.  Both the activists and the refugees that I spoke to seem to feel that these applications were turned down, not because they didn't meet the necessary criteria, but because the refugees have put city officials on the spot and embarrassed them with their protest movement.  They see the evictions as an act of revenge... and the behavior of the police at Oranienplatz did suggest a sense of resentment and hostility toward the refugees.  

Photographer catches snaps of would-be deportees, to be passed on to the police
The people I've spoken to in the last couple of days have all been unanimous in their belief that the refugees’ mistreatment by German authorities all boils down to one thing: the colour of their skin.  They may have a point.  During my years in Berlin, I've seen the police handling all kinds of difficult situations: hustling an aggressive, mentally ill homeless person  off of  a train; containing unruly groups of city drunks; clearing Skalitzer Strasse after an outbreak of violence on Mayday.   In all those situations, they seemed to follow a standard protocol: they approached the (white) offender from a cautious distance and informed him what he was doing wrong or what  they were going to do if he did not stop.   After repeated warnings, they escorted the offender away with minimal physical contact and force.  But when it comes to the refugees of Oranienplatz, those boundaries don't even seem to exist.   They are denied formalities; denied personal boundaries, and their emotional and mental boundaries are treated like they don't even exist.

One of the refugees who I spoke to at Oplatz (I’ll call him 'Thomas' to protect his identity) told me that he came to Germany to escape from a vendetta campaign against his family, back in his homeland.  The country that he came from was not technically at war, but it has been recognized as being impoverished, underdeveloped and politically unstable.  Blood feuds can carry on there, generation after generation, with impunity.  After seeing his father and a friend murdered in the same night by a rival family, Thomas fled.  He eventually ended up in Germany. 

Blood feuds are much more common in destabilized nations.  So is the murder of young boys who come from the ‘wrong’ faction.  

“They take the baby boys by the feet and swing their heads against a tree to smash it,” he said, graphically.   When I asked him how many babies he'd seen killed this way, he shook his head mournfully and said, "Too many."

I suppose that goes a long way towards explaining the disproportionately high number of men on the run from homelands that are going through any kind of civil strife.   Thomas explained that in his village, women usually stayed behind because they were not targeted for revenge killings in blood feuds.  That's not to say that the women have an easier life -  they just aren't in such immediate danger of being killed.

Stories like this explain why the refugees I met at Gurtelstrasse and Oranienplatz all share a kind of dogged pacifism.  As Thomas said, “I didn't come here to make trouble [...] but I don’t want to go back and be caught up in a fight.  Then I might get caught up in a fight and kill someone and then, their family will kill me too. I just want to live.”  But instead of helping people like Thomas escape the bullies a Germany has taken to bullying them in its own turn.   

One does get a sense that what's happening here is not the routine assessment and administration of refugees, or an orderly dispersal of people who’ve been deemed ‘safe’ to return  to their homelands.  One gets the sense that a campaign of terror and intimidation is  being allowed to go continue just because it can.  Refugees in Berlin are treated like their being here is due to some sort of failing on their part.  To me, and any other compassionate person who drops into Oraneinplatz today, it’s obvious that the only failure is on the part of the German administration for treating them that way.   

I asked one activist what the average Berliner could do to help these refugees.  His humble reply: "Just come here and witness, have a look at what is going on."  It seemed like a humble request at the time, but now I understand why.  The German activists involved in this movement are being run ragged as they try to just be there for these refugees as they are isolated and picked off and moved around, shifted like so many props on a stage, under the direction of the German government.  By just simply being there, these activists are able to prevent the worst abuses happening because it turns the spotlight on the short cuts being taken by the authorities, instead of letting them go on behind the scenes.  

On Wednesday afternoon, there were only enough 'witnesses' like me there to catch the overflow of helplessness from the refugees and suffer alongside them; it will take hundreds more of us to actually repel it. So I'd urge any one reading this to go down to Oranienplatz and, if nothing else, make a visual statement of support that drowns out the officials’ condemnation and contempt.  It seems like the only way that this situation is going to change.   



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...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, streetart, left-wing activism, social media trends and green issues. Other publications that I have written for include: Urban Challenger Blog, Siegesaeule, Shlur, Alternative Berlin, Sensanostra.