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Photo Gallery: Hamburg Refugee Crisis Heats Up

Foto: Johannes Arlt/ DER SPIEGEL

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.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

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.

Flashpoint Hamburg

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.

Strategy Meeting

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?

The Other Side: An Argument for Strict Rules

Michael Neumann, whose office is on the fifth floor of a building in downtown Hamburg, has come to represent the opposite side of the fight. The constitutional state must rely on different arguments than that of altruism. It needs ordinances, decrees and laws. It has many faces, including those of police officers, judges and bureaucrats. As the city's senator of the interior, Neumann is expected to guarantee the safety of its residents.

Last Wednesday morning, there was a rumor that all "illegals" were to report to the police or risk being classified as fugitives. It seemed like Neumann, who is partly responsible for maintaining social order, had revoked what amounted to a cease-fire without good cause.

Neumann denies this. He says that he never set an ultimatum. On the contrary, he explains, what some view as an ultimatum was in fact the city government's effort to satisfy the demands of lawyers. Besides, he adds, only 19 -- not all -- of the refugees were asked to appear at the central registration office with their attorneys on that day. That afternoon, Neumann was told that only one of the 19 refugees had turned up.

As a former soldier, Neumann has a respect for binding rules and believes that they "must apply to everyone." In his view, it is unfair that a small group in Hamburg is demanding special treatment while thousands of refugees submit to the asylum process in Germany every year. As senator of the interior, says Neumann, he expects the refugees to report to the authorities and provide both their names and an account of their journey. "Only then can we try to help them. So far, all we know about these people and their wishes is what we have learned from the media."

'It's Time to Act'

This is the core of the conflict. On the one side is the senator of the interior, who is unable to pass collective judgment about a group of people and believes he must address each case on its own. On the other side are the activists, who are deeply suspicious of the government, reject its immigration laws as inhumane and see an opportunity in the current, tense situation to argue for change. In their view, the refugees can only be strong as a group, and this group cannot be allowed to break apart.

For months, he had hoped to find a mutually acceptable solution, says Neumann. First he was told that the refugees were traumatized and needed time to settle down. Then there were lengthy and difficult negotiations that came to nothing, and now, he says, he has reached a conclusion: "Nothing is happening, so it's time to act. The government cannot stand back and do nothing while the law is clearly being broken."

Is Neumann's approach too harsh? He prefers not to look at the situation that way. Although his job as senator of the interior is a balancing act, he says, it is clear to him that law and order must prevail. He also insists that fairness is important to him. But that only raises another problem: To whom does fairness apply, and to whom does it not?

'Where Is I Go For Asylum'

Aleksandar, an ethnic Serbian refugee who prefers not to mention his last name and who brought his family with him to Hamburg from Kosovo in the early summer, sees no reason to complain about lack of fairness. His temporary home is in a parking lot behind a supermarket in Hamburg's Lokstedt neighborhood. Aleksandar, his wife and their three children live in a metal, container-like structure about the size of a one-car garage.

According to Aleksandar, the family is from the Kosovar city of Vitina, where Serbs are a minority and suffer discrimination at the hands of ethnic Albanians. He says that Albanians used to throw stones at his daughters when they played in the garden, and that the family decided to leave Kosovo because of the ongoing violence.

The bus trip from Vitina to Hamburg took two-and-a-half days. When they arrived, they went to a police station, where Aleksandar's wife Danijela, who was seven months pregnant at the time, asked the officers: "Where is I go for asylum?"

Today a woman from the Left Party visits the family regularly, brings toys for the children and explains the contents of letters from the immigration office. They have warm beds in their container home, and they eat three meals a day. "We're happy here," says Aleksandar. They want to stay.

But that won't be possible, because their asylum application was rejected. The family was unable to convince the German authorities they were being politically persecuted in their country. They are only being tolerated because their youngest child is still a baby, says Aleksandar. The end of the toleration period has already been determined, and the date is printed on the identification document Aleksandar keeps in his jacket pocket. The words "valid until 11/4/13" are typed on the second page.

Two Different Concepts of Fairness

Fairness is a concept the opposing camps in this battle often adapt to their own purposes. The Hamburg senator of the interior believes that he is behaving fairly when he forces the refugees staying at the church to appear in German government offices so their reasons to request asylum can be reviewed. And why shouldn't he send the African refugees back to Italy, if there are no valid reasons to grant them asylum in Germany? Italy is part of the European Union, and they have already been recognized as refugees there.

Why don't activists object when a Kosovar family is told its asylum request was denied? What is the decisive criterion? Should the extent of public support for a refugee count in his or her favor? Or has the refugees' extremely dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean? Should the asylum process no longer center on the situation in the refugee's native country, but rather on the risks he or she faced while fleeing it?

The two adversaries in Hamburg have maneuvered themselves into a difficult situation that seems irresolvable as long as the defenders of the constitutional state are adamant about upholding the law while the champions of the compassionate state focus entirely on human suffering.

The Top of the Refugee Hierarchy

In Hamburg, there is only one small group of refugees whose treatment is currently considered uncontroversial. It consists of seven refugees who arrived from Syria on Oct. 10, on a bus operated by the Federal Agency for Technical Relief that was paid for by the federal government.

