Berlin, Germany – Hakim Bello doesn’t like to be called a refugee, because that implies he’s from somewhere else and you’re from here, and the one has nothing to do with the other.
Originally from Nigeria, he lived in Libya for six years until 2011, when the uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – and the subsequent NATO intervention – made life there untenable for black Africans like him, who became the target of racist attacks.
Like thousands of others, he crossed the Mediterranean by boat, landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he was transferred between reception centres “like a business toy”, before being released. Now, the 32-year-old explains all this perched on a park bench in Berlin, outside the protest camp he has called home for the past year. “They say I’m illegal,” Hakim says. “So I’m putting it in their face: I’m illegal.”
Since late 2012, the camp at Berlin’s Oranienplatz – a collection of around 30 large tents, adorned with slogans such as “We are here” and “Kein mensch ist illegal” (No one is illegal) – has been home to up to 200 refugees from different parts of the world. At first, the protest was local and specific: Under the German system, refugees who claim asylum are housed collectively in disused schools and warehouses, often in remote suburbs and small towns.
In comparison to the amount of refugees received by states like Lebanon, for example, Germany should have no problem coping with the current number of asylum claims.
Many complain about the resulting isolation, compounded by delays in processing their claims. During this period, travel restrictions prevent them from leaving the towns they are sent to. The march to Berlin publicly defied this rule.
Symbol of indifference
The camp’s presence has become a headache for city authorities, who have split along party lines. The mayor of Kreuzberg, the district in which Oranienplatz sits, is a member of the Green Party and has said the camp should not be cleared by force. But the interior minister in Berlin’s Senate, a member of the centre-right CDU, has taken a harder line – while one of his centre-left colleagues has led efforts to negotiate a compromise.
So far, the camp has stayed – and as word of it spread among refugees across Europe, it has become a symbol of what many see as indifference to their fate. “I was pleased to hear they were doing something,” says Hakim, who was living in the south of Italy when he first heard about the protest.
Isolation is only one problem that refugees in Germany face. A few kilometres east of Oranienplatz, in the outlying suburb of Hellersdorf, a former school that now houses refugee families has become the focus of a racist backlash. Some residents of this deprived, largely white suburb, held protests against the housing project.
These were then co-opted by the far-right NPD party last summer, leading to clashes between far-right and anti-fascist demonstrators. Oranienplatz, too, has become a target for violence: A month ago, unknown assailants burned down the camp’s toilet block and tried to start a fire in one of the tents.
Such incidents remain limited, but Germany’s asylum system is feeling the pressure as it experiences a sharp rise in the number of applications. In 2013, according to the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), there were more than 127,000 requests, up from 77,561 in 2012, and the highest level since 1999. A spokesperson for BAMF told Al Jazeera the agency has increased its staffing to cope with extra demand, and that the coalition government formed after last September’s general election aims to process all asylum claims within three months.
|Two young people hold up a poster reading ‘Right of abode for all’ in Berlin, Germany, in February [EPA]|
The rise in demand is partly driven by events such as the conflict in Syria. Most applicants come from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Chechnya.
But according to Franziska Vilmar from Amnesty International’s Berlin office, the increased pressure also shows that the Dublin system – the EU-wide set of agreements intended to regulate asylum applications – “doesn’t work any longer”.
In theory, it’s supposed to be the responsibility of the EU country where the refugee first arrives to process the asylum claim.
As crisis-hit states such as Greece and Italy struggle to cope with demand, increasing numbers of refugees are making their way to wealthier northern European countries. But the number remains small when put in a global context.
“In comparison to the amount of refugees received by states like Lebanon, for example, Germany should have no problem coping with the current number of asylum claims,” says Vilmar.
come to my country and act like a king and I come here and you won’t even let me work. I am not a bad person, but this makes me an angry African.”]
Need a job
Some claim asylum in Germany; others like Hakim just want permission to find work. “Italians come to Berlin to find work, but we have to stay in Italy?” He points out that people in the camp have skills – clothes-making, engineering – that could be put to good use.
“You [Europeans] come to my country and act like a king and I come here and you won’t even let me work. I am not a bad person, but this makes me an angry African.”
The posters and leaflets that plaster the information tent at Oranienplatz state that Europe has a responsibility to people from countries it once colonised. “We are here because of the Berlin Conference of 1884,” says one, referring to the summit that launched Europe’s “scramble for Africa”.
Around them, everyday life goes on: Outside one tent, some inhabitants have set up a makeshift barber’s shop and are shaving each other’s heads.
But, Hakim says, after more than a year, people are tired. An increasing number are prepared to accept the Berlin Senate’s offer of housing nearby in return for clearing Oranienplatz. Hakim, who has been taking part in negotiations, says he thinks a deal could be imminent.
For him, it’s not just about housing. “We are doing this to gain the right to live and work like human beings,” he explains. “Of course it’s a bad option for us to stay in the tents – it’s noisy, it smells bad, it’s cold at night and there are rats – but at least you are seen. If you leave, nobody hears you.”
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