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Visible Injustice: Narratives of the Oranien Park Refugee Protest Camp in Historical Context

Introduction

This year on June 18th, the sudden knifing of a refugee catapulted the status of the Oranien Park refugee protest camp back into public discourse.  The attacker was a young man pushing his small child along in a stroller, who after allegedly hurling racial slurs at several refugees stabbed one in the chest—before sprinting away.  Yet, the attack itself has not been the focus of the general media attention.  As the attacker ran away, several refugees chased him through the streets of Berlin-Kreuzberg. 250 police officers would soon arrive on the streets and would arrest several refugees and supporters—but not the assailant.  The full story remains unclear, but the Berlin press would proceed to report about the aggressive behavior of refugees towards police officers.  The police have since justified the need to send such a large police force because of the violent nature of the camp.  The refugees were not viewed as victims of a racist attack, but rather unruly aggressors.    This incident is just a singular example of the discrimination of refugees as a minority group in a country, we argue, that is unwilling to acknowledge it has a racism problem.  Many Germans posit that racism ended in 1945, but it is evident that prejudice attitudes and their harmful consequences still exist.  

This event, rather than beginning a dialogue regarding refugee rights and the refugee struggle in Germany, has allowed for stereotyping and profiling of these communities to continue.  Refugees and activists have argued for years against the racial profiling of refugees by the police force and misrepresentation in the media.  These mistaken perceptions coincide with longstanding ideas of “Ausländer”—a term meaning “foreigners”—in Germany.  Thus, the attack at the refugee protest camp is of particular interest.  When the organization Refugee Revolution created and organized the Oranien Park camp, they sought to make the mistreatment of this community visible and seen.  It was established to situate injustice in the public sphere so that everyday German citizens could be informed about the refugee and asylum system in the country.  

This report investigates how German history interacts with the refugee human rights struggle in the country today. The systematic persecution that took place under the Nazi regime not only created an international legacy—such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—but a distinct sense of German responsibility.  This responsibility, we argue, is a complex one that is often not applied to the refugee cause.  Our paper seeks to explore the injustices from the refugee perspective inside the protest camp and how they are perceived outside of the camp.  The report first focuses on the German historical context of visible persecution under the Third Reich.  Second, we examine the history of the asylum and refugee system in Germany.  This history is closely linked to how Germany has understood its role as a place of refuge.  Third, the voices of refugees—so often not heard—are put forward explaining the prejudices and discrimination they face.  Finally, we speak to members of the local Berlin community to explore their perception of the camp and any historical connections they conclude.  This report hopes to raise questions around how the past and present interact, how we understood and employ history, and how injustice can function unobserved. 

Visible persecution in Nazi Germany

Nazi Germany remains the foremost component of German collective memory.  Numerous memorials, museums, and archives have been developed in the past 20 years to ensure that the public knows exactly what “must never happen again—never again” (Erwin Leise, Den Blodiga Tiden).  Potentially most relevant is what lessons were truly learned concerning the treatment of other human beings.  In addition to the horrors of extermination camps, locations of methodical genocide, concentration camps and forced labors camps served as spaces for exploitation, dehumanization, and dismal living conditions.  The collection and required movement of people to designated locations is a documented tactic of this period of time.  Concentration camps, forced labor sites, and other narratives of forced movement remain salient elements of the Third Reich regime.  

In a German context, where this period of time pervades history taught in classrooms and is required learning for primary school students, a common remembrance of injustice exists.  What is less certain is how this memory functions in understanding resistance, struggles, and injustices today.  Michael Rothberg, a Holocaust studies scholar, argues for a model of “multidirectional memory” in which collective memory is “subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing and borrowing; as productive and not private.”  This idea implies that when one accurately recalls historical injustices, putting them into conversation with contemporary dilemmas of human rights can be constructive.  Nazi Germany, World War II, and the persecution of millions is the relevant backdrop for looking at human rights concerns today. 

The World War II German war economy and notion of “total war” depended on systematic forced labor camps. Starting in 1939, forced labor—here meaning the coerced labor of an individual under the threat of penalty—began taking place in camps throughout Germany. Prisoners of war, foreign civilians, and concentration camp workers became integral to the existence of the authoritarian state.  Polish, Soviet, French, Ukrainian, Dutch, Belgian, Italian, and other citizens from occupied countries made up the majority of this workforce.  By 1944, over 8 million people had been forcibly moved to Germany to perform certain forms of labor for little to no wages.  When considering the forced labor of concentration camp populations—over 12 million people became part of the system.  The organized nature of transporting, confining, relocating, punishing, and killing human beings with such significant scale is unique to the Third Reich. 