The seven men and women are part of a group of about 5,000 Syrians who are being allowed to enter Germany under a United Nations aid program. They are not asylum seekers in a strict sense, but they will be permitted to remain in the country for at least two years.

The bus had picked up the refugees from the airport in Hannover, and as a welcome gift the driver handed out juice boxes. When they finally got off the bus in Eimsbüttel, a middle-class Hamburg neighborhood, the driver unloaded all of the refugees' suitcases himself, says Charlotte Nendza from the district office of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Eimsbüttel. She welcomed the guests as they arrived.

Instead of being housed in typical refugee accommodations, they will be placed in individual apartments. They will also be permitted to work and attend language courses. They are provided with a box of dishes and given a subsidy of up to €346 a month.

The Bigger Problem with Asylum in Germany

A few days after their arrival, Ferdi and his wife Halalina (not their real names), who are part of the group, tell the story of how they made their way to the top of the Hamburg refugee hierarchy. The young couple, who have an eight-month-old son, are from the Syrian city of Homs. Government troops forced their way into their home at the beginning of the uprising. Ferdi says that he was pistol-whipped by a soldier because there was no portrait of President Bashar Assad hanging on the wall in his house. The soldiers told his wife that she was pretty, says Ferdi. They intended to rape her, he adds.

The couple fled with their baby to the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where they saw a posting by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). After successfully completing the UNHCR selection process, they boarded a plane to Hannover in Germany, hitting the jackpot in the global refugee lottery.

To prepare themselves for life in their new host country, Ferdi and Halalina attended a course offered by the UNHCR, learning basic facts about Germany.

"You have to be quiet."

"People here eat mutton."

"Berlin is the capital of Germany."

At the end of the course, they drew two faces on a piece of paper. One was a smiling face, to reflect the way the teacher said they would feel in Germany at the beginning. They would be happy and safe, he told them. But they also drew a sad face to indicate how they would feel after a few weeks, once they realized that a person needs more than shelter.

Different Kinds of Waiting

Charlotte Nendza, the official from the SPD's Eimsbüttel office, believes a person needs a home and to be able to understand a country's culture, its unwritten laws, its codes and its nuances. Only then, says Nendza, can he or she begin to love this country.

In the late afternoon, Nendza picks up Ferdi to explain to him how the laundromat around the corner works. She shows him which buttons to press, and explains the difference between a wringer and a dryer. Nendza has also taken Syrians to a discount supermarket, helped them search for clothes racks in the classified ads on eBay.

On the way to Ferdi and Halalina's apartment, Nendza passes the other Syrians who have arrived in Hamburg. The women lean on the windowsills of their apartments and smoke. A TV set is on in the next room. They say they're bored, and that it's too quiet here. They want their German life to finally begin. They want to complete a German course and then find a good job. They are waiting, but it's a different kind of waiting than what the Africans in the junkyard are doing. The Syrians already know that German society will accept them.

Action on the Streets

For the refugees from Lampedusa, their time in Germany could soon be over. Late last week, immigration authorities asked the first of them to leave the country. His attorney has filed an appeal.

People have gathered in the streets of Hamburg every day to protest the city's refugee policy. At night, protesters tried to help the refugees by smashing flagstones and throwing the pieces at police officers. They used Twitter to organize:

"Let's show the Hamburg Senate how we feel about their inhumane policy! 8 p.m. outside the Rote Flora. Let's be loud, strong and numerous!"

"People scattered, firecrackers, torches, slogans, police attacked and pulled back."

"With #lampedusahh, is (Hamburg Mayor) Olaf Scholz dropping off his application as future interior minister? Top qualification: cruelty."

The problem is too big and too fundamental to be resolved in Hamburg -- and it is really about German asylum law, which is grounded in the country's constitution. In 1949, when the constitution was written, the world consisted of countries that were the primary sources of violence. If someone was being hunted for political reasons, the state was the hunter. That was the assumption, and it was usually correct.

Time for a New Law

The grounds for asylum that are considered valid under German law are political. This has given rise to a growing dilemma because it means the state, and not social groups, must be the source of violence and persecution. But this is a 20th-century concept. It means that as long as ethnic Serbs in Kosovo are not being harassed by the government but by Albanian gangs, a Serb who is the target of such discrimination has no right to asylum in Germany.

In reality, the authority of the state is disintegrating in more and more countries around the world, a trend that benefits warlords, militias, armed groups and self-proclaimed oligarchs. The traditional concept of political persecution was met by only 1.2 percent of the people who filed asylum applications in Germany last year. A few more than that are allowed to remain in the country, albeit temporarily, but only if they were victims of war. Does Germany need a new and more contemporary asylum law?

It's a pertinent question. A modern asylum law would make it possible for Germany to, for example, accept a homosexual persecuted by gangs in Russia, and that would be a good thing. At the same time, a modern asylum law would not allow a dirt-poor farmer from Moldova to receive asylum in Germany. And that, too, would be a good thing.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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