A group of 57 refugees, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, have pushed the plight of the more than 100,000 asylum seekers in Germany into the national spotlight.
In September, they rejected regulations that constrain their movement and began a long march to the German capital, Berlin. They came from as far as Wuerzburg, a Bavarian town in Germany’s south. Some of them completed the 600 kilometre journey on foot over 29 days.
Arriving in early October, the refugees and scores more German supporters established a tent city in the Berlin suburb of Kreuzberg.
A contingent of asylum seekers later held a hunger strike near the Reichstag (German parliament house) under the iconic Brandenburg Gate.
For days, police tried to clear protesters from this major tourist location. They confiscated everything down to the protesters' sleeping bags ― adding freezing cold to the hunger strikers' deprivations.
Nevertheless, the asylum seekers stood firm and won a meeting with the Interior Committee of the German parliament to raise their demands.
The protesters are calling for a halt to deportations, full rights to work in Germany and an end to a system of assigning asylum seekers to discrete parts of the country and issuing them fines if they leave this location.
They also demand the abolition of asylum seeker camps which they say isolate refugees from the rest of the community, leave them vulnerable to fascist attacks and have been described by one Greens parliamentarian as “catastrophic, unsustainable and inhumane”.
Other issues include the many years refugees often wait to gain asylum only to be in most cases rejected, in addition to “one euro jobs”, a system that circumvents restrictions on asylum seekers working in Germany ― provided they do it for one euro an hour.
Asylum seeker advocates say their treatment fails to live up to Germany’s international legal obligations and is inhumane because it denies them basic freedoms related to movement, work, security and cultural development.
These conditions contributed to the suicide of one asylum seeker in Germany earlier this year and led to scenes, familiar to Australians, of refugees sewing their mouths shut to protest their situation.
At the November 22 meeting between refugee activists and the Interior Committee of the German parliament, all the demands of the refugees were rejected.
Activists at the meeting also said spokespeople from the two largest political parties in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, only sought to discuss the individual cases of the asylum seeker representatives present.
“They tried to bribe us with passports,” said Yahya Fall, a Mauritanian asylum seeker involved with the Kreuzberg tent city.
However, some asylum seekers said that the meeting took place at all was a significant achievement. This meeting, along with the protest actions that led up to it, have helped bring unprecedented national media coverage to the issues facing asylum seekers in Germany.
Efforts to reach out to and organise asylum seekers across Germany have also increased because of this movement. This has involved more visits to asylum seeker camps by refugee activists and wider distribution and translation of the information they’ve produced.
The long march of asylum seekers across the country to Berlin has also brought them in contact with many more Germans, undermining the policy of isolation. The march included demonstrations at towns across Germany of hundreds and sometimes thousands of supporters.
Acts of solidarity by Germans are constantly evident at the Kreuzberg tent city. There is a regular flow of offerings made by passers-by, from winter jackets to deliveries of piping hot pastries and money donations.
The protest site has become a fairly sophisticated organising centre, dealing with everything from political strategy to a shower roster for refugees in nearby supporters’ houses.
Refugee activists have also had visible contingents at recent Berlin protests. These have included protests against alleged police and state security collaboration with the fascist National Socialist Underground who murdered at least nine mainly Turkish immigrant over the past decade; in solidarity with the south of Europe’s anti-austerity general strike; and in opposition to Israel's war on Gaza.
Fall said the campaign’s next steps involve “organising buses ... out to the villages and talking to the people” to help broaden the movement. They are also seeking to maintain the tent city base in Berlin.
In the context of the threat of fines and even deportation, as well as an impending Berlin winter, this will be no small task. So far, the steadfastness of these refugees has been unfaltering.