Tag Archives: refugees


24 Sep


I have always had a soft spot for the Greens. Imagine me, in my last year in high school in 2000, going door to door in Texas and asking people to vote for Ralph Nader and the Green Party. (Yes, in Texas!) For those of you who are too young to remember, that didn’t turn out well. Around the same time, I was psyched that the Greens were in government and the photos of foreign minister Joschka Fischer that had just surfaced showing him attacking a policeman at a demonstration in 1973 gave them a certain edge.

In time, however, I learned that the Greens were in favor of things like the war on Afghanistan or the Hartz IV reforms, the biggest cuts in social services in Germany since 1945. Wasn’t this the kind of stuff the Green Party was founded to oppose?

So when I read Konrad’s piece yesterday, I was torn. Yes, the Greens had voted to make it easier to deport Roma and Sinti to Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But does that make them “shape-shifting lizards”? Let’s ask them. Claudia Roth – the former party leader, and not exactly a left-wing radical – said to the Bayerischer Rundfunk that it was “not a good day for the Greens”. And as refugees were in front of the Bundesrat chanting for the Greens to “feel ashamed”, the leader of the Green Youth responded on Facebook that he was deeply ashamed.

Refugees occupied the Green Party headquarters in Mitte last Wednesday to demand they vote against the asylum law. The party co-chairperson Simone Peters said she “calculated” that the Greens in the Bundesrat would vote no. “Stop the bla bla’ said one of the refugees. And Peters’ “calculations” were just that. Sure, the Greens had put up election posters saying “I am a refugee”. They had specifically demanded a better treatment of Roma and Sinti in their election program. But Winfried Kretschmann, former Maoist and now Green head of Baden-Württemberg, decided to support the government anyways. Say what you want, but at least the CDU is honest enough to say they hate refugees.

This comes, of course, after the Greens in Kreuzberg evicted the protest camp at Oranienplatz, and then had thousands of police lock down a whole Kiez for a week in order to evict the school in the Ohlauer Straße, while allegedly using pepper-spray countless school students in the process. In Hamburg, the SPD’s anti-refugee policies led to a massive FCK SPD campaign, with thousands of RUN DMC-style t-shirts worn all over the city. Now a FCK GRN campaign for Kreuzberg has popped up.

So what to do? Well the Green’s competition doesn’t look much better, with the Pirates collapsing before our eyes and many prominent members like Anke Domscheit-Berg and Anna Helm resigning over the weekend. All I can think of is to keep supporting the refugees’ protests. After George Bush’s election in 2000, lots of people said “Fuck the Greens”, accusing Nader of spoiling the election and giving it to Georg W. Bush. Now I’m going to join them and get myself a FCK GRN shirt.

Comedian Marc-Uwe Kling once said the Greens are like bananas: “Today green, tomorrow yellow, the day after black.” Yellow, of course, stands for the neoliberal FDP. And black represents the conservatives. I worry the Greens are turning into brown mush.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/fck-grn/


Refugees occupy the TV tower

10 Jul


“I’m sorry, but the tower is full” says the security guard at the entrance to Berlin’s Fernsehturm. “You’ll have to try again later.” The tourists turn away. But I’m not convinced, I had heard something else was going on there. I ask her: “Are you sure it’s just full, and not occupied by refugees?” She feigns shock: “What do you mean ‘occupied’? It’s full!” Alexanderplatz is packed with dozens of police vehicles. Officers in riot gear are blocking every entrance to the tower. Because it’s full?

On Wednesday, 37 refugees occupied the viewing platform 203 meters above the city. They bought tickets and went up at 3pm and refused to leave. In a statement they explain that they have been active in political protests for several years:

Everywhere we are turned away. Everyone has the same answer for us. Everyone refers us to the next person. No one listens to us. No one wants to be responsible for us refugees and the inhumane laws under which we live.

This group – originally from many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – have come together from Lager (camps for asylum seekers) across Bavaria. Last week 70 refugees occupied the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Nuremberg, hoping to find someone who would listen to their demands. They were evicted by the police.

