Ahmed, one of many Sudanese refugees awaiting legal status in Berlin, sits by a coal fire in a makeshift tent insulated with heavy wool blankets. He is a part of Germany’s nationwide movement that saw hundreds of refugees last fall break the Residenzphflicht – a law barring those without legal residence from moving freely across German states – by marching nearly 400 miles from Würzburg, in northern Bavaria, to Berlin.
On October 6, the refugees set up a protest camp at Oranienplatz in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, and they have been occupying ever since. Around 10 large marquee tents and a scattering of smaller ones comprise the grounds. Facing the busy intersection is an information hut where volunteers greet passerby and hand out leaflets.
Two months after their arrival in Berlin, on December 8, the refugees also occupied a large abandoned school building just blocks from the tent camp. These days some 125 refugees live between the school and the camp, where posters and banners display messages reading, “The right to asylum is not a privilege – it is a human right” and “Break isolation. Stop deportation.”
The refugees have stated three clear demands, which they've printed on literature, published on blogs and addressed to the city government: 1) abolish the Residenzphflicht law that forbids free movement within the country, 2) close the nation's network of refugee camps, which have kept some people in isolated and inhumane conditions for decades, and 3) stop all deportations of asylum seekers.
“I’m not expecting anything in the near future,” says Ahmed, warming his hands by the fire. “But I’m expecting a lot of things in the long term. I think what we need to change is the law itself, and in order to change laws, you have to wait and you have to be patient.
"We’re here for four months, and we’ve achieved a lot of things. We’ve been to the Parliament, which has never happened in Germany.”
Surprisingly, the long-running protest and occupation has been met with little opposition from the Berlin government. The refugees have been in close contact with the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, as well as members of parliament from both the Green and Left parties, while other parties have shown solidarity with their cause as well.
Members of the movement were invited to speak at the town hall in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, and have met with both the Minister of State for Integration and the Berlin Senate for Integration.
In fact, the camp at Oranienplatz is legally supported and partially facilitated by the district government of Kreuzberg, led by the Social Democratic Party, which has provided the refugees with day-to-day assistance such as trash disposal, mobile toilets and neighborhood relations.
The district's mayor, Franz Schulz, has stated that he will allow the camp to continue to exist for as long as it takes until the refugees' demands are met – demands, however, which are technically out of his jurisdiction.
“Asylum seekers' rights are a federal law, meaning that only the federal government can make changes to improve their situations,” said Schulz. “But they are forced to make these changes anyway, because the highest court stated in the summer of 2012 that the money the refugees receive is not adequate. It’s an amount less than what social welfare provides, which is considered the minimum support to stay alive.”
Around 9,500 asylum seekers currently live in Berlin, an increase of about 3,000 in the past two years. “The numbers are growing,” said Monika Lüke, Berlin's commissioner for Integration and Migration, "but I also sometimes feel there is a hysteria that shouldn’t be there” around the issue of refugees.
Lüke said that the Senate along with the Berlin Office for Health and Social Affairs are working to meet the demands of increased numbers of refugees seeking adequate living conditions. The quality of Berlin’s shelters are comparable to other urban areas of Germany, she added, and the Senate has the formal objective of helping transit refugees out of shelters and into rented apartments.
Asylum seekers have the right to reside at a refugee center for up to three months upon entry to Germany. After that, in Berlin at least, they are supposed to receive rented accommodation while they await a decision on their legal status. But it doesn't always work out that way.
According to Martina Mauer with the Berlin Refugee Council, finding available social housing for refugees is more of a theory than anything. “In practice we have the problem that refugees won't find flats,” she said. “The housing market has changed a lot in the last few years. Now it's almost impossible to find a flat that corresponds to the criteria of the social authorities.”
To meet the influx of asylum seekers, the Berlin Office for Health and Social Affairs has created temporary shelters in former schools, hospitals and even police stations. But Mauer says these buildings do not meet minimum standards – some don't even have proper beds, using Red Cross mattresses instead.
“More people come to Berlin because it’s the capital, and they want to stay here because it’s got a good infrastructure of lawyers and advisers,” said Mauer. “There are also communities of almost every nationality. That’s why they arrive here, but they’re not allowed to stay. We’ve got a quota system, and people will be distributed [throughout] Germany.”
According to Lüke, only around 30 percent of asylum seekers have had their status approved in Germany. And though the Berlin government has publicly stated it supports the refugees' rights, Lüke said their demands have been left hanging for years -- long before the occupation took root in October. So far, legislation has not been drafted at any level of government.
At Oranienplatz, the camp continues to exude a hopeful spirit with a well-organized team of volunteers and activists who address the press, distribute information and cook meals with food donated by local organizations and individuals. Berliners drop by at all hours to socialize with the refugees in their tents, and thousands have stood in solidarity beside them at numerous protests and demonstrations that have taken place since the autumn.
One of the refugees here, Coucou Noel, is from Togo. Before joining the occupation in Berlin, Coucou had been living in Rostock, a northern German city close to the Baltic Sea, where he says the conditions of the refugee camps were poor. He felt discrimination on the streets of Rostock and even from employees of the detention center and social services, which he claims continue to marginalize the refugees. But Berlin is more tolerable, said Coucou. Most refugees seemed to agree.
“I’m quite amazed when I compare Berlin to other cities in Germany,” said Ahmed. “I think people in Berlin are more friendly and more helpful, we get a lot of support. They understand why we are here.”
Many of the refugees at Oranienplatz believe that the corrupt conditions of their home countries can be partly attributed to the foreign policies of western nations. And now they’ve come here asking for help.
“We want to stay until the government decides something positive, because people suffered a long time,” said Coucou. “People don’t want to return to their camps, some would rather die than be deported. If they go home they cannot have peace, they will be killed. Our decision is to continue our action until the government decides something.”
But, facing a federal government that is slow to change the law books, the refugees living in the central Berlin square may experience a winter occupation that becomes a spring one.