The development and creation of Nazi concentration camps began in 1933 and expanded drastically in 1939. Political prisoners, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, persons with disabilities, gays and lesbians, Catholic clergy, and other persecuted communities populated the camps.  These individuals only had in common that they did not fit within the notion of “an Aryan race”.  Those outside of the norm were removed from normal society, boarded onto railcars, and taken to camps.  There they would face imprisonment, torture, and humiliation in addition to hard physical labor.  Individuals would be profiled and defined by colored badges on their overalls, which designated their categorization.  Profiling was made easy—policing and abusing specific groups became a simplified process for SS officers.  Brick and concrete walls, often paired with barbed wire, ensured that there was no mobility for prisoners.  In the eyes of the Nazis, there was a clear biological difference between the majority and these minority groups and a physical barrier symbolized just that.

Labor camps were spaces designated for eating, sleeping, and not much else.  Laborers were expected to be working in their respective industries—agriculture, construction, private housekeeping, sex work—for the majority of the day.  They would return to barracks where dozens would be crammed into poor and often unsanitary living quarters.  Millions were killed simply through the lack of ensured meals outside of the meager amounts available at camps.  Over 3,000 camps housing forced laborers existed in just the city of Berlin during the Second World War according to the Nazi Forced Labor Documentation Center.  Labor camps were not about genocide, but rather about dehumanization.  While laborers were compensated, they received fractions of the actual labor value and were restricted as to where they could spend their income.  Remembrance of these camps has been less prevalent than concentration camps and death camps, but has increased recently with the opening of authentic sites and reparations for survivors. 

While the scale of persecution was remarkable, what may be even more telling is the visibility of this injustice. Marching Jews to trains that would take them to concentration camps became a spectacle, as neighbors watched in the streets.  Laborers worked for private businesses, also commercial stores, in construction, and for individual families.  The Nazi regime never attempted to keep this system secret.  Several concentration camps and most labor camps existed in cities and towns.  Residential homes were located just feet away from labor camp barracks in places like Berlin.  Germans who were not being persecuted knew the conditions and situation others faced—it was right in front of them.  A resident of Köllnische Straße in Berlin at the time wrote, “Lingering at the fence was forbidden.  No contact.”  Another bravely recalled, “Along the way my mother and I used the opportunity to slip sandwiches to the women” (Nazi Forced Labor Documentation Center).  These quotes represent the awareness everyday citizens had regarding the conditions of laborers. American GI's noted upon arriving in the towns surrounding concentration camps, “I do not believe anyone could live that close to such a place and not know what was going on.”  Public documents from newspapers, word-of-mouth from citizens who worked as railway workers or administrative officials, and the narratives of the few who escaped concentration camps all point to the conclusion: “While broad informal knowledge of the concentration camps can be assumed for the pre-war years, in the war years concrete popular knowledge of the population became even greater.”  This trend, as noted in the book Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, highlights this reality.  With some amount of public consciousness, close physical proximity, and instances of direct interaction—living amidst grave discrimination and persecution was part of many Germans' lives.  Visibility is only important if those who have power to see injustice understand it as so and take action.  “…Individuals—who had much more room for maneuver under the Third Reich than they liked to admit after 1945—had often made an active effort to turn a blind eye” (Wachsmann).  That turning a blind eye—perhaps—is what those who memorialize, commemorate, and encourage remembrance hope will happen never again.

 

A short history of the German asylum law

The right to asylum for every politically persecuted person is based on Article 16(2) (today Article 16a) of the German Constitution (“Grundgesetz”). This includes everyone who has to flee his or her home country because of discrimination and/or persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or belonging to a social group. Its introduction is connected to the experiences endured by the people who fled Germany due to the Nazi terror between 1933 and 1945. Many of them faced difficult challenges, including harsh migration restrictions that made it almost impossible to enter some countries.  Many people, attempting to escape the regime, were literally turned away and sent back to persecution in Germany.  The introduction of Article 16 can be understood as a response to Germany’s past as a producer of large flows of refugees—a first step of accountability for the country’s historical responsibility. However, no politician at that time imagined Germany would become as appealing for refugees as it is today.