“You have to talk to someone in Berlin”, one of the activists recalled hearing. So they went to East Berlin’s emblematic tower. “We selected this place to find public support. The people of Deutschland must understand our problems.”

These refugees say they have been in Germany for three, four or five years, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. They aren’t allowed to work, go to school, or travel outside of the Landkreis of their Lager. They are demanding Bleiberecht (a right to stay) as well as an end to the Residenzpflicht that prohibits travel.

The police refuse to let the press up into the tower. Fabio Reinhardt, member of the Berlin parliament for the Pirate Party, buys a ticket, but only after several hours can he go up to participate in negotiations.

Via social media, dozens of supporters at ground level can see the police breaking up the sitting blockade. “Please translate for us,” one refugee calls out the the police in a video, “since we are not allowed to learn German”.

Over the next few hours, they are let out one by one after their papers are registered. “We are here, and we will fight,” the crowd chants at each new arrival, “freedom of movement is everybody’s right.” The activists show bruises and cuts they got from the police. “They have no respect for us as human beings” says one young man with a bruise on his face. He claims they weren’t allowed to use the toilet for hours. The company that manages the tower, the Deutsche Funkturm GmbH, which belongs to the Deutsche Telekom, had pressed charges against the refugees.

As darkness falls, up to 20 Nazis from the NPD organize a demonstration against the refugees. They are protected by the Berlin police and leave with an escort after one hour. I notice at least one with the stretched earlobes and unkempt beard of a Nazi hipster.

During the occupation, the viewing platform is closed, but a constant stream of people with reservations is still allowed into the restaurant one floor above. I ask people coming out if they saw the refugees. No, they assure me, they just had their meal. Videos have been posted on Facebook showing a cacophony of screams as the police drag away the activists. “But we didn’t notice anything”, the tourist repeats. Why, I wonder, do Germans always say that?

The refugees end their statement with the reminder: “Every day, people kill themselves in the Lager because they can no longer live this hopeless and painful live. We demand a conversation with the responsible politicians. We are people too.” After the eviction of the Oranienplatz in April and the partial eviction of the school in the Ohlauer Straße last week, some racist politicians might have hoped the refugee protests would die down. But as one banner at the time already warned them: “You can’t evict a movement.”

Just let the refugees stay!

2 Jul


Kreuzberg is under a state of siege. For the last week, 1720 police have sealed off four city blocks surrounding Ohlauer Str., where a former school housed a hybrid crowd of squatters and refugees. Residents are only allowed to go to their houses if they show an ID. No one else can go past the police barricades.

Why has an entire Kiez been locked down? The police operation is directed against 40 refugees camping on the roof of the school on Ohlauer Straße. The former Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule was occupied a year and a half ago by activists from the protest camp at Oranienplatz.

Lots of people moved in, perhaps as many as 600. The sanitary conditions were terrible – just one shower in the whole building! – and there were repeated cases of violence, which shouldn’t be a surprise when people from so many different cultural backgrounds (from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa to the Balkans) and with so many legal situations (some have some kind of visa, some are refugees, some are totally paper-less, others are Germans or have a Schengen passport!) are forced to live with 20 other people in one room. But the refugees preferred this to the Lager (camps) they are forced to live in as asylum seekers.

Last week, on June 24, the Bezirksamt (district government) ordered the eviction of the school – supposedly so it could be converted into an official refugee centre. They wanted the residents to leave “voluntarily”, but brought along over 1000 heavily armed riot police. Under this pressure, several hundred people left. Supporters report, however, that they were not allowed to take their meagre possessions, and some are now living out on the street because they couldn’t get into the promised housing.

Forty fled onto the roof, demanding a right to stay and to maintain the school as a self-organized political space for refugees. They were and still are to this very moment threatening to jump if the police try to storm the roof.

So on Tuesday, the neighbourhood was under police control – not even the press could get in. “I went to get groceries from Penny,” said Belén, who lives on nearby Lausitzer Straße, “and they wouldn’t let me back in.” She has a Spanish ID that doesn’t contain her Berlin address. After a long discussion, the police accompanied her all the way to her door.

