Purgatory in Provincial Germany Life Behind Bars Drives Asylum Seekers to Desperation
Asylum seekers come to Germany hoping to find freedom and prosperity. Instead, they often end up in soul-destroying detention camps in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do except wait to be deported. But the system suits many in Germany very well.
Seven times a day, a green-and-white bus stops on a main road near the village of Horst in the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Against a backdrop of forests and fields, it discharges the newest arrivals into the country of their hopes and dreams. Women from Somalia get off the bus, along with men from Macedonia, children from Serbia and old men, some with nothing but a comb in their pockets.
They have completed long journeys, on foot, in truck beds, in inflatable boats, and on trains and airplanes. They have left behind wars, bombs and persecution. In many cases, their only reason to flee was to escape hunger. Ali Reza Samadi, from Afghanistan, got off the bus at this stop, after traveling for two years. Jamshid from Iran stood there and gazed at the camp. And for Prince from Ghana, the Germany he had arrived in wasn't what he had expected.
They all believed that in a country with such abundance, with its prosperity, security and human rights, finding a place to live had to be easy. Instead, they ended up in a refugee camp on National Highway 5 in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Their new home is under the command of Wolf-Christoph Trzeba, a man who, in their minds, has erected a fence between them and paradise.
'A Very Complicated Business'
Trzeba, 50, is sitting in a harshly lit room at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, a thermos full of coffee on his desk and his hands clasped together in front of his chest. "This is a very complicated business," he says.
Trzeba, a slim man with a distinctive mouth and oval glasses, is the director of the Nostorf-Horst refugee camp. The business he is referring to has to do with order, with the 25 different nationalities that collide in his camp, and with control and deportation.
Recently, he has often found himself having to justify his actions. One can hear it in his voice, which sounds both tired and irritated, or see it in his face, which is tense and hardly ever softens as he speaks. Newspapers have written about his camp, he says, politicians have talked about it, refugee rights organizations have held demonstrations outside its gates and he has been repeatedly confronted by words like "inhumane," "isolation" and "prison."
Trzeba pours himself a cup of coffee. A heavy rain is falling in the courtyard outside, where a young Afghan woman is pushing a baby in a stroller while a Roma boy slouches by in sandals. "They come here, and so they have to accept the conditions here," says Trzeba. People can always argue that each resident should have a single room with a toilet, he says. "But where do you draw the line?"
The Nostorf-Horst camp is tucked away in a forested area, in an old East German army barracks near the former border with what used to be West Germany. In the past, soldiers whose duty was to protect one Germany from the other would march across the yard here.
Today the officials here are men dressed in suits, like Trzeba, officials with the asylum authority and uniformed guards. Their orders are to guard the border between affluence and hardship, wealth and poverty, refugee camps and dreams. Their job is to bring order to immigration, and to monitor the foreigners who come to Germany, all the Afghans, Iranians and Kosovars. They include people like Ali Reza, a tailor from Afghanistan, 22-year-old Prince from Ghana, who is a diehard fan of Hamburg's FC St. Pauli football club, and Jamshid from Iran, who tapes pieces of paper with German words to his closet. Their job is to house these people, investigate their stories and deport them. The residents call the camp "Guantanamo."
The camp's fences cut through the landscape, making it look like a restricted military area. The camp, across the road from the asylum authority, houses about 450 refugees. The residents -- men, women and children -- live in 16-square-meter (172-square-foot) rooms, four to a room. The furnishings are sparse -- little more than a locker and a chair in each room -- and the rooms are no bigger than prison cells. Anyone who wants to get in or out has to register with the guard at the gate and hand over his or her ID card. No one is permitted to leave the administrative district where the camp is located.
Trzeba leans back in his chair. "Humane," he says. "Absolutely humane."
Asylum seekers have become the subject of public debate in Germany again, ever since people began fleeing from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and visa requirements were lifted for countries like Serbia and Macedonia. It is fuelled by the fact that the number of asylum seekers in Germany has gone up again, by 49.5 percent in 2010. The public debate revolves around issues like appropriate housing for asylum seekers, the amount of space a refugee should have, the quality of meals and whether detainees should have access to lockable cupboards.
The central questions are how long can people be expected to stay in camps, and what should be done with those people Germany does not want: Can they be deported, and if so, to which countries? For example, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière recently decided that refugees can no longer be sent back to Greece, because the asylum procedures there do not conform to German human rights standards.
It is also about two worldviews that collide with each other. The first is that of the asylum seekers, who argue that Germany has so much of everything -- security, prosperity, human rights -- that it can afford to be generous. The second is that of those who say that Germany can only preserve its security and prosperity if it only accepts those people who can be useful to the country. Everyone else should be housed in detention centers, deported or "tolerated" (a term that refers to those foreigners who do not have the right to stay in Germany, but whose deportation has temporarily been suspended).
These views lead to two opposing conclusions: Either the asylum seekers expect too much of the country, or Germany deals with them too harshly.
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