During the Cold War, asylum in West Germany was generously granted to people that fled the Soviet Union and its client states. Most of these refugees were able to go through an expedited procedure, as their escapes from the communist systems of their home countries were seen as a success for western democracy. Especially after the failed uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and the Czech Republic in 1968, many people from Eastern Europe fled to West Germany. The 3.5 million East Germans that entered the West didn’t have to go through any form of asylum process as they were considered to be German citizens by nature.  The beginning elements of a hierarchy of citizenship and entitlement that pervade the asylum system are evident here. Escaping from certain forms of persecution or a certain former nationality has and continues to influence how refugees are perceived.

From the 1970s on, the number of asylum applications from the so-called “third world” steadily increased. A few years later, Germany halted the systematic recruitment of foreign laborers through guest worker programs, which led to higher numbers of applications in the asylum process.  For those that still wanted to come to Germany, asylum processes were now seen as the only option for legal migration.  The government reacted by introducing stricter rules for the granting of asylum and accelerated the legal procedures necessary. Restrictions on the employment of refugees were introduced and most of the social welfare was now given to them as allowance in kind—money designated for specific expenses. These measures were introduced to actively discourage people from coming to Germany. Since 1982, refugees have been restricted in their right to freedom of movement. Depending on the state they live in and their application status, refugees today are not allowed to leave their districts without an official permit. If they violate this law, called Residenzpflicht, they face financial penalties or even imprisonment for up to a year for repeated offenders. Although this measure is a clear violation of the UN Convention on refugees that guarantees freedom of movement, some politicians in recent years have proposed introducing a similar law within the whole European Union. 

Furthermore, the government also introduced special shelters (“Lager”) for asylum seekers in 1982. Often built in a rushed and makeshift way, the living conditions in these so called shelters are often very poor. Some politicians openly admit that they are designed to discourage people from staying in Germany. The “Lager” are frequently located in industrial areas or very rural parts of a state, whereby the separation of asylum seekers from the rest of society is reinforced. Several studies showed that the traumatizing effects of staying in these shelters are still largely ignored by politicians and the media. 

Despite all the efforts to discourage people from coming to Germany, the number of asylum applications reached an all-time high in 1992 – mostly due to refugees fleeing the civil war in Yugoslavia. The attitude of the majority of German society turned increasingly hostile towards asylum seekers. Most politicians and the media welcomed and fueled this racist atmosphere by arguing that so-called “economic refugees” were “flooding” Germany. They accused the applicants of abusing the asylum system and the welfare state for their personal financial gain.  This animosity, a phenomena made even more peculiar with German history, continues today.

At the end of the 1980s the first violent attacks towards refugees and their shelters occurred. They were largely tolerated or even welcomed by major parts of the German society. The violence increased throughout the next years, culminating in the deaths of numerous asylum seekers. During the beginning of the 1990s, 78 attacks against so-called “foreigners” could be counted in Germany per day. Instead of addressing this obvious problem of increasing racism within German society, politicians reacted by introducing harsher measures towards asylum seekers. With the joint votes of many members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) the German constitution was changed and a new version of Article 16a (previously 16(2)) was introduced. From this day on, asylum seekers that entered Germany from what is called “safe third-countries” could always be deported back to this country—for example, France. The number of countries that were considered to be safe increased steadily throughout the next years. This lead to a situation where the only legal possibility to apply for asylum in Germany was if a person entered the country with a valid visa or directly by airplane or the seaway. The idea of safe third-countries later on became the template for the joint asylum policies of the European Union.

“On May 26th 1993 the old Article 16(2) was annulled. Three days later Neo-Nazis burned a Turkish family alive in their house in Solingen. Newspapers received letters from their readers arguing that they “should not make such a fuss about a few dead Turks.”  It was this atmosphere in which the right-wing extremists of the NSU grew up to become murderers.” (Heribert Prantl 2013: “Verdammte dieser Erde”)

 

Perspectives from within

The oppression is everyday.  We are here for [a] solution.

