Burned Out: Berlin's Refugee Crisis Continues

'Racism over all: open your eyes'.  Chalk graffiti on the sidewalk outside Guertelstrasse

Last weekend, I  found myself having to take a cab to Schoenfeld because the S-Bahn wasn’t running on that track, due to a burned-out cable.  According to Local.de, a group of activists claimed responsibility for this sabotage.  They claimed that they did it because they wanted draw attention to the unfair treatment of a group of refugees who are facing deportation from Berlin.

When I was in Guertelstrasse park last night, where those same refugees are currently living, an activist who I spoke to brushed off that suggestion.

“I had trouble to get to this park  to help the refugees because of this train problem,” says Anya, who is also a university student.  “Why would we sabotage the train when it makes us harder for us to help them?”

It does seem likely that this story of pro-refugees activist sabotaging train lines is just another escalation of the dirty war that’s being waged on people like Anya by the Berlin authorities.

So far, that dirty war has seen the Berlin Senate negotiating a deal with those same refugees, promising them a place to live, and then going back on the deal at the last minute.   

The refugee group, who collectively refer to themselves as Lampedusa, were divided over whether they should accept the deal that the Berlin Senate offered them, back in April. Some of them believed that they should stay at the derelict school that they had been living in up until that point, in Ohlauer Strasse, Kreuzberg.  The idea of having a place to finally call ‘home’ must have been compelling after months, or even years, of being moved around from country to country, holding cell to camp.

The other half of refugees in the school hoped that the authorities were finally on their side.  They went ahead and signed the deal offered to them by the Berlin Senate, which gave them a right to stay in a hostel, and a stipend of 300 Euros per month.

Unfortunately, the first group’s fears were proven right.  Twelve days ago the Berlin Senate suddenly went back on its deal with the refugees.  Police came to the two hostels where the refugees were living and told them to leave.  They came in large numbers, with riot vans, and blockaded the streets around the hostels.  Such shows of brute force  have become routine in every encounter between the Berlin authorities and the Lampedusa refugees.  The eviction was yet another in a long line of naked attempts by the authorities to intimidate the refugees into submission.  

The police had eviction orders and deportation orders in hand when they arrived at the hostels; they told the refugees that they had one day to move out and leave town.  “They told me, ‘just disappear, you are not wanted here,’” says one of the evictees. 

The reason for this sudden change of heart by the Berlin Senate?  Supposedly, the deal that the refugees had signed was witnessed by a member of staff who did not have the correct authorization.  The agreement was supposedly rendered null and void as a result of this, a clerical error. 

Not one person that I spoke to believes this is the real reason why the agreement was broken, though.  They feel it was planned from the start.  The refugees I spoke to feel that they were deliberately lured away from the school where they were receiving a lot of public support, and split up.  They see it as a cynical, divide-and-conquer strategy.

Yesterday Anya and a group of other activists went to the Ministry of the Interior and tried to speak to someone there about the situation at the hostel, which has deteriorated to the point of being a life-threatening crisis, no one would speak to them.  They were quickly removed from the premises by police - physically lifted off the ground and dropped on the kerb, like unwanted furniture.  

Frank Henkel [the Minister of the Interior] decides over the life of people there; I think he should be there and see the results, and see what he is doing here.  Instead, he stays inside his house, in his warm bed.”

The longer you stay at the Guertelstrasse camp, the more dirty tactics you witness in action.  Anya, who is studying to become a social worker (“I’d better check when my exams are so I don’t miss them,” she joked)  told me that the police had forbidden the refugees to eat hot food in the park.  The police also enforced an obscure regulation that forbade the use of mattresses in the park. Storing too much food there is also verboten.  Basically, any petty regulation that the police can come up with that might help to break the refugees’ spirit gets implemented in a hurry.   By contrast, if you walk through Tiergarten you can see semi-permanent camps set up by white homeless people which include stoves, mattresses, pillows, guitars, the lot.  This just adds to the stinging sense that these refugees have been singled out for extra-malicious treatment. 

“They look for things they can find to stress us,” says Anya.  “We can’t give out food here.  We always had people who cooked for us and brought food here in the evening for us and it was very nice for the mood if you can eat together.  Now, the police does not want us to eat this warm food together, and so we have to care that they don’t see us.  I don’t understand it.  They just try to split our groups and stress us out, so that we don’t have power to stay here.”

“They are trying to aushunger,” she adds, and explains that aushunger means 'to starve out'.  “They also use the tactic of psychological starvation.”  She indicates a police van stationed on the sidewalk next to the park, blocking the view of the hostel, where a number of refugees are sitting on the roof in an attempt to avoid eviction.  “We can’t see the people [on the roof] anymore.  We were always there,” she points to the sidewalk. “We had music, they were dancing on the roof and we were dancing over there.  We could give them a little bit of support and now we can’t see them. We can’t really support them.”    

