Germany’s intrepid refugee helpers

Daring activists clandestinely assist refugees across borders using tactics perfected with the Berlin Wall in mind.

With roots in helping people flee communist East Germany, volunteers are now stepping up to assist refugees across Europe's borders [Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images]

Berlin, Germany – It all began when she was on a trip to northern France and stopped at “The Jungle” refugee camp in Calais and started up a conversation with a man who had fled from Eritrea.

“I realised I am here by car and I have the possibility to take someone along – and he doesn’t have any other options,” the German national told Al Jazeera.

The 28-year-old did not want her name revealed because her actions can bring criminal charges – up to 10 years’ imprisonment to be precise. She said she has helped two refugees get into Germany and one to Denmark so far. 

Refugees arriving in Munich met by welcoming crowds

Sitting in a corner of a large, empty office in Berlin, the woman recounted her experience of helping refugees enter her country.

“Of course I was worried the first time around. There is a worst-case scenario for me,” she explained.

“But there is also a worst-case scenario for the person who wants to cross the border – a completely different ballgame.” 

Her actions come against the backdrop of what has been described as the largest pool of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons since World War II.

In the first half of 2015, more than 220,000 refugees applied for asylum in Germany. Most have come from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea. 

After the German and Eritrean agreed on when and where they would meet, they later set off in her car from Calais to Berlin.

“A friend and I drove the whole night,” she said. “Since we hadn’t planned it, we were quite worried. We avoided large gas stations and only went to small villages to refill.”

When the group finally arrived at her home, she recalled how grateful the man was.

“It was nice to see how the person we took with us was so happy to have found this kind of solidarity,” she said.

‘Refugee helper’

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany will have taken in more than 800,000 asylum seekers  before the end of the year. In the last couple of days, thousands of refugees have crossed over from Hungary to Austria and then Germany – many received by cheering crowds.

The fluchthelfer promotional poster reads: 'Now become a fluchthelfer and help people have a better future' [Peng Collective]
The fluchthelfer promotional poster reads: ‘Now become a fluchthelfer and help people have a better future’ [Peng Collective]

But not all Germans feel this way. The number of refugees wanting to come to Germany has also evoked hateful reactions. According to the human rights organisation Pro Asyl, there have been 359 violent attacks against asylum seekers and their homes this year. That is more than double the number in all of 2014.

The German woman described herself as a “fluchthelferin” – translated as a “refugee helper” – a term with roots in Germany’s recent past.

Historically, a fluchthelfer – as opposed to a “schlepper” (people smuggler) – is someone who helped people flee from communist East Germany after World War II.

Many of these refugee helpers were consequently awarded the highest German civilian awards in the decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and are still perceived as heroes who assisted people to freedom.

A group of activists from the Peng Collective – inspired by the story of the 28-year-old woman and this history of a humanitarian approach towards refugees – set up the initiative. It works completely on a volunteer basis, primarily providing civilians and activists with tips on how sneak undocumented people across borders without being caught.

As of Monday the website noted 569 people had already been helped. The site also offers a “starter kit” for volunteers that includes maps of alternative border routes, a “clean phone with a new SIM card” to avoid communications surveillance, even sun visors making it difficult for authorities to see those in the back of vehicles. Most importantly, it offers advice on what to do if stopped by police.

A two-and-a-half minute video on the website is inspired by one of the experiences of the German woman who drove the Calais refugee across the border.

‘A safe way’

We want to offer these people a safe way. They don't need risk their lives in the to back of a truck.

by Max Thalbach, Peng Collective

Max Thalbach from Peng Collective told Al Jazeera about the legal controversy surrounding the initiative.

“Currently the law sees fluchthelfers as criminals, but we are confident that history books will acquit us. It’s the same with almost all movements of this sort,” he explained.

Thalbach, 26, was quick to add that before signing up to be a fluchthelfer, it’s crucial to be prepared.

Someone caught assisting a person cross European borders without proper documentation can face up to 10 years in jail on charges of human smuggling. Fines can also be imposed.

“Often the cases are dropped because it is difficult to prove intent. Nevertheless, we set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to assist with paying legal fees for the fluchthelfers,” Thalbach said.

Two fluchthelfers have been charged with human trafficking since the initiative started and are being helped by the fund.

“By criminalising those who help refugees, we are shying away from the actual problem. We do not address why people are forced to take boats or get on trucks in the first place,” Thalbach said.

“The European Union is responsible for this situation by closing all its borders to these people. We want to offer these people a safe way. They don’t need to risk their lives in the back of a truck.”

Currently, activists are working on the route between Budapest and Vienna by organising shuttle buses to help refugees get to Vienna.

“We are very happy about the current opening of borders. We hope this remains a permanent state and isn’t just an exception,” Thalbach told Al Jazeera over the phone from the border between Austria and Hungary.

RELATED: Germany vows to fight racism after attacks on refugees

One refugee from North Africa, who currently lives in a camp in Germany, shared his struggles along the arduous route to Europe. “I had to flee my home country because I had problems. My country is not democratic. If you say something wrong, they will catch you; they will put you in prison,” he said.

He has now applied for asylum in Germany and is awaiting the decision, and does not want to reveal his name. He said he would have never made it to Germany had it not been for the fluchthelfers who gave him a ride in their car from Italy.

“There are a lot of controls on buses and trains. And sometimes cars are also controlled, but your chances are better,” he said. “That’s why the help was important.”

Travelling by mass transit presents another type of hurdle for the refugees. The Dublin Regulation, controversial in that it places undue pressure on the southern European point-of-entry countries, mandates that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the country through which they first enter the EU. 


“If you get caught anywhere on the way, they take your fingerprints, and then it’s very difficult for you to apply for asylum anywhere else,” explained the young man. helped him to find solace and compassion in Europe, he said.

“I trusted those people. I was very tired because I always had to run, and I never knew what’s next. But when I travelled with the people, it was like travelling with my friends,” he said.

“I knew they could still catch us, but it is so much better if you know that people do this because they want to help you.” 

Source: Al Jazeera