You are here

The VOICE Online on Why Felix Otto Is In Prison: A Thesis on Colonial Injustice and Crimes Against Humanity in Germany

The VOICE Online on Felix Otto's Imprisonment:

Fax Campaign for the Immediate Freedom of Felix Otto from Deportation Prison:
Information in Deutsch und English Neu Faxkampagne against deportation

Why Felix Otto Is In Prison: A Thesis on Colonial Injustice and Crimes Against Humanity in Germany


For many people living outside of Europe or the United States, countries like Germany are all too often seen as a sort of paradise, a place where human rights and dignity are respected and where people are entitled to the basic amenities of a right to life (access to employment, education, housing, basic social services, etc.). Moreover, the idea is both understood and propagated that, contrary to many countries of Africa, Asia or Latin America, all people are treated equally and discrimination, if it exists, is kept to a minimum.

In fact, laws even exist on a European level which make discrimination of people based on their race or heritage, among other aspects, a violation of both European and, as a result, national law. Even the very first article of Germany's national constitution states, "Human dignity is unassailable…"

Yet as millions of people from all over the world have come to realize, the promise of rights and dignity have proven to be nothing more than a bitter illusion; yet another lie, another broken promise in a long chain of abuses and injustices which have characterized the relationship between Europe and the United States with the rest of the world.

For instance, Germany is considered to be a country which supposedly represents both the best and worst of Europe; worst for its role in the Holocaust and the targeted elimination of millions of human beings throughout the European Continent and best for having overcome that legacy, confronted its past and created a new role for itself as a primary defender of human rights throughout the world.

Yet as we will see in the article below, either these principles are simply not applied or, as in the case of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, certain groups of people were not the intended beneficiary of such efforts at ensuring that the dignity and humanity of all human beings be respected as unassailable.

In this particular case we will be focusing on the issue of Residenzpflicht, also known as the Obligatory Residence Law. On the books since 1982, Germany is currently the only European country to apply this law to asylum-seekers. Much more than a law to determine the residence of asylum-seekers, Residenzpflicht is used as a weapon of repression to control the movement of asylum-seekers and ensure that they remain intimidated into staying in their designated places of residence or be punished for not doing so.

One example is the case of Felix Otto. Otto is an African asylum-seeker from Cameroon.

With the direct economic, political and military support from his European masters, dictator Paul Biya has ruthlessly ruled Cameroon, Otto's country of birth, since 1982. Opposition to his regime is constantly met with brutal repression. As such, Cameroon is not a democracy by Western or any other standards. The Cameroonian government robs the people of their rights and uses murder, torture and imprisonment under inhumane conditions, among other measures, to persecute anyone who dare protest their injustice (or simply for being caught by the police for even the most minor infractions).

Felix Otto fled from his government in search of his right to life. Instead, however, Otto landed in Germany, where he applied for asylum. Because Germany only grants the right to asylum to less than 1% of all asylum-seekers, Otto received the same treatment as many other refugees; his asylum application was rejected as "obviously unfounded" and the authorities determined that it was both safe and correct to deport Otto back to the hands of Paul Biya.

In the meantime, while Otto and 99% of all other refugees await deportation, they are not allowed to work and, in practical terms, they are forbidden to study (with the exception of children). They are restricted to a life of eternal "eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping" in their designated refugee camps (described by many as "open air prisons" or "concentration camps"). In addition, asylum-seekers are not allowed to travel even 10 meters outside of their districts without prior authorization from the authorities. Permission is almost never given.

The law which regulates this restriction of movement is known as Residenzpflicht or the Obligatory Residence Law.

Now, Felix Otto has been sentenced to 8 months in prison for having violated a law which no German could ever even be even accused of having violated; eight months imprisonment for not obeying a law which is designed to isolate and destroy him. Nevertheless, rather than being punished for the crime of having taken advantage of his right to freedom of movement, Otto has been condemned to prison for the crime of having sought asylum in Germany in the first place.

A Universal Condemnation?

When many U.S. Americans and Europeans look towards Cuba they often times criticize the island's government for its human rights abuses and its people's lack of freedom. "It is a dictatorship," say many. Most horrendous of all, so the island's critics, is the fact that the country's inhabitants are denied their freedom of movement.

After receiving political, military and economical support for many decades, both resistance of the oppressed Black South Africans and a worldwide campaign against the abdominal racist practices of the government and its white supporters finally forced Western governments to distance themselves from the criminal practices of the Apartheid regime. Among the most important aspects of repression and destruction of Black South African culture was the banishment of Blacks to bantunstans. Not only did these bantunstans serve the purpose of isolating and enclosing the population into ghettos, it also made it possible to control their freedom of movement.