With all the political maneuvering and press misrepresentation that’s going on with regards to the refugees and their activist supporter, it’s very easy to lose sight of the real issue: these people are seeking refuge from war, persecution, rape, and torture. 

"I was not planning to come here,” says another refugee that I speak to. He comes from Liberia.  “I didn’t say to myself, ‘Hey, I want to set myself up in Germany and get a good job and make lots of money, take away a job from a German guy.’  I came here because of a calamity.”

These are people on the run from conditions that make Berlin’s most petty bureaucratic cruelties seem like a walk in the park… or maybe it would be more accurate to say ‘a camp in the park’, given the circumstances.  All of the members of the Lampedusa group that I spoke to expressed a yearning to go home... but they can't.  That's kind of the whole point of asylum in the first place, a point which the entire Berlin government seems to have collectively forgotten.  And while asylum is meant to be a temporary solution, there is no reason why it has to feel as temporary as this.  The temporariness of Lampedusa’s situation seems like it's being wielded as a weapon by the German authorities, to inflict further damage on survivors of atrocities that they themselves could barely imagine.  

“I’m originally from Mali,” says one of the refugees, who chose to remain anonymous.  “In 2013 there was a conflict when Tuareg rebels tried to conquer the government, and separate the country into two nations.  And those people were trying to impose Sharia law, so it was very, very hard.  That area where I’m from were raids by Tuareg rebels and bombarded for 24 hours; no one can enter, no one can go out.  So after that bombardment some guys survived, including me.  I managed to leave the place and struggled harder and harder to go to Algeria… Morocco… and then I get the chance to get to Spain… and then Germany…”

There is a sense that these people are going around in ever-diminishing circles, shedding their freedom and their humanity with every loop they make, but getting nothing in return.  And they know it, too.  At one point yesterday, a slight man who was thrumming with wound-up energy walked around the camp ranting, “Go back to your beds!  Drink some beer and go to the club!  Laugh and have some fun!” His voice was strained with frustration, from the knowledge that however loud he shouts, the government simply doesn't want to hear.  And the public can't hear, due to the virtual media blackout that surrounds the refugees.  For the most part, the white supporters in the park listened and muttered agreement with the ranting man, some nodding.  They seemed to get his frustration.  That is the one small mercy at Guertelstrasse; the people who come by to spend time with the refugees actually get it.  Or at the very least, they’re trying to. 

Anya says, “It would be good to have some people here who can handle traumatized people, and some crisis intervention because we have a lot of traumatized people here and the situation is really critical.  The people are suffering a lot.  Also, the police terror affects them a lot, and the racist people around…"  She explains that they've been harassed by neo-Nazis on a few occasions, although they were always outnumbered by supporters.  

I ask her what else people can do to help: "Sleeping places are always needed," she says, "because we have a lot of people here now who don’t know how to sleep.  There are more people getting kicked out of their hostels from the government.  So it will be more people who don’t know how to sleep; who are illegalized, and don’t get any help from the government.  And the problem is that we have a lot of people here drinking a lot of alcohol [due to stress].”  The fact that eating is banned in the park but alcohol consumption is not, is as ridiculous as it is unsurprising.  Another weapon in the dirty war, only this time, it's a weapon that the refugees are wielding themselves.  

Later on in the night, the ranting man finally calms down.  A female activist puts her arms around him, talking him out of it.  The rest of the one or two hundred people there remain peaceful and good-natured throughout.  Despite the occasional emotionally-charged scene, there is a sense of invisible stability in the form of their persistent presence and support.  It almost transcends the solid, physical security of having a roof over one’s head.  Solidarity, in the form of spiritual support, is almost a tangible concept here; you can almost reach out and touch it.   Only the city officials are preventing it from becoming something more solid still. 
Capoeira dancers drop by Guertelstrasse camp to raise everybody's spirits

The people walking to and from a nearby shopping mall, reading the tiny, biased articles about this movement in the right wing press and then dismissing it without a kneejerk reaction; they are the ones that this movement has yet to reach.   

The Berlin police are, once again, proving instrumental in preventing this.  They've put up a physical cordon around the hostel that keeps everyone - even the press - out.  Ostensibly it's there to protect the public because the people who have been staging a sit-in on the hostel’s roof for the past 12 days have said that they will jump if the police try to take them down.  But no media, or medics, or lawyers are allowed through the cordon either.  The last time the rooftop protestors received any supplies, they got six liters of water and that was several days ago.    To the police, the health and safety of 'the people' is paramount... but tellingly, they don't include refugees - much less protesting ones - in that category. 


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