Merkel, Tear Down This Wall!

“I think Frank Henkel should come here and see what he is doing,” says Anja, a German activist at a refugee protest in Friedrichshain. “Instead he stays inside his house, in his warm bed.” Anja wants the senator to explain why he ordered the eviction of 108 refugees that the Senate was housing in Berlin hostels. The fact that the refugees were all members of Lampedusa, an activist group that has been fighting for asylum reform, probably played a role in Henkel’s decision… but he isn’t about to admit it. Senator Henkel has almost entirely walled himself off from the refugees, going about his life as if they don’t even exist. This past September, his stonewalling forced Anja and her friends to take the battle to his doorstep.

“We went to his office and sat on the floor,” she says. “We refused to leave until he came out.” But instead of answering their questions, Henkel’s staff called the police, who lifted the activists up and dropped them outside on a kerb, like bin bags. The move seemed symbolic of the Senate’s attitude towards refugees and their supporters: keep moving them on and hope that they disappear. 

Lampedusa was founded in Wurzburg in early 2012. Later that year, the group marched to Berlin, where it’s been based ever since. Lampedusa is demanding better living conditions for asylum-seekers in Germany. After being evicted from a Kreuzberg school in early 2014, half of its members negotiated a deal with the Senate. In return for leaving the school, they were promised rooms in hostels and a 300 Euro per-month allowance until their applications were processed. This deal should have lasted six months but just four months after it was signed, police came to the hostels and evicted the refugees. Again.

“They told me, ‘Just disappear, you are not wanted here,’” says one refugee. A dozen other evictees took to the roof of their Friedrichshain hostel in protest, demanding that the Senate explain itself. It didn’t react then and it still hasn’t.

Being a refugee anywhere isn’t easy but those who come to Germany face extra-strict conditions. They’re obliged to stay within a certain distance of the foreign office processing their application, which can take 6 to 18 months. During that time, they’re housed as cheaply as possible in military barracks, schools and warehouses, usually far from towns and cities. Refugees are also banned from working for 12 months, although the EU only recommends a 6-month limit. Jobless and far from town, refugees have few opportunities to socialize, integrate, or do anything else that matters.

The point of granting people asylum is that it saves them from a humanitarian crisis, but the government seems more concerned about saving its bureaucratic process. And by refusing to accommodate the wide range of needs and skills that refugees bring with them, it is creating a new crisis for them here. Many refugees have been hurt by the restrictions that the asylum system puts on them, and some have even died. In January 2012, an ex-cop hung himself at a shelter in Wurzburg. He’d been imprisoned and tortured in his native Iran, and being re-imprisoned within the German asylum system had only revived that trauma.  A month after his death, refugees from the same shelter staged a protest, and Lampedusa was born.

The government claims that its asylum system removes the ‘economic incentive’ for refugees to come here, and that it’s protecting Germany from an invasion of job seekers. This seems to echo the GDR’s old rhetoric about the Berlin Wall. In Cold War Germany, officials justified the Wall’s existence by calling it an ‘anti-fascist barrier'. 

Seen from the other side, it’s obvious that the only people the Berlin wall protected were the ones who couldn’t handle change. The barriers created by the asylum system aren’t much different, at the end of the day. The refugees living behind them lose nearly everything, including the right to freedom of movement, just so that a privileged minority can go on hiding from both them and the truth they represent. 

Oplatz Refugee demo in Berlin

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Berlin, Germany
...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, activism, social media rights. Other publications that I have written for: OpenDemocracy, Urban Challenger, Siegesaeule, Alternative Berlin and Sensanostra.