“Bist du taub, du Wichser, du kannst hier nicht rein!” one police officer screams at a man who wants to get past the blockade. The men in black (or green) Robocop uniforms, who have been brought in from as far away as Bavaria, let a Pizza Taxi through for themselves – but held up an ambulance for a resident.

Almost 100 local shops haven’t seen a single customer in the last week. On Monday, more than 50 AnwohnerInnen met up and decided to write a protest letter to the district, followed by more direct action through a successful storming of the blockade later that afternoon. “It’s a bit beklemmend to have to show your ID just to go home,” says Martin, who lives on Reichenberger Straße

Trying to keep a sense of Berlin’s playful anarchy, some protestors traded in storm tactics with a friendly game of badminton – over the heads of the police lines. A shuttlecock of resistance. A neighbour told the Tagesspiegel: “In the past two years I’ve walked past the occupied school almost every day and I never felt unsafe.” Now he sees police attacking peaceful demonstrators.

Yesterday, 2000 students went on strike to support the refugees (just like in February). The police brutally attacked underage demonstrators with batons, pepper spray and dogs: one had his nose broken.

As the strike ended at 12:45, news came that Hans Panhoff, the Kreuzberger Baustadtrat from the Green Party, had washed his hands of the matter and faxed a Räumungsersuchen (a request to evict) to the police. All hell broke loose: sirens were blaring throughout Kreuzberg and in the next few hours there was extreme violence against peaceful sit-ins. I personally saw at least one broken arm and one broken foot.

Now none of the politicians want to take responsibility. Kreuzberg mayor Monika Herrmann has disappeared and there are rumours she has called on her party colleague Panhoff to resign. The Green Party is contradicting itself with every new statement: they are against an eviction, no eviction was ordered, and an eviction wouldn’t be so bad. In the Green heartland of the middle-class Öko apartments around Ohlauer Straße, people are angry.

Why can’t they just let the refugees stay? Paragraph 23 of the asylum law would make it possible to grant them all asylum for humanitarian reasons.

But Berlin’s interior Senator Frank Henkel from the CDU says “the state can’t let itself be blackmailed”. He doesn’t like to mention that he came to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1981 as a refugee from his native country, the GDR. He didn’t fulfil any of the conditions he now demands from refugees, such as proving he had to flee for political and not economic reasons.

Demonstrators and activists are calling on Berliners to help break the stage of siege: Go to the Ohlauer Straße and join the sit-ins!

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/just-let-the-refugees-stay/

Photo: John Riceburg

The end of O-platz

10 Apr


On Wednesday the headlines were all about it…

“O-PLATZ EVICTED!!!” This honestly wasn’t a big surprise. The protest camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg, which refugees had set up way back in October of 2012, had been under threat from the very first day. After 18 months, the real surprise was that it hadn’t been evicted earlier, despite numerous attempts.

The shock came when I started reading Wednesday morning’s papers. Along with the news of that the refugees were gone, came this blast: “Refugees had cleared out the camp themselves.” I had interviewed many refugees and they had always declared they would not leave until their demands were met – the right to stay, to work, to go to school in Germany. I was pretty sure that hadn’t happened.

Reading the mainstream media, you would think that the refugees were trying to pack their suitcases but were attacked by Radikalinskis with black masks and Molotov cocktails who didn’t want to let them leave the camp. In fact, the Berlin Integration Senator Dilek Kolat claimed just that on Twitter: “Unbelievable how autonomists (…) are actively preventing refugees from peacefully dismantling their tents.”

On Tuesday evening, over 1000 people (even the police admitted there were 1200) demonstrated against the dissolution of the protest camp – even though it had supposedly been voluntary. A number of refugees and activists told me what had happened on April 8. Just before 6am, a group of refugees, armed with hammers, crowbars and knives, arrived to demolish the huts. This small group had signed an agreement with the Berlin Senate two weeks earlier. But of the eight official negotiators from O-platz, only three had supported the settlement.

