Hamburg Unrest: One City, Two Sides, Thousands of Refugees
The city of Hamburg continues to be rocked by protests over the treatment of thousands of asylum seekers. Both sides of the conflict have valid points -- but as the argument rages on, the refugees struggle to get by.
Kojo Aboagye, a Ghanaian citizen, lives in a container in an industrial area on the outskirts of Hamburg. The doors of containers on the site have been broken open, and rats sit calmly in the middle of the street. Aboagye (not his real name) is married and has a son he hasn't seen in two years.
When he talks about his odyssey, he does so with reluctance and hesitation, as if he alone were responsible for his fate. His journey took him halfway across Africa to the sea, in Libya. From there, he made the crossing to Europe in a rickety boat. After many detours, he ended up in Hamburg, where he now lives in the unheated shipping container, hiding from the police. The police in Hamburg are currently searching for people like Aboagye, who are referred to as "illegals," people who have fled their native countries but must now fear deportation because they were denied asylum.
In deciding to have its police round up refugees, the City of Hamburg has raised a difficult question: By cracking down, is the city committing an injustice against humanity, or is it a sign that, finally, law and order are prevailing? There is no easy answer.
The situation has escalated more quickly in Hamburg than in other German cities. Some 4,500 refugees are living in the city illegally. The city-state's senator of the interior has instructed the police to change their approach by making a concerted effort to determine the identities of the so-called illegals. Their fingerprints are taken, and they are questioned and summoned to hearings at the immigration office.
The mood has become so heated that, when a group of about 1,000 leftist protesters convened in front of the Rote Flora, a cultural center for radical leftists, last Tuesday evening, a few of them turned on the phalanx of police officers. The demonstrators, who were there in support of the refugees, threw rocks at the police and erected street barricades. A protest against the treatment of people like Kojo Aboagye, suddenly became a fight against the "system" and capitalism as a whole.
Aboagye shares his junkyard surroundings with a few acquaintances from Ghana. Before coming to Germany, they had all envisioned it as a northern European paradise. One of them now sleeps in the cab of a broken truck. They have furnished their surroundings with discarded furniture, and they cook their meals on a camping stove. "And this is our bathroom," Aboagye says in English, pointing to a gasoline canister filled with water and, above it, a mirror wedged between two birch trees, held in place by four nails. "Like everything else, it isn't quite up to German standards." Aboagye turns to irony in his more hopeful moments, but most of the time he feels nothing but rage.
Bottom of the Ladder
The junkyard inhabitants are at the bottom of the refugee hierarchy that has developed in Hamburg. Aboagye is envious of the 80 refugees in the St. Pauli neighborhood who arrived via the Italian island of Lampedusa and are now being housed in a church. Many socially committed progressive Hamburg residents who are now campaigning on the Lampedusa refugees' behalf act as if they couldn't have it worse.
But while it's true that the people living in the church are also considered "illegals," they have a roof over their heads and toilet facilities, and they are being shown solidarity from locals. They receive support from the church congregation, from the FC St. Pauli football club, from neighbors, and from political activists -- people who find them attorneys, bake cakes for them and bring them salads. Aboagye isn't likely to find a salad in his junkyard home. He is currently eating a meal of onions he cooked in water over his camping stove.
He craves such basic comforts as heat, electricity and running water. He is also envious of the refugees who have been officially recognized and live in better accommodations, people who receive food and money from the German government. Aboagye has to make do with odd jobs in junkyards, where he is paid 5 ($6.85) an hour. When asked whether he regrets leaving Ghana, he says, "of course." And why doesn't he want to return home? "My family went into debt to pay for my trip to Europe," he replies. "I can't go home without money in my pocket."
He feels privileged on some days. He has managed to make himself invisible to the German authorities. He has disappeared from sight, survived without assistance, learned to move about while being invisible. Now that the city has sent out its police officers to round up as many of the "illegals" as possible in the St. Pauli and St. Georg neighborhoods -- away from where he lives -- Aboagye can finally claim that his uncomfortable living situation has an up side.
A Protestant Minister Steps In
How compassionate can a constitutional state be? Does it have an obligation to prevent human suffering? Can a constitutional state stretch the law for humanitarian reasons and, if so, how far and for how long? When does leniency turn into arbitrariness? Or does leniency actually characterize a virtuous nation?
These are the big questions that Hamburg politicians have been asking since the refugees found shelter in the church and gained the support of a coalition of human rights activists, from Greens to leftists to Christians. They want the refugees, who are mostly from Libya, to be allowed to remain in Hamburg.
One of the advocates for the refugees, Martin Paulekun, claims to have found clear answers to the big questions. He is a Protestant minister, an affable, prudent, married man. He is also at the center of the current conflict between the constitutional state and the compassionate state in Hamburg. Paulekun has given shelter in his church to the 80 Lampedusa refugees who, under German law, are most likely in the country illegally.
Who Are the Lampedusa Refugees?
Most are energetic and athletic young men around 30. Some were little more than children when they left their native countries, countries like Senegal, Mali, Togo, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. They later became guest workers in Libya, where they say they worked as bricklayers, electricians and painters. They were caught in the crossfire during the war against former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and eventually left the country in rubber rafts.
They lived in Italy for two years, in camps, hotels and boardinghouses, until the Italian authorities informed them that it was time to go. The Italians gave the refugees papers and 500, or a train ticket to their destination of choice. Some traveled to France, others to Germany.
Hamburg accepted the immigrants and provided them with accommodations, but when the city's winter emergency program expired this April, they became homeless and were left to sleep outside department stores in the downtown area. Some say that they ate leaves and drank melting snow as it ran through their hands.
One day, they turned up at Pastor Paulekun's red brick church in the middle of the St. Pauli neighborhood and were taken in. Although the men were still sleeping on the ground, at least they had a roof over their heads.
Now two different worlds coexist adjacent to one another. Outside, the Reeperbahn -- the city's notorious red-light district -- is filled with drinking, dancing and partying crowds of people. Inside the church, 80 African men are waiting for the Hamburg Senate to decide what will happen to them.
Will the government deport them? Will they "tolerate" them -- a process by which authorities allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country if they fulfill certain criteria? Or perhaps just leave them alone?
The city has seen quieter times. On one of the days police officers were combing downtown Hamburg for refugees, some of the refugees met with their supporters at a cultural center in the Altona district. The mood was tense and the accusations were harsh. "Five are still in jail," said one of the leaders. "First we were persecuted in Libya and put in cells, and now they want to do the same thing to us in Hamburg?" another man asked. Then the reporters were asked to leave the room so the activists could have a private discussion about how best to defend themselves. Paulekun left the room with the journalists, drove back to his church and, later on, in the middle of the night, rang the church bells.
As one of the spokesmen for the refugees, Paulekun is asking for indulgence from the Hamburg government, or Senate. "These men have seen difficult times," he says. Paulekun expects the politicians to give the refugees a future in Hamburg. He wants them to be recognized, allowed to earn money legally and receive health insurance. "It's a question of human decency," he says. His is the voice of the compassionate state, and his arguments are compelling. But are they valid?
- Part 1: One City, Two Sides, Thousands of Refugees
- Part 2: The Other Side: An Argument for Strict Rules
- Part 3: The Bigger Problem with Asylum in Germany
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