Over the course of two days, about a dozen interviews were conducted with refugees and supporters.  All of these individuals lived in one of two refugee protest locations in Berlin-Kreuzberg: a park on Oranienplatz or in an occupied building that used to be a primary school just a block away.  Interviews were primarily conducted in English and German, however Spanish, French, and Arabic were also used.  Respondents were informed the purpose of the interviews was to inform the general public more about the protest refugee camp and the German asylum system.  We have changed the names of some individuals to ensure their security and safety and several asked to be represented as anonymous with the inclusion of their nation of origin. Interviews were conducted using a life-story approach, however it was often necessary to use an abbreviated version of this method.  Respondents were usually accorded ten to twenty minutes to reflect and focus on their refugee experience.  While each respondent received several stock questions, prompted throughout their life story, the interviews became a dialogue.

The camp

I came with the bus tour.  I heard about this protest camp—so I came.  And, sure, I don’t have the time to eat or sleep but it is better than my lager.  We are a family here at the camp.  Refugees are no longer hidden. We brought the lager into the middle of Berlin.

On October 6th, 2012 the protest camp in Berlin began—with the hope that refugees, asylum seekers, and allies would come together to fight for basic human rights.  That day, 70 asylum seekers finished a 600-kilometer walk (372 miles) form Würzburg to Berlin. With the collective belief that the asylum system in Germany was unjust, the following February, the Refugee Revolution Bus tour began.  Buses and cars of supporters traveled to different federal states to meet up with refugees and encourage them to come together.  The camp was temporarily located, in conjunction with a hunger strike, at historic Brandenburg Gate.  However after a harsh winter, that included documented police abuse, the government forcibly removed the camp.  The protest camp was relocated, with temporary protection from the district politicians in Kreuzberg, to Oranien Park where it stands today.

The system

The refugee and asylum system in contemporary Germany, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, involves over 600,000 as of January 2013.  The most common countries of origin include Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Serbia, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Russia, and most recently Libya and Syria.  Germany adheres to current European Union standards for asylum laws, which seeks to coordinate procedures between EU countries.  Refugee Revolution, the primary organization working with the Oranienplatz camp, lists three primary reforms needed in the Asylum system:  

First, they call for an end to deportation of asylum seekers and refugees from Germany.  These deportations occur systematically as refugees are labeled as illegals and if they have any interaction with the law—they are subject to be sent back to their country of origin. An EU policy, the “Dublin rule” or “safe third country” rule, states that a country of origin refers either to the EU country that a refugee first entered or to the country they are fleeing and the EU considers this country safe.  The German Constitutional Court has heard several cases in recent years, siding consistently with human rights advocates, by attempted deportation to EU countries that do not provide basic services for refugees.  Additionally, the Court has been critical of deportation to countries that were in actuality not safe for the refugee at hand, but were allowed due to the EU provision.  This is particularly problematic as many refugees have applied to receive approved asylum in the country and have received no response from their respective Embassy or the German government.  One refugee, when asked how he felt about the asylum application system, sighed and said: 

I spent one year and two months at a lager.  I tried to get my papers as soon as I arrived in Germany from Darfur.  I have been in Germany for two years.  I am still waiting.

The second primary reform needed, according to activists, is the abolishment of the restriction of movement beyond one's lager district.  The legal restriction and policing of movement infringes on fundamental UN Human Rights, but German judges have argued that these individuals are not “German citizens” and are not entitled to this right.  Additionally, this policy involves a long legacy of monitoring the movement of bodies—in this case often racialized bodies.  Refugee Revolution notes the racial profiling involved when the police randomly check regional trains for refugees traveling beyond their district.

 

Lagers

Isolation.  Total isolation.  No money—only food stamps—no tampons for the women, no pampers for the babies, only food you can eat.

The final reform recommended by Refugee Revolution is the end of the asylum lager system.  Politicians, newspapers, activists, and refugees themselves use the term “lager” to describe the shelters where refugees are first placed when they arrive in the country and apply for asylum.  “Lager” translates loosely to stock or warehouse and was a term used in Nazi Germany in the context of labor and concentration camps.  The term is based on the idea that Hitler and his regime did not view Jews and other minorities they persecuted as people, but rather as storage items—useless, unless they are put to work.  

Today, lager refers to the isolated residences for those fleeing from their countries of origin.    One interviewee detailed his fleeing from the conflict in Darfur.  Having left Sudan in 2011, he discussed the conditions of his lager upon arriving to Germany and being placed in a small village in the northeast part of the country:

Sudanese refugees all go to the same place.  Stay in this camp—can’t leave there.  Have to stay 3 months [at least].  I stayed there 6 months.