In Germany, a country devastated by its own racist ideologies and the war that it largely caused, the Jewish population was rounded up and, long before the creation of the Final Solution, banished to ghettos. It was considered a crime for Jews to move outside of their assigned districts, and they could be punished for doing so by fines or imprisonment. As laid out by Raul Hilberg, author of "The Destruction of the European Jews," the creation of the ghetto had five main purposes:

1) The prevention of social contact between Jews and Germans

2) The creation of a Jewish administrative buearocracy

3) Measures of identification

4) The restriction of possible places of residence

5) The regulation of freedom of movement.

In the aftermath of WWII, Germany eventually became a country divided between diverse occupying powers, with England, the United States and France controlling the western part of German territory and the former Soviet Union the eastern half. In the midst of what falsely came to be known as the Cold War (falsely because the term implies a détente when in reality tens of millions of peoples throughout the Cold War paid with their lives the war which Europe and the United States denominated "cold"), an ideological battle took place in which, in the Western-controlled world at least, the people were told that among the many freedoms denied to the East German population was the fact that they were not free to journey outside of their country. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans from both sides of the divide celebrated the freedom to travel between the formerly disunited Germanys.

In the name of human rights, all of these cases in which people's right to freely move within or outside of their territories (eventually, depending on the victim) received condemnation on the part of western governments and their societies, even if it first required mass elimination, as in the case of Europe, or a sustained resistance and global condemnation from below, as in the case of South Africa.

Human Rights for all?

The genocide and destruction of WWII led Western powers to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, among other human rights protections. These documents were designed to protect at risk populations from persecution and, if persecuted, to allow them the right to seek exile in foreign nations. Among other aspects, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the United States and all European countries are signatories to, provides:

Article 1
· All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 7
· All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.
Article 8
· Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
Article 9
· No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 13
· (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
Article 14
· (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
In addition, Article 1 of the Convention as amended by the 1967 Protocol provides the definition of a refugee:
"A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it…"

Although created in large part as a response to the Nazi atrocities and the need to prevent such crimes in the future, these so-called universal rights were continuously and consistently denied to almost all non-white peoples (i.e. all those colonized by Europe and the United States). Concretely, the universality of human rights was denied to the very same people who for centuries had suffered the consequences of a genocidal colonial enterprise in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Indeed, we musn't forget that as of 1914 Europe and the United States had direct control over more than 85% of world territory and most of Africa wouldn't gain independence for approximately another half a century thereafter.

Yet with a realignment of international power relations and borders in the aftermath of WWII, world migratory patterns, until that time primarily from the colonizing countries to those of the colonized, forced many people throughout the so-called "Third World" to flee the economic, political, economic and social wars being carried out in their countries by foreign powers under the pretext of the "Cold War."

Globalization and Modern Day Batustans

Although specific to Germany, the Residenzpflicht must be seen within the context of a wider trend on a global level in which people's right to freedom of movement is not only taken away from them but is used as a reason for increasing repressive measures both at home and abroad. In order to understand the implications of such a barbaric law in Germany it is crucial that it be placed in its proper historical context; only then will it be possible to situate the crime being committed against Felix Otto as a racialized crime against humanity.

The relationships we maintain today between peoples and cultures are not dislocated from the past. The fact that, for instance, colonialism officially ended by no means implies that the structures, methods and ideologies which sustained it for so many centuries have simply disappeared. What many people tend to forget, especially those who have reaped the benefits of these unjust relations, is that colonialism and slavery do not belong to some isolated events of an unfortunate yet bygone era.

On the one hand, colonialism as we know it only formally ended on the African Continent in the second half of the 20th Century. It was not until after WWII that many African nations gained, through struggle, their independence. For its part, South African Apartheid was not defeated until 1994. More importantly, however, whereas colonialism via direct occupation was finally abolished, the practices and relationships which characterized colonialism continue to exist until this very day.

On the other hand, an analysis of the historical migration processes demonstrate perhaps more than anything else the way in which injustices such as the Residenzpflicht in Germany prove to be a continuation of colonial injustice. Although obviously overly simplified, world migration since the time of slavery and colonialism has looked like this:

Fleeing famine and disease (what governments today describe as "economic refugees" not worthy of asylum), and in the quest for gold and other riches, Europeans began to expand and colonize the world. In some places, like North, Central and South America, the indigenous populations were forcibly displaced from their lands and either murdered, enslaved or forced onto what in South Africa were known as batustans. In other places, like Africa, displacement was not always as significant. Still, the white colonizers took over all of the best lands and natural resources, controlled the government and, more importantly, the military.

