At the Brandenburg Gate
According to government sources, there are about 50,000 refugees in Germany. Most of them are from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and lately from Syria. The German authorities keep them in closed camps, usually a long way from neighbouring towns, and require them to stay put until their cases are heard. Refugees who arrive by plane are kept for months in special quarters at Frankfurt Airport, well out of sight of the other passengers. Until recently, they were given a subsistence allowance of €224 a month, with many local councils issuing food stamps instead of cash. A few weeks ago, the High Court recognised that €224 was not enough for a person to live on and the payment has been raised to €336 a month: €30 less than someone on Hartz IV, the modern German version of the dole. In recent weeks there has been an influx of refugees from Romania, most of them Sinti or Roma. The German policy has been to send them back as quickly as possible: the usual wait for the bureaucratic wheels to turn has miraculously been shortened, officially because they come from a European Union member country.
In January 2011, an Iranian refugee in a camp in Würzburg, fearing that he was about to be put on a plane back to Iran, committed suicide. Other refugees in the camp called on the authorities to stop deportations and to allow them to travel outside the district. The Bavarian officials were not impressed, described the living conditions as completely acceptable – the food packages contain cans of unfamiliar food, some of which are past the best before date – and refused to allow them to visit other refugee groups. With the help of groups such as Pro Asyl, the refugees decided to break the residence rule and demonstrate for greater freedom of movement by marching to Berlin.
On 8 September, seventy refugees set off from Würzburg. After each day’s march they were taken in by sympathisers, given a hot meal and a bed for the night. Early in October they reached Berlin, where a support group provided beds and food. They set up camp on Oranienplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg, where with support from local activists they are now living in tents with a container that serves as a medical centre. Their demands are simple. They want an end to the enforced 'repatriation' of refugees: ‘We left out homes, families and friends because our lives were in danger.’ They want freedom of movement in Germany and an end to the policy of collective incarceration, which prevents them from any form of integration in the local community – probably the reason it is enforced.
At around the same time, another small group of refugees set up camp on Pariser Platz. The Kreuzberg camp was given a temporary seal of approval by the local council but the campers in front of the Brandenburg Gate are living on borrowed time. The police confiscate anything that might make a stay possible. Tents, sleeping bags, isomats, polystyrene sheets and blankets are seized, along with rucksacks, anoraks, sheets of cardboard and even umbrellas that might be used to make sitting on the tarmac a little more bearable. About twenty refugees are still holding out. A hunger strike began four weeks ago, but was broken off when the minister responsible agreed to meet the refugees to 'discuss their demands'. The meeting brought nothing but a vague promise that the demands would be reviewed at an interior ministry meeting 'later this year'. The hunger strike resumed. The nights in Berlin are getting colder and colder but the refugees hold out with the help of local activists and some support from opposition parties in the Bundestag.
Until a few weeks ago there was also a refugee protest camp in Frankfurt. Farid A., an active opponent of the Iranian regime, says he faces imprisonment if he returns to Iran. He has lived in Germany for nine years and is still waiting for the approval of his status as a political refugee but his request has been rejected twice so it seems likely he will be deported. For now, he lives with his wife and two daughters in camp near Frankfurt where 190 people, many with young children, sleep in portakabins, sharing a single kitchen and primitive washing facilities. ‘I'm campaigning for the future of my children,’ Farid A. says. Members of local political parties have said that the camp is a disgrace and should be shut down, but so far the only alternative accommodation they have come up with is a disused hotel 20 miles away which is in no better condition.
Meanwhile in Berlin, the refugees on Pariser Platz get visits from the police at all hours of the day and night. At 6 a.m. the police shift changes and with accompanying amount of noise they confiscate anything that might convey a little warmth, because in their words, these would turn the 'permanent assembly' into a 'demonstration' and that has not been given official approval. Two weeks ago, a small group of refugees entered the Nigerian Embassy and were forcibly ejected by the police. The refugees and their supporters are still there. I don't think that they will hold out for much longer – cold nights and constant police harassment will probably take their toll.
But the camp on Oranien Platz has been prepared for the winter, with help from the Occupy movement. Leaflets and posters have been distributed among the local residents, who seem to have come to terms with the camp. Kreuzberg has long been a focus for protests of all kinds. Rosa Luxemburg once lived in a flat overlooking the refugee camp – these days she would be on the street herself.