Hussain has spent seven years learning German. He speaks it quickly and confidently when among his friends at social gatherings in the busy Kreuzberg district of Berlin. He considers Germany home.
But the authorities don’t want him here. Since fleeing from Pakistan to Germany seven years ago, Hussain has sought asylum, but each effort has been blocked by the courts.
“I have German friends here who say ‘Hussain, how can they reject someone like you?’ The authorities know all my habits, and no-one can understand why I haven’t been granted asylum,” he says.
“I am sensible – I have learned the language and I have tried my best to integrate into German society, and I want to work.”
“I’m disheartened. I am not a thief or a terrorist.”
Hussain is waiting for a decision on a fresh asylum claim, this time based on ill health. He says it has been triggered by the stress of his experience living as an asylum seeker in Germany.
His experience is not unique. Human rights organisations say there are hundreds of asylum seekers in Germany who are suffering from depression after years of life in limbo.
“We have thousands of people living in camps or facilities that have a camp-like character, with many people living in one room and no privacy,” says Karl Kopp, director of Pro Asyl, an asylum advocacy group in Frankfurt.
“You have people from different countries in there, and sometimes it’s not a good mix.”
“It can get very isolated.”
“You are then not allowed any freedom of movement. You need permission to leave the district to which you are transferred.”
Germany is one of the preferred destinations for people fleeing violence or persecution in their native countries. Many are from countries shaken by the popular Arab Awakenings. Pro Asyl says, Syria is currently the number one country of origin among those seeking asylum in Germany. As of June 2012, more than 3,400 Syrians are living in the country under a “Duldung” status, meaning they are “tolerated” to stay temporarily.
Yet more than 2,100 Syrian asylum seekers have spent more than six years in Germany with a “Duldung” status.
“We have shared rooms. Some are for three or four people. There’s no privacy, and at times I have had to live with someone whose mentality I don’t understand.”
German authorities recently took a few steps to ease conditions for asylum seekers. In July the country’s constitutional court ruled they should receive the same welfare payments and services as those granted to German nationals. More than 130,000 asylum seekers and refugees had their welfare allowances raised to $459 per month, from $275 a month.
The court also ruled that foreigners – including those seeking asylum in Germany – are entitled to “a minimum level of participation in social, cultural and political life”. But Hussain says he is being denied this, pointing to the lack of sensitivity, privacy and flexibility offered by the German authorities.
He was active for years as a liberal political activist in Karachi, before working as a railway engineer for Siemens. In 2000 he quit his job and moved to northwestern Pakistan, where he set up an internet cafe and worked with activists to promote education among his neighbours.
Within months he was threatened by Islamic fundamentalists who wanted him to shut down his business. After narrowly escaping separate gun and grenade attacks against him, he moved to Islamabad and worked with a friend on a series of festivals in hotels and markets. But once again he was threatened, this time by individuals associated with the Lal Masjid, also known as the Red Mosque. They said they knew about his previous business in the northwest.
After nearly two years of living underground with no direct contact with his wife and children, and fearing for his life, he fled Pakistan for Germany in 2005. He has since lived in a complex for asylum seekers in Brandenburg, about 60km from Berlin.
“We have shared rooms. Some are for three or four people. There’s no privacy, and at times I have had to live with someone whose mentality I don’t understand,” he says.
“I spent my first three years with another person in one room”. The room is about 10 to 15 feet. The kitchen and bathrooms are also shared.
“For two years I was alone in my room after my roommate was sent back home, but they then sent me someone else from Pakistan. For the last four or five years we have lived in the same room.
“I asked the manager of the house ‘why send new refugees to me? Privacy is important to me.’ The manager said ‘you are both from Pakistan, so you have a lot in common’. But people are killing each other in Pakistan!”
Asylum seekers who stay in Germany for a protracted period of time are eventually allowed to look for work, but many find their status as an impediment to their efforts towards finding a job.
“Hussain has had an exhausting and uncertain seven years, and wonders what else he has to do to convince the German authorities to let him stay.“
“They are prohibited from working during their first year here, and after that they’ll only get permission to work if there is no German or EU citizen who can do a particular job,” says Martina Mauer from the Berlin Refugee Council.
“In Berlin the labour market is very tough, so there is always a German citizen who will get the job.”
Hussain has spent years trying to find work in Brandenburg and Berlin. He thought his experience as a railway engineer and his fluency in German would be valued when applying for Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company.
“I was close to getting a job here – but the condition was that they couldn’t offer a job on the railways until I went for training,” he says.
“The authorities told me ‘you aren’t allowed to do this job’. They said ‘you have to work, not study’, and said that training would cost too much. I offered to pay for the training in installments after getting a job, but they wouldn’t agree.”
Kopp says there must be changes in policy to ensure the “minimum level” of integration that the constitutional court has ruled. He says human rights groups, trade unions and church groups have to work together and push for improvements in welfare for asylum seekers – particularly those with a “tolerated” status who are not allowed to work.
“Many politicians agree with us, and would say ‘if people stay here in our country more than five years and then have children in our country, we cannot just treat them as having a tolerated status’,” he says.
“So let us start earlier with the integration, otherwise you’ll pay later. If you destroy a person’s will to learn and be an active member of society by keeping them for ten years in a camp, they get ill. It’s good for everybody if you do things rationally, based on knowledge and dignity.”
Hussain has had an exhausting and uncertain seven years, and wonders what else he has to do to convince the German authorities to let him stay. He feels he has tried his utmost to integrate by learning the language and looking for work, but says his efforts have been frustrated at every turn – and his potential is being wasted.
“Three or four years ago, I had so much motivation. I have six or seven languages, I am totally qualified to integrate in Germany. I’ve lost everything in Pakistan – family, friends, job – and I fear for my life if I go back there,” he says.
“Now that I have built a tiny something here, they say I have to go back.”