As countries increasingly began to free themselves from direct colonial control throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, the nature of their now "independent" governments depended on the type of relationship they established with their former colonial masters. In general, if the leaders of these newfound (and sometimes newly created) states continued to follow the dictates of their former aggressors, anti-nationalist policies were followed and the natural resources were sold off to Western countries. If, on the other hand, those countries sought off on their own, autonomous path, they often suffered economic boycotts, military interventions and coup d'états.

However the model and with very few exceptions the results proved almost unanimously the same: the people were forced off of their lands through war and starvation and rather than direct the resources necessary to strengthen national infrastructure and basic necessities of any society, these human rights were systematically sacrificed to pay for bloated military budgets and nefarious foreign debts (dual warfare). At the same time, the diverse national economies, at least those affiliated with capitalism and the model dictated by the United States, focused the majority of their economic energies on exporting raw goods (wood, oil, gold, copper, cobalt, cacao, fruits, etc.) to the United States and the major European markets. In exchange, these countries imported finished products such as gasoline, Nescafé and processed foods.

As a result of these disastrous and anti-human policies, more and more people were forced to flee their countries in search of the right to life. Consequently, the oh so generous Western countries that developed such noble ideas as the Declaration of Human Rights quickly began to modify their national policies to restrict the movement of those people escaping from the colonized countries to seek refugee in the West. Concretely, visa requirements were toughened, the right to asylum was systematically deteriorated to the point of nonexistence and politicians and the media continuously attempted to carry out hate campaigns against refugees and migrants, describing them as a burden to the social system and potential dangers to society.

The consequence of these policies can be seen in gruesome detail today: whether in the deserts of North America or in the waters of the Mediterranean, thousands of human beings are being murdered by the European and U.S. American border regimes each year as they make their perilous journeys to the criminal illusion known as "paradise"; the victims of more than five hundred years of sustained plunder, the colonized of the world are increasingly forced to remain in their countries with no hope of obtaining the right to life neither at home nor abroad; millions of people are forced to a life without papers, so-called "illegals" whoa are treated as criminals for having managed to overcome the militarized barriers that have been put in their wayd and subsequently deprived of even the most basic human rights, and; hundreds of millions of refugees left without any real protection and without anywhere to call home, persecuted no matter where they go, etc.

Would so much human tragedy had happened and continue to happen if the victims would have been white?

The Obligatory Residence Law in Germany

Back in the days of National Socialist rule in Germany and a large part of Europe, practices were put in place to control the so-called inferior populations. For example, all Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing. Because these people often proved indistinguishable from those who professed to belong to a mythical Aryan race, the yellow star made it easy for both the police and population to identity the Jews.

Yet while all of this is true, a law still exists today in Germany which prohibits those considered refugees to move outside of their assigned districts. Known as Residenzpflicht or Obligatory Residence Law, it has been in place in its current form in Germany since 1982. Because it is applied almost exclusively to people of dark skin, i.e. non-whites, no colored star is needed for the purpose of identification (or ostracism).

The authorities claim that this law is necessary so that they may keep track of where the asylum-seekers are in case they are called for court or are to be deported. More than a law that establishes residence, however, the true purpose of the law is to restrict the movement of asylum-seekers in Germany. To enforce Residenzpflicht, German police patrol all major train and bus stations as well as the immediate "border" areas between two districts.

More concretely, a simplified story looks something like this:

X. risks everything and makes the difficult journey to Germany in search of survival and the right to life. Upon entering the country, he is immediately subject to fingerprinting and likely imprisonment until he is distributed to some refugee camp (i.e. open air prison) somewhere in Germany. Often times these camps are located in old military barracks of the former East Germany military and, as such, are isolated sites in the middle of forests.

Not allowed to work and provided with no possibility to study the German language, X is told that he must remain in his assigned district until his asylum case is over and that he may not leave it without prior permission from the authorities. Where X lives there is no one else from his country. He is given food coupons instead of cash to purchase all food items. Already traumatized from being forced to leave behind family and friends and make the perilous journey to an unknown country, X becomes severely depressed.

He finally establishes contact with people from his country living in another city, who invite him to come visit for a few days in order to relax and get away from the camp. Not wanting to endanger his asylum application, X goes to the foreigners' office to request permission to visit his friends. Because he has never been allowed to study German, his ability to communicate with the case workers at the office is extremely hindered, something not helped by the fact that those who work there insist that only German may be spoke (even if they speak one of his colonial languages such as French, English or Spanish).

In a rude tone of voice and using many words X cannot decipher, he has been made to understand this: He is not a tourist in Germany but here to seek asylum. Consequently, he cannot visit his friends and will only be given permission if it is an emergency or to see his lawyer; he should leave the office now so as to not jeopardize his asylum claim.

