Berlin’s Refugees

Nina Roßmann talks to some of Berlin’s refugees, and looks at the reasons behind the current protests…

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What makes life hard in Afghanistan is that you don’t have a choice,” explains Habir. “Either you belong to the Taliban or the government, and no matter what side you chose, the other side puts pressure on you”. So the choice he made was to leave his family behind and go on a journey, which, three years later, brought him to Berlin.

I meet Habir in a café at Rosa-Luxemburg Platz. The contact was established through someone I know from a voluntary refugee organisation, so literally the only thing I knew about him was that he was from Afghanistan. He arrives at our meeting straight from an appointment with the Job Centre, and holds his document folder under one arm while stretching out the other to greet me.

Wearing a shirt, and with neatly cropped hair and glasses, he seems calm and confident. When he proudly shows me his newly-won temporary residence permit, I see that he is 34 years old. He speaks good German and his calm presence compliments the balanced, almost philosophical way he tells his story and accepts the circumstances of his life.

Habir’s journey began in Afghanistan in 2007, when he decided to leave his home country because he couldn’t stand the pressure any more. The first couple of weeks were the hardest. He paid a smuggler 3,000 U.S. dollars to bring him and a group of around 20-30 people to Turkey. It was winter and they had to cross the Iranian mountains, which included a 40-hour march by foot through the snow that two of their group – a mother and her about 10-year-old son – did not survive.

Habir managed to arrive in Istanbul but, drained from the strenuous march through the mountains and his feet sore and infected, his first task in Europe was to find a hospital. He was turned away at first because he had no papers, but eventually found a mosque whose Imam helped him find medical treatment.

While in hospital he saw a TV report on refugees that had drowned on their way to Greece and realised that he once again had to make a choice between two evils: risk his life at sea or head back to Afghanistan and oppression. As his courage about to fail him, he was reassured by other refugees and decided to continue to Greece by sea.

Migrants after being rescued by the Greek Coastguard from a stranded fishing boat and transferred onto an oil tanker.

Hundreds of refugees have died between Turkey and Greece since 2000, but Habir’s journey, undertaken on a small fishing boat helmed by other inexperienced refugees, somehow landed him safely in Athens. Knowing neither the language nor where to turn, he fell prey to a money-grabbing landlord who charged him 70 Euros per month for a mattress in an overcrowded building, before finding a job in a carpet store. He doesn’t go into much detail about why or how he left Greece, but alludes to crimes against Muslims and the police turning a blind eye to it.

Though he would have preferred France, Habir’s next smuggler could only arrange travel to Germany. Again, he had seen shocking images on TV – this time that of right-wing killer Beate Zschäpe’s face, as part of the international news coverage of the neo-fascist NSU murders in Germany. He had also already met other Afghans who had been deported back from Germany to Greece because of the Dublin Regulation, which determines that, in general, the country of first entry is responsible for the processing of a refugee’s asylum application.

Suspects of Bosphorus serial murders. The woman on the left is Beate Zschäpe.
Suspects of Bosphorus serial murders. The woman on the left is Beate Zschäpe.

They told him not only about their troubles with immigration authorities, but how in Germany foreigners were “shot dead on the streets” with Muslims being a particular target, but Habir remained unperturbed. “You have to see with your own eyes,” he tells me. “You can’t just believe what other people tell you, you have to build your opinion yourself. God gave us eyes so that we can see for ourselves“.

He spent the first three months after his arrival in Berlin at the refugee shelter in Lehrter Straße, close to the main station, then another 13 months at another shelter at Kaiserdamm, which had a dirty kitchen and poor sanitary conditions. But he doesn’t complain – after all, he is used to having to be patient. Between early 2011 and January 2014, he was only granted six months residence permits, which restricted him from being able to work or leave the region of Berlin-Brandenburg. He shrugs the situation off in his usual resigned way: “You also have homeless people in Germany,” he says. “Not everyone is fine here either, so it must be tough for the government to also look after refugees.”

And as with the Imam in Istanbul and the employer who took a chance and gave him work in Athens, he has met “good people” in Berlin too – namely, the voluntary workers at the refugee contact centre KUB (Kontakt – und Beratungsstelle) who have taught him German over the years, filling in the gap left by the German state, who does not provide language courses until an asylum seeker is acknowledged as refugee.

Oranienplatz & Ohlauer Strasse

Eviction Refugees Camp Berlin
Eviction of the Oranienplatz refugees camp in Berlin

Habir doesn’t have any German friends yet, but he is curious to make some when he finally manages to find a job. He has his own apartment now, though a job, as for many refugees, means not only the first step to integration but, more importantly, the key to leading a self-determined life – one of the principal issues at Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz refugee camp.

