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Reportage: The Rebels - Frankfurter Rundschau Press By Ascan Breuer

The Rebels

With “The Voice” asylum seekers have their say and fight against marginalization.

By Ascan Breuer, Frankfurter Rundschau, January 18, 2005

She came by train. It was cold and wintry and the region was shrouded in darkness. She was stranded at the train station in a strange city. But she had an address; it was “On the Forest No. 1”. She asked a few passers-by where the street was but no one knew. It seemed to her that people were avoiding her. She finally decided to take a taxi. The taxi left the city and turned onto a road leading into the woods. The driver headed up a mountain, into an endless black forest. “I asked the taxi driver where he was taking me and if he was sure this was the right way. But he just told me to be quiet. I turned my back to him so that he would not notice my frightened tears. This is how I got to the forest.”

Constance, the young woman from Cameroon, shivers when she thinks about her first impressions of Europe after her arrival two years ago. Her application for political asylum was her ticket into the depths of the Thuringian Forest. “Forst 1” was the refugee camp for asylum seekers in the Jenenser Forest. This is supposed to be her home for now, along with hundreds of other refugees from around the world. “After 15 minutes the taxi stopped,” she remembers “at the gate was a two meter high wall, crowned with barbed wire. Security was waiting there for me. They took my bag and began to rifle through it. Some of them started to ask me questions. How much money and what records do I have with me? Later they brought me to a room where I was supposed to live. Seven roommates were waiting for me. I lay down on the bed and already after two days I was not the person I used to be.”

Here in the former Soviet barracks, many months of sleep, lethargy, and depression awaited her, partitioned off in foreign solitude in the middle of an anonymous mass of other refugees. She told of a roommate who, in desperation, ate broken glass in order to end his life.

In many cases, those who seek asylum in Germany have to seek shelter for years through an elaborate procedure with an unknown outcome. Along with this comes the need for one’s consent to live in one of these homes that the refugees call “jungle camps”. They are frequently former barracks like the “Jena-Forst”. The closing of this camp in the past year is one achievement of this woman from Cameroon and her friends from “The Voice Refugee Forum”, a refugee-founded lobby.

Awoken from Sleep

When Constance first heard about this organization, it appeared like an awakening from an evil sleep, her only chance to leave this forest and lead the life that she had imagined. Eventually she got involved in politics; an African activist will not remain segregated in a European forest for long. With support from “The Voice” she began to make other refugees aware of their rights. She told them that they do not have to let themselves be forced into rotting away in the forest. She encouraged them to remember why they are here. In short, she stirred things up. The asylum law forbids the asylum seeker under threat of arrest, to leave the district without the authorization of the municipal immigration office.

The so-called ‘obligatory residence’ applies to her, making it easier for the local authorities to keep an eye on the thousands of refugees and to smoothly organize all of the aspects of the complex asylum law up to forced deportation. Constance could do nothing about her forced removal by the police from “Jena-Forst” and being shipped to another asylum home. “I do what I want. I don’t worry about them and I won’t be bullied”, her strong low voice is directed toward those responsible. “It is better to be strong. I learned that in this society. It is better if they are afraid of me than if I am afraid of them. It is the only way to survive in this society”. She is convinced.

Thus she got involved with “The Voice” and went on to find people who shared her views as well as a new will to live. She began to inform the public about the miserably unhygienic conditions at the camp, about the expired food that the refugees had to ingest, and about her mistreatment by the security officers until the reputation of the camp was fundamentally destroyed and she was unbearable for the local authorities.

“The Voice” has been fighting for the rights of asylum seekers for ten years and belongs to the small group of organizations that are organized by the refugees themselves. “The Voice” called on asylum seekers to practice civil disobedience if their travel permit is not issued and to take their right of political activity into their own hands.

One of them is Ahmed, a young Palestinian. He asks no one for a permit. For him, all of Europe is his district. Meanwhile, he has four criminal proceedings pending. It started with 22 Euros and has jumped up to either 200 Euros or 40 days in prison; he reports this with an apparent hint of pride. Paying his way out is not a question for him. Aside from the fact that he does not have the money – he gets 40 Euros a month for pocket money from the local authorities – it would be an atrocity for him to accept this “apartheid law”, as he calls it.

Fight in the Courtrooms

Cornelius from Cameroon also resists the sanctions. He has co-initiated this campaign. He was the first that refused to accept the invisible borders. He has been fighting with the German courts for the past four years but they have been unwilling to accept his complaints that the obligatory residence encroached upon his human dignity and his right to freedom of opinion. He happily announces that the European court, to which he now applied, has at least agreed to an investigation.

“The Voice” says that it has instructed the refugees to defy the law of obligatory residence. Otherwise the organization could not exist; this is the only way for them to reach each other. The members are scattered around the country, wherever they were placed by the bewildering relocation plan.

Osaren, from Nigeria, sits in the office of “The Voice” in Berlin and reports on the negative experiences with the government bodies and how they commonly throw up roadblocks. At the anniversary conference in autumn the guest speaker, Themba Mbhele, a prominent South African activist from the “Anti-Privatization Forum”, was not granted a visa. The German embassy informed him that the Ministry of the Interior classified his entry into the country as a security risk.

Osaren has a powerful presence. With verve he talks of the many political refugees that he and the people from “The Voice” were able to protect from the threat of deportation. But the thousands that they could not protect are reflected in his exhausted facial expression. Osaren is closely connected to the history of “The Voice”. The organization works miraculously well considering its constant loss of members due to deportation. Of the five founders from the Thuringian Forest, Osaren is the only one remaining. He is the only one to have retained political asylum in spite of multiple threats of deportation.

This miracle, as the founding legend of the organization, came about through an act of political disobedience. One night ten years ago the police came to his camp to deport him and send him back to Nigeria. His supporters delayed the officers with a lot of noise while he jumped out the window and fled into the forest. The next morning he dared to find shelter with a Baptist minister. Only after a year underground he was able to convince the court of the legitimacy of his request.

Since then it has been his mission to fight the decline of the right of asylum. Nothing has improved, he sums up. In the meantime, a European refugee camp in North Africa is being openly debated. The German obligatory residence, which he tried to abolish, will likely be considered a model for the European Union.


Side note: Obligatory residence

The free movement of asylum seekers is limited in Germany. The asylum law dictates in detail who can detain and where they can do it from paragraph 56 to 59. “Obligatory residence” means that asylum applicants can only move around in the district in which they live. They cannot choose where this will be. They will be assigned to certain states, which will then distribute the refugees to camps. Therefore the asylum seekers cannot travel to Berlin, even if they are staying in the surrounding area of Brandenburg. Only when an “urgent reason” presents itself do the authorities allow the people to leave the district. Paragraph 57 of the law expressly states “the permission should be granted without hesitation in order for the appointments with plenipotentiaries, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, and organizations involved in support of refugees can be kept.” The foreigners can only keep appointments with the public authorities or the court, which are mostly in their own district anyway, unless they have permission. Refugee organizations have been protesting for years against obligatory residence, especially because it makes it more difficult for refugees to avoid attacks from right-wing extremists. A member of the refugee organization, “The Voice”, is trying to topple obligatory residence in the European Court of Human Rights. pit

Reportage: The Rebels - Frankfurter Rundschau Press By Ascan Breuer [01/2005]
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