Many refugees were still sleeping when their huts were attacked at the break of dawn. A video from VICE shows the fighting: People were threatened with iron bars and knives. The mayor of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Monika Herrmann, had wanted to avoid a police operation. So while police forces were gathered en masse in the side streets, they refused to step in to prevent knife fights, even after they were called by supporters. The police came only at 3pm to drag away 200 protestors who refused to leave the square. So much for the “voluntary” and “peaceful” action.

A number of refugees from the camp have now moved into a hostel in Friedrichshain provided by the government. The Senate promised them a Duldung, a temporary waiver of deportation (often described as “permanent suffering”), for the next six months. Further promises were the individual reappraisal of asylum applications and as well as German classes. Plus, each refugee who went to the hostel got €100 in cash.

But the agreement stipulated that the refugees needed to dismantled the camp themselves – hence the vigor of that small group. “They think they are going to get a residency permit” said one student who had skipped school to go to the camp. “It’s so sad.” There’s no reason to think the refugees who worked as the Senate’s demolition crew will get any thanks for their services.

The next day, Oranienplatz was surrounded by a fence, warning tape and hundreds of police officers. When I stopped to take pictures, I was told I couldn’t loiter anywhere near the fence. But from a distance, I caught a glance of three activists who had climbed into a tree so they couldn’t be evicted. They had spent the night in the cold and rain, but the police were stopping anyone from giving them food or blankets. “It’s police torture,” the refugee Amir told a reporter from his branch. Napuli, whom I interviewed for the March issue of Exberliner, said “They’re treating us like slaves.”

Let’s not forget that politicians wanted to evict the refugees so the public could use the square. But just a few days ago, you could sit down there to read a newspaper. “Someday” is what a police officer answered when I asked when O-platz will reopen. “Maybe when the grass has regrown.” Herrmann has declared the fence will stay up to prevent re-occupations.

The Senate has been successful in splitting the refugee movement – “divide and rule”, as the taz called it. They tricked some of the refugees into doing their dirty work. But they haven’t stopped the protests. In just a month, the March for Freedom is leaving for Brussels. The students who organised the school strike in February are planning further demonstrations. And there are hundreds of other squares in Berlin.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/refugees-chased-into-the-trees/

Refugees vs. Robocops

19 Feb


“Say it loud, say it clear: Refugees are welcome here!”

The refugee protest camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg is usually a pretty tranquil place – just last week I did an interview on a park bench. But on Thursday afternoon, the square was packed with more than 2500 students who were on strike in support of the rights of refugees. Young people came from schools and universities across Berlin. There were fiery speeches and a hip hop concert – any interviews had to be shouted. In the days leading up to the strike, there had been assemblies at half a dozen schools featuring presentations about Germany’s asylum laws as well as speeches from refugee activists.

Originally the strike had been planned against the ultimatum by Interior Senator Frank Henkel (CDU) to evict the protest camp by January 18. The ultimatum was cancelled, but the alliance of left-wing youth organizations and independent students maintained the protests. Even without an eviction, there seems to be plenty to object to – refugees are forced to live in camps with no right to work or education. The last attempt to evict the O-Platz in November was thwarted by 600 supporters, but there’s still an ongoing threat. In fact, early on Saturday morning, the toilet truck used by the refugees was completely burned down – arson is suspected, but the perpetrators haven’t been identified.

The first pro-refugee school strike took place on December 12 in Hamburg – now there is talk of a national day of strike action in the coming months. School students have parents, and parents write angry letters to newspapers. So I would expect the police to let the young people, mostly aged between 12 and 18, demonstrate in peace, right?

Not so. Police surrounded the march with officers in black riot gear reminiscent of those Robocop posters all over Alexanderplatz. Also present was the Anti-Konflikt-Team in neon yellow vests and armed with (anti-conflict?) pistols. A total of seven students and refugees were arrested during the day – a spontaneous protest at the Berlinale in the afternoon saw further detentions. (I have to admit, with a bit of shame, that I was in a film screening at the time.)