The camp housed around 100 people from the end of September 2012 until April 2014, when it was cleared. From the dozens of tents that once covered the southern side of the square, only one – an information tent – was allowed to remain, and that was burnt down a couple of weeks ago. The refugees based there demanded the right to work, the abolition of Residenzpflicht – the regulation that in Germany forbids asylum seekers to leave a certain radius (determined by the administrative county where they applied for asylum) – and assurances that they will not be deported.

In short, they campaigned for an existence free of constant uncertainty and the right to be allowed to settle in Germany. The camp came about as a direct result of the suicide of an Iranian refugee in a refugee shelter in Würzburg in March 2012 – a tragic episode that revealed how the denial of such freedoms can be too much to bear for often deeply traumatised people who may have experienced war, persecution or other suffering great enough to drive them to leave behind their homes and relatives.

The suicide triggered a protest march from Bavaria to Berlin in the autumn of 2012 – the biggest self-organised refugee protest Germany has ever seen, with more than 6000 people showing their support. Many of those who arrived in Berlin settled on Oranienplatz and, as the number of campers rose, the empty Gerhart Hauptmann Schule at nearby Ohlauer Straße was also occupied.

Inside one of the makeshift huts at Oranienplatz. Image by
Inside one of the makeshift huts at Oranienplatz. Image by

When I dropped in and spoke to the refugees at the Oranienplatz camp, it became strikingly clear to me what it really means not to be able to work and to be denied the freedom to live an independent life. One of the young men I met, Prince, a refugee from Ghana who entered Europe via Lampedusa, had made his way to Germany after two and a half years in an Italian camp.

When I met him, he had been living at the Oranienplatz camp for seven months, which he preferred to the official refugee shelters because at least he had his “own place” – a bed, a small desk with shelf, and an electric heater. At night he heard rats bustling around the tents, but he considered the rules at the refugee centres worse. There, he said, he had to identify himself to enter his own ‘home’ and wouldn’t be allowed to receive friends in his room. Prince wanted to lead his own life and for this, he needs to make money. He was frustrated with being at the mercy of others and hated being dependent on donations.

In Ghana, Prince was a welder and would be happy to work as one here too. Other jobs, like working in a restaurant or cleaning, would be fine as well, he added, as long as he can earn his own money and be independent. His biggest fear is that Germany will continue to forbid him to earn his living and that he will become a ‘street guy’, living – and possibly dying – in the streets. “I want to know where my money is coming from, and I want to sweat for it,” he told me. “People give me clothes, which is great. But maybe I don’t like the clothes they give me. Maybe I want to choose my own clothes”.

The Oranienplatz camp was tolerated until the end of last year when the Berlin Senator of the Interior, Frank Henkel (CDU), threatened to evict it. He was pushed back by public protests as well as Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, and instead of a forceful solution, Senator for Immigration Dilek Kolat negotiated with the refugees and managed to convince them to peacefully clear the camp.

The negotiations involved the Senate agreeing to determine the refugees’ status on an individual basis, and provide them with counselling services and German classes. However, the Berlin Refugee Council (Flüchtlingsrat) criticised the Senate (and the associated district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg) for unilaterally proclaiming an agreement had been reached when in fact it was merely being discussed.

They also accused the Senate of driving a wedge between the refugees, since the Senate’s offer only applied on the condition that all refugees leave but not all of them agreed; indeed, some of the refugees who saw a chance in the Senate’s proposals (and wanted to clear the camp), destroyed the tents of others who preferred to stay.

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The situation at Ohlauer Straße’s Gerhart Hauptmann Schule, which allegedly houses around 200 or 250 refugees (official figures have been consistently difficult to estimate) has progressed somewhat differently. Sanitary conditions in the former school were always poor, with only one shower for all its inhabitants, and a number of related violent outbursts culminated on April 25th 2014 with the stabbing of a 29-year old Moroccan refugee. The alleged aggressor was a 40-year old man from Gambia.

When I dropped by at the school in 2013, I was directed to a small building in the school courtyard that served as a common and dining room. Food supplies were donated by the Berliner Tafel (the Berlin food bank) as well as private donors such as the Muslim helpers I met there, who have been regularly bringing food since one of the refugees turned to their mosque for help.