However, X can no longer take the monotony of the open-air prison, the abuses of the employees that work there, the severe depression of all of the other "open air prisoners." He decides it is better to go and visit his friends than to go crazy in such a cruel place. X makes his first journey outside of his district, unaware of what awaits him.

X arrives at the first train station where he has 5 minutes to find his connection. Voices come over the loudspeaker spitting out incomprehensible words in German. X is confused and tries to ask someone for help but just gets looked upon with hatred. Not knowing what to do, he starts walking down the stairs in order to find the lobby and where he is supposed to change trains. People are everywhere and as he is about to walk down the stairs he is suddenly approached by two police officers: "Ausweis!" X doesn't understand what is being said to him nor why they are being so overtly aggressive. ""Ausweis! Geb uns doch dein Passport!"

X. is scared and does not know what to do. He thinks they want to see his papers but is unsure as to why. He hasn't done anything wrong. Still, the train station if full of people and they have only approached him. X finally hands over his German identification paper (his passport was taken by the Foreigners' Office upon his arrival to Germany) and after a few minutes is put in the back of a police car where he will wait for his next train. He will, however, not be visiting his friends; he is being sent back to his open-air prison where he will await his punishment for having left his assigned district without permission.

X.'s aslyum proceedings take several years. In that time, the routine of eating and sleeping becomes intolerable. X. makes many trips outside of his assigned district, no longer even asking permission after having it denied on so many occasions. Though not as frequently as he travels, the total amount of fines X is required to pay for the "crime" of having escaped from his camp now reach into the hundreds of euros. Not allowed to work and surviving on 40 euros a month in cash, X. must now choose between forced labor at the camp or imprisonment.

After years of the same, his only status in Germany that of gedultet (which simply means that his presence in Germany will be "tolerated" until his final deportation can be arranged), the German government determines that his aslyum application is "obviously unfounded" and that it is safe for him to return home. He is finally deported back to his home country. In the end, X loses many years of his precious life for nothing. During his entire time in Germany, X. was not allowed to work or study. Handcuffed and accompanied by two police officers, X. is forcibly returned to his country without any money and eternally scarred by the trauma of his inhumane treatment in democratic Germany.

Free Felix Otto!

The double standard of Western societies in proclaiming human rights and promoting anti-discrimination laws strongly contradicts the reality of still continuing to (mis)treat people of the colonized world as if they were sub-humans who, more than 500 years after the advent of European colonialism, still do not deserve the same rights as accorded to the colonizers.

At the same time, Germany's incredible racist policies are provoking a situation in which society is drifting more and more to the right and millions of human beings like Felix Otto are being presented with a clear message: you are not welcome here. If you stay we will punish and destroy you until you either leave or we force you out.

We are all, without exception, the product of a brutal system of exploitation and oppression that has affected our lives and our mentalities. We are all bound to these chains of horror unleashed with slavery and colonialism and from which we are still not free. No one is free from this, we are simply bound to the horror from different positions.

Yet however different the perspectives may be, until we confront ourselves, our position on the chains and the completely unnecessary human suffering which it all causes, until we truly unite on both sides of the chain and, in spite of the odds, do our best to break it, we will continue our relationship of aggressor and victim, colonizer and colonized. In the meantime, Felix Otto will not only remain in prison; he will be followed by thousands of people just like him.

Where to begin?

Free Felix Otto!

Felix Otto must be freed. Everyday he spends in prison is not only another day robbed from his life but another day the chains forced upon him continue to eat at our collective soul. His imprisonment is a crime against humanity and, because this inhumane German law is only applied to non-whites (and in some cases, Eastern Europeans, who have traditionally been considered inferior), it can and should be characterized as a racialized crime, i.e. a crime based on the color of a person's skin.

His imprisonment is not due to any democratic or just procedure of a country in which human rights are respected. Instead, the German government is enforcing racist policies intended to make it legal and accepted to perform police controls on people who have the appearance of violating this horrific law, i.e. all non-white people, in particular blacks.

Rather than move forward into a new era in which the burden of slavery and colonialism are an important reminder of human justice and barbarity, policies like the Residenzpflicht inflict the painful truth that this mentality and these practices never ended but were simply transformed.

How long will we allow this to continue?

*Residenzpflicht appeal - The Fight against the Residence Obligation Law in Germany
*Residenzpflicht: Refugees and migrants are victims and survivors of the intolerance
*More Texts in English

*Residenzpflicht: Dt. / Eng.
Deutsch Text - Translation of "Why Felix Otto Is In Prison: A Thesis on Colonial Injustice and Crimes Against Humanity in Germany"
*Weshalb Felix Otto im Gefängnis ist: Eine Abhandlung über koloniales Unrecht und Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit in Deutschland