Since they opened the camp at O-Platz, I’m not the only person who has learned about the refugees’ struggle. It used to be a niche topic that I would think about only a few times a year. But now everyone is talking about the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. More student strikes will keep the discussion going. The right-wing tabloid Bild has accused the students of Schwänzen (truancy) and attacked the teachers’ union for supporting the protest. But I can say I learned more in a day at O-Platz than I ever learned in a day in a classroom. The strike is an important part of a humanistic, anti-racist education and the students get my vote of support in their decision to participate.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/school-strike-for-refugees/

Photo: quilombofotos

Refugee camp at O-Platz holding out

27 Nov


The Berlin winter is upon us. The cold is becoming painful and the puddles are freezing. But the refugee protest camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg isn’t going anywhere. On Sunday, they were supposed to move to a former seniors’ residence in Wedding. But the Zum guten Hirten house only had space for 80 people – 70 more were turned away and returned to the camp.

More importantly, the camp wasn’t set up to demand a house – it was set up to demand an end to deportations, as well as the right to work, live in normal apartments and travel. “You can evict us,” said Turgay, one of the refugees’ spokespeople, “but we will occupy a different space tomorrow!” So no one was happy when Kreuzberg mayor Monika Herrmann from the Green Party sent the police to dismantle the tents just minutes after the incomplete move to Wedding.

On Sunday evening, more than 500 protestors gathered in the biting cold to protect the camp. The police tried to stop a spontaneous demonstration through Kreuzberg’s SO36 district – small groups of riot cops rushed into the mass of people, then panicked and thrashed wildly with pepper spray and batons. The police would later claim that 31 officers were injured. But what does “injured” mean exactly in this context? A sprained finger while shoving someone to the ground? A moist eye after running into a cloud of one’s own pepper spray? Unfortunately, the police statement gives no details.

Herrmann has brought herself into an impossible position: since she assumed office in June, she has defended the refugees “right to protest on that square”. Yet she hoped to get rid of the camp, which continuously attracts new refugees, by moving 80 of them out of sight into a house in Wedding. This year, more than 100,000 people have claimed asylum in Germany. They are forced to live in prison-like Lager and are not allowed to leave their county due to the Residenzpflicht. Did the Green mayor really think that 80 beds would convince the refugees to end their protest? “This is not about us,” said the activist Napuli Langa at a press conference on Monday. “This is about thousands of refugees in Germany!” The crowd responded with calls of “Herrmann raus!”

On Sunday, Herrmann tweeted furiously that there had been no police action at the O-Platz, just a “technical help” with dismantling the tents – and even if police were forced to give up on the eviction, the pictures show that heavily armed cops were out in force. Now, Berlin’s Interior Senator Frank Henkel – big on “law and order”, except when it’s about protecting his friends from the construction mafia – has issued an ultimatum that the camp needs to be evicted by December 16. But even he knows that an attempt at repression will create a Gegenreaktion, a movement that goes far beyond Kreuzberg. In Hamburg, school students are planning a strike on December 12 to support the Lampedusa refugees after a crackdown there.

Vincent and some of the other refugees we spoke to in our last issue seem to have left, perhaps heading towards Italy to renew their papers or just to escape the ice. How can they stay in a country that denies them the basic right to roofs over their heads, that even tries to steal the plastic sheets they have been sleeping under? That’s what makes those activists who have continued the struggle so inspiring. The fire in their hearts has kept demonstrators warm for hours – even though it is way too cold to be demonstrating.

How to support the refugees? Go to the demonstration on Wednesday, November 27, at 3pm at Oranienplatz, going to the district parliament in the Yorckstraße 4-11, which opens at 17:30.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/blogs/the-blog/john-riceburg-refugee-camp-at-o-platz-holding-out/

Picture: quilombofotos

At sea on O-platz

13 Nov


Vincent’s journey took him from Libya through Lampedusa to Berlin. Now living in Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz refugee camp, the young Nigerian immigrant is out of options… and dreading the coming winter.

“It was a very bizarre experience.” That’s how Vincent describes the Libyan civil war and the NATO bombing campaign that started on February 15, 2011, a war that drove him from Tripoli to the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa and, more than two years later, to the protest camp on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz.