On June 24th 2014, the occupation of Gerhart Hauptmann Schule was dissolved when 900 police were mobilised to monitor the refugees moving out of the building, accompanied by 450 demonstrators who opposed the clearance of the school. More than 200 refugees left and were re-located in other shelters (Charlottenburg and Spandau) after they were promised individual examination of their asylum applications.

But between 40-80 refused to leave – and for good reason. Berenice Böhlo, a lawyer representing the refugees, has pointed out in the Tagesspiegel that the Berlin authorities do not process asylum applications for which another federal state has previously been responsible when this is where the refugee has first applied for asylum in. For the promised individual examination Berlin needs to acknowledge its responsibility for processing the applications. This, however, is still legally unclear: A report commissioned by the Commissioner of the Berlin Senate for Integration, Monika Lüke, came to the conclusion that the responsibility lies with the Berlin authorities (not that of other federal states) but Berlin Senator of the Interior Frank Henkel favours a more restrictive approach. Indeed, one Nigerian asylum-seeker from the Oranienplatz protesters has subsequently been threatened with deportation by the State of Sachsen-Anhalt.

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At the time of writing no solution has been found to this knot in the negotiations, and Henkel has also refused to concede to Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s mayor Monika Hermann’s demand to ban deportation for the protesting refugees – hence the school is still surrounded by police who aren’t quite sure yet what to do.

On the 1st July, 2014, the Green Councillor for building (Bezirksstadtrat für Planen, Bauen, Umwelt und Immobilien) in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Hans Panhoff, asked the police to clear the school. However, without the backing of his party, who are largely against a forcible clearing because of the refugees’ suicide threats, the clearing cannot take place. And before police storm the building, further negotiations with the refugees on the roof of Gerhart Hauptmann Schule are planned.

Indeed, most of the district still hopes for a peaceful solution and wants to offer the refugees the possibility to stay within a certain area of the school instead of expelling them completely. Support from local residents is fairly high, with recent protests drawing 3000 peaceful demonstrators, many keen to see what is happening for themselves since the media has been banned from entering the school (news about the stand-off is currently being spread via social media – see the Twitter hashtag #ohlauer and the Facebook page OhlauerInfopoint).

What has been decided, however, is that the former school will be turned into an international refugee centre for asylum seekers with an undetermined refugee status – built with the help of 35 of the (male) refugees who formerly lived in the school.

Part 2 of this article, which looks at the history of immigration laws and culture in Germany, can be found here. This article is also available in Italian here.


January 12th, 2015

Sadly, the increasing numbers of (mostly Muslim) refugees has led to a wave of anti-immigrant protests. Starting in Dresden in October 2014, the movement “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West” (Pegida) has organised regular demonstrations in major German cities. Abusing the idea of the “Monday demonstrations” established during the Peaceful Revolution against the communist regime in the GDR, they demonstrate against an alleged “islamisation”.

With the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”, also taken over from the Peaceful Revolution) they want to “preserve Western values”. Pegida claims not to be racist but Neo-Nazis take part in the protests and as the fear of being “islamised“ seems more than irrational (the Muslim population in Dresden, the birthplace of the protests, amounts to only 0.4%) there is reason to believe that they are xenophobic and against Muslims in general. Racist posts by one of the organisers confirm this assumption.

Pegida’s Berlin branch is “Bärgida“ who organised a protest march on Monday, January 5th. They managed to gather 300 demonstrators, who were met by more than 5000 anti-demonstrators. The latter have politics on their side: Angela Merkel has called on the Germans to shun the protests and the Berlin and Cologne authorties have ordered for the lights at Brandenburg Gate and the Cologne cathedral to be extinguished in protest against Bärgida/Pegida.

Bärgida wants to continue marches every Monday. But the next counter-demonstration has already been called out as well, for this Monday, 12 January, 5 pm. Info on this and upcoming demonstration see: and Turkish Union in Berlin-Brandenburg (TBB).

September 1st, 2014

  • After an agreement had been reached with the 40 refugee protesters in Gerhart Hauptmann Schule on July 3rd (they can stay in a separated area within the school) the protest is now going on in a hostel in Gürtelstraße in Friedrichshain, where there are again refugee protesters on the roof of the building, threatening to kill themselves. They demand a re-examination of their asylum applications by the state of Berlin as promised in the negotations between the Oranienplatz refugees and the Senate (Berliner Tagesspiegel of August 27th and August 30th) BUT:
  • It has meanwhile turned out that the whole agreement of the Senate with the Oranienplatz refugees is invalid as Senator for Integration Dilek Kolat signed the agreement and not Senator of the Interior Frank Henkel who should have signed. Because of this formal mistake the agreement is invalid, which makes the promises made to the refugees a bluff (taz, September 1st, 2014; a translation of the article is available on the Facebook page of Refugee Protestmarch to Berlin).

taz, from September 9th, 2014

Quite apart from these legal questions, refugee advocate Berenice Böhlo doubts that the promised individual examinations of aslyum applications actually took place as all 139 cases that had so far been re-examined were rejected; the concerned refugees have to go back either to the German state which they first applied for asylum in, or Italy. Also the refugees at Gürtelstraße have ended their protest (!145622/).

