Painting banners in Berlin's Oranienplatz square
Painting banners in Berlin's Oranienplatz square
Constanze von Bullion

BERLIN — A refugee slams a briefcase down on the table, snaps it open and takes out a series of plastic cards. “Here,” he says, “health card from Italy, residence permit, identity card. We have everything. Our asylum cases are complete. We’re allowed to move around in Europe, but we’re not allowed to work, not at all.”

It is Thursday morning in the Berlin district of Wedding. We are in a former retirement home that is now run by charity organization Caritas, and houses 80 refugees. Almost all are men from African countries. Many made the perilous journey from Libya to Lampedusa, and from there were sent on an odyssey through Europe. They were most recently living in tents on Oranienplatz square in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, protesting against deportations and unfair asylum laws.

Those asylum seekers who are still waiting for approval are not allowed to work. For those who do have papers, their efforts to find employment are thwarted by a lack of language courses and strict laws governing their movements. In Germany, refugees are subject to residency regulations that require them to remain within the area governed by a particular local authority, so they cannot go further afield to find work.

Inconsistencies in asylum policy across the EU, coupled with disagreements between northern and southern members over the number of refugees each country is expected to accept, have caused conflict since the Lampedusa disaster. And it seems that the EU is no closer to finding a solution.

Because the weather is turning cold and there are signs of trouble, Caritas has taken in the refugees. The tents, on the other hand, have been left behind, and have become a flashpoint in Berlin politics.

The left-wing scene in Kreuzberg seems to be prepared for conflict over the camp in the Oranienplatz square. They want it to be dismantled within a few days, right down to the information tent, as the refugees have been bundled off to Wedding. But as soon as the police began taking down the tents, new refugees turned up to occupy them, along with a few hundred supporters who mounted a spontaneous demonstration. More than 30 officers were injured, with both sides using pepper spray, and now the local mayor finds herself in a difficult situation.

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Police action in Orianenplatz — Photo: Libertinus

“No border, no nation, stop deportation”

Monika Hermann hasn’t been mayor of Kreuzberg for long, but she is proving to be a tough woman. The Green politician is struggling to maintain a delicate balance as the political climate heats up. Many Berliners don’t understand why Kreuzberg is granting residence to a rising number of refugees. Asylum seekers were recently placed in an unused school, but a fight broke out and there were stabbings. Even the mayor admitted that the project had failed. As winter sets in, patience for the camp is wearing thin.

Interior Senator Frank Henkel has threatened to clear the camp if the local government doesn’t do it first. He gave a Dec. 16 deadline, saying that otherwise he would resort to using the Berlin Senate’s powers to remove the tents.

After the chaotic attempt to dismantle the camp, Mayor Hermann witnessed the refugees’ reaction first-hand on Wednesday afternoon. The local parliament was meeting in the town hall when 250 young people stormed in wearing woolly hats and holding banners. They occupied the stage and lectern, smoking and swearing as they climbed around the room and chanted, “No border, no nation, stop deportation.”

Cooperation over confrontation

The mayor tried to speak over the racket but to no avail. When one of the reporters asked her what she thought of the interior senator’s ultimatum, she replied, “The situation has not improved. It has gotten worse, and in the next few weeks it will continue to get worse.”

The mayor is sympathetic towards asylum seekers, but the Senate is more evasive. “It is an illegal situation, but we want to resolve it through cooperation rather than confrontation,” spokesperson Richard Meng said. He didn’t mention the pressure that has been added by Henkel’s ultimatum. Hermann is reluctant to try and clear the camp by force. “Should I drag people out of the tents?” she asked. “Should I send 500 people into battle? No.”

Christian Hanke, mayor of the Mitte district in Berlin, agrees that threats are not the way to resolve the situation. On Thursday he visited the retirement home where the refugees are living and spoke with some of those affected. He says that the communities are being left alone to deal with a problem that belongs to all of Europe.

Caritas director Ulrike Kostka has also had enough of the chaos. “We need strategies for dealing with this in the future,” she said. Kostka suggests setting up a round table discussion with refugees and churches involved. She says it would be possible to do it before Christmas. But it’s clear something needs to be done, and soon — because the problems with Europe’s asylum policy will not be so easy to dismantle.

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