We asked how many people lived in the same home as him, as many lagers have generally poor living conditions.  He responded plainly, as if there was nothing unusual in his response “Fifteen.  Fifteen of us in one bedroom.”  The managers of lagers are subject to little oversight and often do not respond to complaints regarding poor living conditions.  Several interviewees mentioned being threatened by the manager that if they continued to complain, the manager would note the poor behavior and ensure the refugee would be deported.  Refugees are forced to live in constant fear of being reported to the authorities for any behavior or action that is deemed aggressive or disruptive.  

A particular challenge of the asylum system for refugees is the compensation they receive.  Legally, refugees are practically not allowed to have a source of income, as they are not legal German citizens.  Asylum seekers are able to work 12 months after entering the country, provided that no German with permanent status wants the job.  Additionally their compensation is contingent on adhering to government policies regarding refugees.  Until a constitutional court ruling in 2012, refugees received 60 % of what unemployed Germans received as benefits despite not being able to be formally employed.  Previously, this amount was on average 200 Euro/month or 261 Dollars/month according to court records.  A substantial portion of this money—anywhere from a one-third to a half depending on the state—is provided on food assistance cards.  These cards, similar to food stamps, can only be used for certain goods and at certain stores.  This poses significant challenges for refugees who are located in rural areas where there may be only one supermarket for miles.  Another Sudanese refugee, from a different northeast lager explained this frustration, saying:

You live in one house in the forest.  And the nearest market is three kilometers (1.9 miles) away.  My friend, you need a bicycle or you lose!  If you don’t have a bicycle you lose.  You can’t buy any food or items you need from ten kilometers (6.2 miles) away.

A refugee from Libya’s eyes lit up.  He looked to his friend urgently, who translated:

No supermarket for twenty kilometers (12.4 miles).  No bus.  No train.  No bicycle.  I would go for me and my family.

The isolating influence of the lager system ensures that refugees have minimal contact with German society, but as seen here also reduces the quality of life.  Refugees have limited access to resources that they need to live.  Several refugees mentioned that during their lager experience they lost weight, had little to no energy, and felt they were “sleeping in a prison.”  

Refugees are not only placed in rural areas that are scarcely populated and have limited access to German society, but they also reside in areas that are hostile.  Rural areas in eastern Germany have populations with the most anti-immigrant attitudes and the most votes for the National Democratic Party (NPD)—the political party openly associated with the Neo-Nazi movement.  An environment is created where those escaping a country where they have been persecuted are made to feel not wanted.  The lager system acts as a tool for further isolation of and discrimination against an already vulnerable population.

Police and the press

Formal regulation and monitoring of refugees is the primary task of the local police force.  Using fingerprinting techniques authorities can track refugees through a EU-wide database to determine the status of refugees in the asylum process.  Fines, imprisonment, and deportation are all under this purview, which creates an inherent tension for the police and refugees.  Members of the protest camp were extremely sensitive to the knife attack that had occurred just days prior, that had led to poor representations of refugees in the media—a rare moment where the German public acknowledges the existence of its large refugee community.  A refugee from Rwanda, Kogi, was present the night of the attack and recounted his experience:

I was arrested at the knifing.  I went to prison to get my fingerprints.  All of the night bad word.  The police say bad word after bad word.  It was a really painful night.  Police was treating us worse than they are treating animals.    Twisting my legs and arms to get the fingerprint.  They pushed me to the ground.  Three policemen held my head, shoulders, and legs.  I was arrested for 8 hours while they were screaming and shouting in my face.  

Another young refugee—barely twenty years old—chimed in with the most common insults “nigger”, “bastard”, “piece of shit”, “you blacks are just hungry”.  

Kogi continued:

What they do is illegal.  This is undeclared war.  You will not find someone here who has not experienced police force.  