For current updates see Twitter hashtag #ohlauer and the Facebook page of OhlauerInfopoint).

2nd October, 2015

Last year when I wrote my articles on Berlin’s refugees and Germany’s struggle with accepting its role as an immigration society, I would never have expected this: four times more refugees compared to last year and everywhere there are people willing to help, showing their solidarity and support for the estimated 800,000 newcomers this year. The welcoming culture is no longer a political or academic debate but is happening in real life, all over Germany, every day. Hospitality is so much en vogue that the Munich police had to ask people via Twitter not to bring any more supplies to the main station, where so many of the Syrian refugees coming to Germany are headed. In many other cities, charities’ clothes stocks are full and civil society organisations like “Moabit hilft” are stepping in where the administrations are overburdened or are developing innovative new ways of dealing with problems for which the state has no short-term solutions (like a job matching site for refugees, and Flüchtlinge Willkommen, who link up refugees and people with a spare room). The government has also pledged support, with Labour Minister Andrea Nahles declaring to release funds for the refugees’ labour market integration and language courses.

But there’s also another side to the story, revealing the ‘dark’ Germany that also exists: as Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière explained in the newspaper Die ZEIT, there have been as many criminal offenses against asylum seekers in the first six months of this year as in the whole of last year. Hate slurs on Facebook are a huge problem too. Minister of Justice Heiko Maas has asked Facebook for a stricter policy in deleting those posts, but even if Facebook takes on a tougher stance, there’s still what people say down the pub. Luckily, I haven’t had to cope with comments of this kind myself yet, but I only have to call my parents and hear their accounts from my small home town to get an idea of the lingering, concealed xenophobia, ‘Delousing those people – what a strain on our health costs’ (the German term entlausen is also well-known as Nazi terminology) or ‘The father of the dead boy in the picture—what an attention seeker, how can he talk to the media like that? What kind of father would do that?’ (Clearly a very irresponsible one, to put a little child on an unsafe boat. To escape death in the Syrian war zone.) These are just two examples of what my parents have had to listen to. Just to be clear: this is in Bavaria—not Saxony, which is being treated as the black sheep right now. The CSU (Christian Social Union, the ruling party in Bavaria and sister party of Merkel’s CDU) is doing a very good job of absorbing the xenophobic undercurrents within the population.

But it’s the stories on hospitality and people helping refugees that have dominated the news over the last two weeks (our Hollywood export Til Schweiger has even been pushing this a little further). Germans celebrating their hospitality has been compared with the Sommermärchen, our summer fairy tale, that is the 2006 World Cup, a symbol of the new sense of German pride, the final ‘OK’ for waiving the German national flag again. And of course, there’s been the other, much bigger, historical comparison, that of the fall of the wall—and the misunderstanding that accelerated it. When Merkel made clear that refugees won’t be sent back to Hungary, this was understood as ‘Dublin III is dead, everyone can come’—just like the East German politician Günther Schabowski, who accidentally declared that the wall was open ‘as of now’ (even though this was not what the GDR government actually had planned). The Ministry of the Interior quickly backpedalled and declared that Dublin III isn’t officially suspended – but there is simply a guideline of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) saying that Syrian refugees should not be sent back to their country of first entry . But the signal of openness has been sent out. For the second weekend of September alone 40 000 refugees were expected to arrive in Germany—with the result that Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière declared that – preliminary – border controls were to be re-introduced at the German-Austrian border. Municipalities are overstrained with accommodating this many refugees at once, so it remains to be seen if this is a revocation of openness or just a necessity.

Here’s another personal anecdote: two weeks ago I met two Iranians who said that, had they moved to Australia instead of Germany, they would be considered Australian by now. But in Germany, they will never be German—they will always be Iranians living in Germany. What they say is probably still true, and I’m sad to hear this. But the recent developments make me feel optimistic that this will change and that Germany will finally stop denying reality and start to see itself as an immigration country. And even if this won’t be done quickly, that I in my lifetime will still see this change.

If you want to help, check out the information on Finding Berlin and Berlin Hilft Lageso.