Germany Grapples With Sexual Violence In Refugee Camps

Molested, harassed, abused: Women in refugee camps are increasingly victims of sexual violence. Authorities in Hamburg try to react.

Refugee women in Hamburg
Refugee women in Hamburg
Philipp Woldin and Jannik Schappert

HAMBURG â€" The young woman from Afghanistan was being relentlessly harassed, with men making gestures, whistling and directing other unwanted attention at her in a Hamburg refugee center. Almost 600 people are staying there, and only 87 of them are women. Another 34 are underage girls. The 20-year-old woman preferred to be on her own and rarely set foot outside. Then one day, one of the men groped her.

In cases like these, Angelika Damm, a staff member at Hamburg's women's shelter, is called in to help. The shelter is the last resort for women who don't feel safe in the container villages, and there are hundreds of stories like the young Afghan woman's. Damm says that increasing numbers of women are concerned and afraid. The Afghan is now one of seven women in the women's shelter â€" whose location is kept secret â€" who have "escaped" the refugee camp.

In the first half of this year, 11 women with 13 children sought refuge in one of Hamburg's five women's shelters, and authorities registered nine cases of sexual violence in the centers. Those figures have since risen, as Damm alone has registered two more cases since. And the number of unrecorded cases is even higher, she explains, because it's extremely difficult to convince refugee women to report anything to the police. There are both cultural barriers and fears that reporting violence might negatively affect their asylum applications.

"Many woman in those camps feel like young female students visiting a male prison," says a former camp employee. His female colleagues too were often confronted with men making offensive gestures and crude verbal suggestions. Sexual violence against refugee women has become a major issue, and it's about to become even more urgent, given the rising number of asylum seekers, which numbered 10,000 in Hamburg alone last month.

Segregated accommodations

Heike Rabe, a researcher of gender-based violence for the German Institute for Human Rights researches, detects no link between refugee camps and country of origin in terms of potential for violence. "What's happening there also happens to German women outside of refugee camps," she says.

But Rabe has identified some potentially aggravating factors in refugee camps, such as lack of privacy and limited space. "House regulations are not enough," she says. "Legal protection and education of staff members are vital so that they know how to react properly."

Authorities are aware of the issue. Isabel Said, head of victim protection for the social security office, confirms that the number of reports from women in refugee camps has continuously increased over the past few weeks and months. "Staff members are asked to pay particular attention to women traveling alone, and they are trained to quickly detect attacks," Said says.

Though authorities are now distributing information booklets in Arabic, Rabe says it’s important to "find new ways of approaching refugee women." Said stresses, meanwhile, that "the aid system from women shelters is available to any refugee woman seeking for help."

All of the victim advocates agree that separate accommodations are desperately needed, especially for women who are traveling alone. Indeed, four new shelter tents have been created, paid for with donations and offering women the privacy they need to remove their headscarves or breastfeed their babies.

After an assault

Though German lawmakers have traditionally opposed segregated accommodations, the state has begun to make concessions, perhaps because of pressure from the public. More facilities for women traveling alone with children are planned.

There is one unanswered question, though. What happens to refugee women after an assault? The answer is troubling, as officials say they've not yet developed a process for victim support.

Damm has been providing guidance to refugees for years, but this situation presents new challenges. The 1,355 women who lived in shelters in 2014 all moved to their own apartments after a couple of months. But finding housing today is more difficult given the huge numbers of asylum seekers. That's why women's shelters too might soon reach their limits.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!