Home

Time and time again, despite leaving their countries due to turmoil, refugees mentioned their families, friends, and hometowns.  Regardless of the status of their country of origin and despite often being persecuted there, refugees lamented being away from their loved ones and the inability to call a place home.  A young refugee from Rwanda had been in Berlin going on five years.  He had received asylum after several years in the process and was on a path towards citizenship.  The idea of this tormented him—becoming a citizen in a country where he is not wanted:

I am a tennis trainer.  I play tournaments in Germany, but it is not the same as home.  When the police grab me they twist my wrist.  When they twist my wrist they finish my life.  Back in Rwanda, I lost my family.  I don’t know who killed them.  Here I am treated like I never had a family, like I am not a person.  They [the German government] are telling me I have to change my passport.  I want to keep my Rwandan passport. That is where I am from.  Here they try to finish my life.  Home is where life is worth fighting for.  I don’t know if that is Berlin.

A refugee from Somalia linked his inability to be understood as German with how the country has previously persecuted people:

In Germany they made it so that Jews were only allowed to work with money.  Then Hitler came and everyone was mad all the money was in Jewish hands—so he said let’s kill them.  Now they are putting us in forests and rural villages and not letting us work.  Then people call us lazy, not welcoming, and not becoming part of Germany.

Here it becomes clear that by not allowing refugees to be part of general German society, they may never be able to even consider Germany a temporary home.  Rather, they are reduced to the traditional stereotypes of a marginalized group that is blamed for their misfortunes.  The trope of groups of people being inherently lazy and asocial is a characteristic that permeates all cultures—but here solidifies that those seeking asylum are and will never be German.  This is not a place, from this perspective, refugees can ever consider home.

However, reflecting on the notion that the protest camp functions as a family, it could be understood that the space is a created home.  Within the country’s capital, a group of individuals who are not accepted into mainstream German culture or practice, may have found a space.  Being around other people, let alone refugees, is something not afforded by law.  Even if there are language barriers, a sense of belonging has been established at the protest camp as a locale of struggle.  With a common purpose, some shared experiences, and the conscious effort to live in solidarity with one another: a city within a city is created.  The unification of refugees, volunteers, and supporters in Berlin has not only made injustice visible but also reflected the resilience of a community. 

Perspectives from outside

The protest camp in Berlin is the physical manifestation of the refugees’ struggle against the German asylum system. During the last 30 years, laws and regulations pushed asylum seekers far towards the boundaries of Germany’s cities—and society in general. They were separated from the rest, treated in unfair and dehumanizing ways to make them feel unwelcome and discourage others from coming. Refugees have become invisible to large parts of the German population. A topic you might read about in the newspapers, but hardly ever have to deal with in real life. One of the most important aspects about the protest camp is that it is a physical manifestation of an injustice that is usually hidden from the eyes of the public. You cannot easily ignore the fact that people protest and camp in a park in the heart of Berlin – especially if you live nearby. Nevertheless, just because a person witnesses such a protest that does not necessarily mean that he or she can relate to the struggle, or that they are able to identify the injustice the protest is aimed against.

Therefore, the following several interviews were completed with people around the area of the camp to explore how they feel about the refugees’ protest. We talked to opponents, bystanders and supporters in order to better unpack how perceptions of the camp formed. Considering Germany’s harrowing experiences with the isolation and discrimination of minority groups in the past, we were especially keen to hear, if people draw a connection to these historic events.

Generally, most respondents claimed to tolerate the protest, even though there seems to be a lack of knowledge of the actual content of what is being protested.  Considering the recent troubles the refugees have had with the police, this was quite a positive surprise. The largest group we could identify are simply bystanders.  These individuals are able and choose to ignore the protest in their everyday lives—even if they feel sympathy towards the refugees.  Although these interviews are by no means representative, we feel that they still reflect certain attitudes that are widespread within the German society. By reflecting on them, we hope to get a deeper understanding of the mechanism of social injustice and also hope to identify means that could help to increase the solidarity with the struggles of marginalized groups. 

 

The Opponents

They are here because they want more money, right?

The first answer we received from a woman in her fifties. When we asked her about the camp, she questioned the refugees’ intent: They are here because they want more money, right? While she does not live in Berlin and prefers to remain anonymous, her views are probably widely shared in the German society. She had not heard of the refugees’ protests before she came to Berlin and had a skeptical expression on her face while she examined the camp—looking the tattered tents up and down. However her sentiments were a classic example of unawareness that the attitudes she expresses are in fact racist—nevertheless, they clearly were.  Throughout our conversation there were assumptions about where refugees were from, why they came to Berlin, and the lives these individuals led. 