Vincent’s journey started in Tripoli, where the young Nigerian was working on building sites – just one of 1.5 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa doing menial jobs in oil-rich Libya. When the Western military intervention started, he recalls, “I was hiding indoors for seven days without food or electricity. Eventually, I said to myself: If I die, then I die, but I have to go.” On the streets of Tripoli, he was stopped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. They asked what Vincent was doing: “Starving,” he answered, “and looking for food.”

The Libyan authorities wanted to send a message to the European powers: if Gaddafi fell, then there would be no one to hold back a flood of refugees across the Mediterranean. So Vincent, along with hundreds of African workers, was rounded up and taken to a seaside camp outside the capital. It was just before midnight when government soldiers told them all to get on a boat. “We didn’t know where we were going,” he recalls, and most people refused to get on board. “They beat people – I got a slap in my face that I will never forget for the rest of my life.” Eventually, 400 people were forced onto the boat, and Vincent was stuck on one of the lower decks.

After six hours the boat stopped dead in the water. “Christians were calling to God and Muslims to Allah,” Vincent recalls. The motor’s fan belt was broken and there was no replacement. After half a day, the problem was resolved and the boat headed back to Tripoli. “We were just 100 metres from the port we had started from,” he says.

Twenty-four hours after their original forced departure, they took off on another boat.

But that same night, the second boat stopped: “It was leaking. We had to carry up water in buckets.” When it was fixed and started moving again, the captain still wouldn’t reveal their destination. “We ran into fishermen who spoke with the captain in Arabic, and they said we were heading to Lampedusa. Around two in the morning, we saw a red light.” Eventually, a big rescue ship appeared behind them.

When they arrived on the island, the police, the army and Amnesty International were there to meet them. “We slept there for one night, then a ship from the Italian government took 2000 people to the mainland.” The ship stopped at different ports in Italy, dropping off refugees at each one, and Vincent got off in Genoa after six days, together with about 100 other refugees. He was lucky to have made it that far: another man at his camp was on a boat with 750 people on the same route, and after three hours they capsized. Half of the passengers were never found. These shipwrecks are not uncommon: just days before our interview, 270 more refugees had died off of Lampedusa.

The refugees got temporary asylum in Italy, but their refugee status allowed them to travel for up to three months within the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area. Very unofficially, Italian immigration officers suggested that they would have better chances if they went to northern Europe. “Some of us were empty-handed, others got €500.” After some time spent begging on the streets of Milan and a failed attempt to find work in Paris and Helsinki, Vincent eventually set his sights on Germany. “It took a long time to gather €80 from begging, but with that money I got a ticket to Berlin.”

At first Vincent stayed with another Nigerian in Berlin, but they soon ran out of money. Searching for help, they found the Oranienplatz camp, open since October 2012. Vincent has now been living there for four months. Like most of the ‘Lampedusa residents’, he’s overstayed the three months his Italian refugee status allows him, and the German authorities could deport him at any time.

On O-Platz there’s little German to be heard: mostly French and Arabic (which Vincent learned in Libya) or English. Often there is nothing to do but stand around, and the atmosphere can be tense – many people survived serious trauma but never got any professional help.

So far, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district mayor Monika Herrmann has been allowing the camp to stay. And some Berliners have been donating clothes, food, German classes or money for electricity. Yet the temperatures at night are quickly dropping, and Vattenfall has just sent the camp a €6000 electricity bill. Everyone here sleeps in tents – none of them adequate for cold weather. Once determined to squat the square no matter what, the O-Platz refugee-protesters are now hoping not to spend a second winter in the open.

With his Italian refugee document, Vincent can’t work in Germany; he would do nearly anything to earn money, though. “But I don’t want to be a notorious guy,” he adds, referring to drug dealing in nearby Görlitzer Park. Vincent is turning 30 next April, and every time he phones home his widowed mother asks him for money. “I don’t have a wife or children of my own, I don’t have a job. I really, really don’t know what I will do,” he says, standing in the tent that shelters him and 20 fellow Nigerians on O-Platz.

Originally published in Exberliner #121, November 2013.

Source: http://www.exberliner.com/features/people/at-sea-on-o-platz/

Picture: Tania Castellví