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Take just about any field where postwar Germany underwent sweeping reform — women’s rights, renewable energy, gay rights, ecology, consumer protection — and you’re sure to find a grass-roots mass movement that at some point rose up and pushed tenaciously until the political establishment took notice.
In one area, though, the opposite has long been true. Germany’s callous treatment of refugees and migrants has endured for too long, in large part because refugees never managed to launch a full-scale campaign of their own. Of course, this is entirely understandable, given their condition as traumatized, powerless and destitute newcomers.
But change is on Germany’s horizon. A determined, nonviolent and civic-minded campaign led by asylum seekers is demanding humane treatment and basic rights as well as a fundamental shift in the European Union’s justly maligned refugee policies. The movement has even caught the eye of some of Germany’s politicos, including President Joachim Gauck, who on several occasions has publicly supported rethinking Germany’s and the EU’s border and refugee policies.
It is high time that a prominent European leader took on the cause, considering the 50,000 people stranded on Europe’s Mediterranean coasts in the first months of this year alone and the estimated 23,000 fatalities in transit since 1999. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 3,000 people perished heading for Europe across the Mediterranean in the first nine months of this year, more than four times as many as in all of 2013. In September 500 refugees drowned off the coast of Malta in one of the worst wrecks to date. The refugees come from western Africa, Syria, Libya, the Balkans and elsewhere — often over the Mediterranean in small boats and rafts. The U.N. forecasts that the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide in 2014 will surge beyond last year’s record mark of 51 million (an increase of 6 million over 2012). Leaders around the world would do well to absorb the dire message.
A movement takes root
Germany’s refugee movement can trace its roots to 2012, when a 29-year-old Iranian asylum seeker named Mohammad Rahsepar took his own life in a dismal refugee dorm on the outskirts of the small Bavarian city of Wurzburg. It is in such makeshift accommodations, often on the periphery of provincial towns, that refugees are instructed to wait — for months, if not years, until their requests are processed — without work, pocket money, the right to travel or language instruction. Many wind up in deportation prisons and then on one-way flights back to their war-torn homelands or another EU country. Per EU law, asylum applicants in Germany who entered the EU through another member state are sent back to that country to apply for asylum and wait there, thus relieving Germany of responsibility.
After Rahsepar’s death, Iranian refugees from the same camp issued an open letter starkly outlining the plight of those in Germany awaiting a response to their requests for political asylum:
We suffer from the lengthy review process of our applications for asylum. Not a day goes by that we don’t hope that this torture of uncertainty will end as quickly as possible. This uncertainty and the curtailment of liberty in everyday life — indeed, we’re held like prisoners — demoralizes us and drives us step by step to death. We escaped from Iran to save our lives and then sought asylum in a safe country. But in this highly developed country, the heart of Europe, which expresses its outrage every day about the human rights violations in other countries, we feel ourselves confronted with absolutely inhuman treatment.
The refugees commenced a hunger strike, which sparked other hunger strikes and protests in similar refugee compounds across Bavaria as well as in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Hamburg and elsewhere. The key demands of the movement are adequate accommodation in urban locales, speedier asylum trials, an end to transfers back to countries of entry (usually Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy), work and study permits, choice of medical care, freedom of movement, an end to the camps and deportation prison and free German-language instruction.
Many of these demands would automatically be met, argue its representatives, if asylum seekers had a different legal status in Germany. As it stands, they have none of the rights of recognized refugees or even “tolerated” refugees with temporary status, as Bosnian and Kosovar war refugees had in the 1990s. Asylum seekers have no rights until they receive either political asylum or temporary refugee status.
Today's young refugee movement has a long way to go to match the force of the women's movement or the anti-nuclear-energy campaigns — but at least now it is on the map.
The movement hasn’t let up pressure since the first hunger strikes. In September 2012, 600 refugees and activists (a hodgepodge of anti-racist groups, Protestant parishioners, student and anarcho alliances) undertook a 450-mile trek by foot from Würzburg to Berlin, where — for over a year — they occupied Oranien Square in the district of Kreuzberg, Berlin’s traditional bastion of counterculture and leftist politics. Pitching tents, they pursued rigorous negotiations with the city council, winning local and national media coverage.
In spring of 2013, more than 5,000 people across Germany, mostly in Berlin, took part in a refugee revolution demonstration. A bus tour helped spread the word, stopping in 22 cities, including Amsterdam. In Berlin this year, asylum seekers occupied a condemned school in Kreuzberg, several unoccupied houses, a trade union office and, for half a day, even the iconic TV tower restaurant perched 300 feet above Alexanderplatz. In the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, refugees squatted in Germany’s federal office for migration and refugees. In addition to protests in the Netherlands, sporadic ones in Bologna, Budapest and Vienna show the movement is not abating.
Pressuring the EU
The movement and a broader coalition of church and human rights groups are looking at the bigger picture as well, demanding an overhaul of the EU’s disastrous asylum and border policies to stem the cruel loss of life on the EU’s southern rim. The German-based refugee rights group PRO ASYL is demanding legal and safe entry possibilities for migrants in the EU, a civilian sea rescue system and reform of the 2003 EU regulation called Dublin II that automatically pins asylum seekers to their country of entry.
Gauck and others are also calling for the EU’s northern countries to step up and offer significant financial support for Italy and other nations that are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. He underscored what every economist and sociologist in Germany knows: The country needs both skilled and unskilled workers from other countries as its aging population shrinks. “We should really think about how we can break down the barriers between asylum and economic migration,” he said earlier this summer at a symposium on refugee rights.
Given the numbers, it’s high time other EU leaders embraced this reality. In the first eight months of 2014, Germany alone has received 115,737 applications for political asylum, with the number expected to rise to 200,000 by the end of the year. This is considerably more than last year’s 127,023, which was a third of all asylum applications in the EU. It is just half of what Germany registered in the early 1990s, before asylum laws were tightened — and it represents just a drop in the bucket. The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimates 3.2 million refugees have fled Syria this year alone. Most of them have wound up in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey.
Politicians across the spectrum in Germany say that the country’s unpreparedness for this many refugees must be urgently addressed but that other EU states must pull their weight too. As of September, Britain had, for example, taken in only 26 Syrian refugees. In comparison with most other EU states, Germany even looks generous.
Europe has a long way to go, as evidenced by the spectacular success of xenophobic, far-right parties in the recent EU elections. In Germany the refugee movement has strong support in multicultural Kreuzberg, but elsewhere refugees are often spit at and beaten up. Neo-Nazis have even raided their premises. Just last month, a headline-grabbing scandal in Germany’s western Rhineland region erupted when photographs emerged showing security guards from a private firm abusing refugees in a migrant shelter. The images bore an uncanny resemblance to those from the 2003 Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq.
Problems within the refugee movement have cropped up as well, endangering wide-scale support. More than one person has died on the squatted premises in Berlin — a result, it appears, of infighting. The unregulated spaces, such as the former school in Kreuzberg, have grown increasingly unpopular with locals, with the eruption of violence and unhygienic conditions.
Postwar Germany has seen narrow-mindedness on a range of topics give way as powerful mass movements pushed those issues into the limelight and opened the minds of many a burgher, bureaucrat and politico. Today’s young refugee movement has a long way to go to match the force of the women’s movement or the anti-nuclear-energy campaigns — but at least now it is on the map and a force for change.
Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.