The woman didn’t know a lot about the German asylum system, the camp still concerned her:

These people expect too much.  Germany is not able to pay for the rest of the world.

She acknowledged the fact that many of the refugees have probably experienced horrible things, but still thinks that Germans cannot be held accountable or be expected to “take them all in”. She feels that the cultural heritage of Germany could be threatened by too many immigrants and that there are already enough Germans depending on social welfare. The citizens of a country should be taken care of first. When she thinks about the refugees’ situation, she does not see any kind of connection to the German history and instead emphasizes the country’s role as a pioneer for the European integration.  

Klaus, who’s also in his fifties and lives around the neighborhood, feels that the refugee camp needs to close. While he considered himself to be a sympathizer at one point in time, he has recently become an opponent since the camp got “too chaotic”. While he did not detail what behaviors or interactions he has directly had with refugees to detail this claim, he was defiant in the worthlessness of the refugee struggle.  He argued that the refugees need to realize that this form of protest is useless and that they should just go home. Furthermore, he feels that the protesters have become increasingly aggressive:

[They] have overstayed their welcome.  I’d say that’s why the police are here at least twice a week.

Klaus continued by explaining that they expect way too much from the German government. Several times during our conversation, he speaks about the people in the camp as if he would speak about children that are not able to make reasonable decisions. 

A common feature of the opponents we talked to was that they categorize people according to their origin. They assign different rights and duties to these categories of humans in an unjust way. However, to them this way of thinking is completely justified. Germans are at the top of the hierarchy, because it’s “their country” and refugees are at the very bottom. Still, if you would ask them, none of them would consider themselves to be racist. However, the reasoning behind their arguments are ideas of white supremacy and the white man’s burden. Talking about the refugees as if they were irrational children illustrates this feeling of superiority very clearly. Several studies have shown that this everyday-racism is widely spread in Germany. It is the basis for the institutional racism of the asylum law and leads people to ignore the system’s harmful consequences. Furthermore, the opponents avert from drawing direct comparisons to Germany’s past and instead focus on the alleged qualities of the modern German state—a diversion strategy that is very widespread throughout major parts of society.                  

The Bystanders

Most of the bystanders we interviewed could also be considered to be sympathizers. Only very few of them expressed negative feelings about the protest camp or its inhabitants. Still, the attribute that characterizes them best is passiveness. Therefore, the word bystander seems somewhat more fitting. Besides not getting involved in the issue, most of them do not seem to be very interested in it either. 

I know very little about the camp and the refugee’s protest despite the fact that I live just around the corner.

This is a sentiment we heard from almost every bystander in their own respective words.  Almost no one in this group has actually spoken to any of the refugees in person, even though some claim that having the refugee camp here is an “enrichment for the community.”  As the bystanders get most of their information about the camp from the media, they tend to reiterate some of the biased and misinformed arguments that have been made against it in several newspapers. Going there and talking to the refugees for example could easily refute the rumor that “leftist extremist live in and control the camp.”  Yet, most people simply claim to be too preoccupied with other things to inform themselves properly. Some even acknowledge that their lack of knowledge is a little disturbing, but that might just have been due to the fact that our interview exposed it.

Several people expressed their concerns about the seemingly rising number of conflicts surrounding the camp and the many police operations in the area within the last few months. People repeatedly told us about “problems” between the Turkish community and the protest camp. Katja, a young mother of two said: 

If there is trouble, it’s always between the refugees themselves or between them and the Turks.

We were repeatedly confronted with this problematic statement that can also be traced back to biased reports by the media. Although most of the bystanders would strongly disagree with being called racist, they repeated this racist argument that basically implies: most of the security problems in the area are due to “foreigners”—Germans however, are mostly well-behaved.  The protest camp is in a historically Turkish neighborhood which, like many areas of Berlin-Kreuzberg, is slowly being gentrified.  Turkish communities in Germany face discrimination and prejudice in similar ways in German society—related to citizenship, language, and identity.  This statement—that conflict is only between these two groups—is not only untrue factually, but also ignores the structural racism that influences both minority groups.

The bystanders’ statements were quite contradictory at times, which points to the fact that many of them have just ignored the topic so far and therefore struggled to formulate consistent lines of argumentation. Many of the bystanders hesitated when we asked them, if they can identify any kind of connection between the refugees’ struggle and the German history. After a brief moment of reflection, most of them denied a direct historical connection. However, we strongly felt that quite a few of them actually realized that there is a historical continuity, especially in the means of discrimination and marginalization that are used against minorities. Maybe these denials can also be seen as a strategy that is used to justify inaction.    

The supporters 

How can Germany establish such a racist [asylum] system considering its history?  These are obvious Human Rights violations...I couldn’t believe that this was happening in my home country – and most people don’t even seem to care.

This statement, from one of the younger volunteers of Refugee Revolution, highlights one method of connecting German history with a contemporary struggle.  Just the use of the term “human rights” refers to the creation of the United Nations and other institutions established after Nazi Germany, to ensure communities like the refugees in the protest camp are protected.  Pascal, another supporter, has spent a week in a shelter for asylum seekers close to Berlin.

It felt like being in a prison. The guards, the fences, the restrictions and surveillance – it was all there. […] We treat these people like criminals, despite the fact that they haven’t done anything wrong.

Many of the supporters told us that they feel inspired by the refugee’s willingness to fight for justice, despite the fact that many of them went through traumatizing experiences. We felt that working together with the refugees has made them particularly aware of their own privileges—a valuable experience that we, as interviewers, went through as well.  When we asked them about the future of the camp and the protest, the supporters were somewhat skeptical.  Pascal said:

The camp is generally accepted in the neighborhood, but racist ideas are still very deeply rooted in the German society.

One of the volunteers responded similarly, saying:

Most of my classmates and even the teaches in school are totally ignorant towards the protest. When we talk about politics, we mostly speak about what a role model Germany has become for the rest of the world – the asylum system was never a topic.

Even though they fear that the camp might be evicted at some point, none of them talked about giving up. Almost all of the supporters were sure that they will continue to fight for the refugee’s rights—no matter what. 

A common feature all of the supporters shared was that they did not really have an elaborate explanation for their actions—they just feel it is “the right thing to do”.  For them, human rights violations are crimes against humanity as a whole. They feel that it is our shared responsibility as humans to defend the rights of every other human being. Considering Germany’s history, they felt that the Nazi reign with its widespread support in society at that time is a constant reminder that it is our responsibility to protect and fight for human rights. At the same time they did not feel that Germany as a nation has a special responsibility to commit itself to human rights protection, because every country in the world shares the same common responsibility to protect them. From the perspective of the supporters, the grave human rights violations committed by the Nazis and their supporters are an important lesson, not just for Germans but also for the whole world. 

 

Conclusion

The “freedom fight” or struggle for refugee rights in Germany remains an injustice fought primarily by victims of the asylum system.  Refugees, without citizenship status, are limited in agency to fight for their basic human rights especially when institutional and legal forces stand in their way.  However, as our interviews displayed, the brave nature and tenacity with which the refugees seek justice is inspiring.  As individuals who have entered Germany for their own safety and security and are constantly discriminated against here, an incredible resilience is required.  Supporters and allies of the refugee community must recognize the privilege that comes with citizenship and the various other identities we hold that can make our voices that much more likely to be heard.  This privilege also allows for complacency and the ability to ignore the concerns of others.  Many of the community individuals we interviewed put forward stereotypes and stigmas to justify their inaction or the lack of a problem.  As Germans seek to understand their collective memory of the Nazi past, ignoring the concerns of minority and marginalized populations is unconscionable.  The human rights imprint left on the entire world includes an unwritten German moral responsibility to stand alongside those whom cannot “freedom fight” on their own.  By simply raising awareness that discrimination and prejudice influence refugees in every aspect of their experience—institutionally and everyday—German society can combat the idea that stigmatizing populations is a characteristic of the past.  Rather, it is up to contemporary Germans to be active, increase solidarity with persecuted communities, and increase general knowledge of minority concerns.  The visibility of the refugee struggle depends on the conscious choice by individuals to see that an injustice exists and to identify what can be done to fix it. 

 

References

General references not fully cited in text

European Database of Asylum Law.

 “Forced Labor: An Overview” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org)

“German Court Decision: Asylum Seeker Benefits Ruled Inhumane”, 18 July 2012 (Spiegel Online).

“Refugees on hunger strike in downtown Berlin”, 25 October 2012 (B92 News).

Refugee Revolution Bus Tour (http://refugeesrevolution.blogsport.de/).

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HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2013

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