"Their villages are bombed, then they come here and they are called criminals," says Turgay Ulu, a Turkish journalist and former political prisoner who came to Germany about two years ago as an asylum seeker. He's sitting on a tattered sofa in a makeshift protest camp in the middle of Oranienplatz, a central square in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. Ulu and some 200 fellow refugees have been occupying the square since October of last year.
"Look around! These people are from Afghanistan, Libya, Mali," says Ulu, gesturing in turn at a group of men playing foosball under a blue-and-white-striped big top and two others helping a toddler blow soap bubbles in the middle of the square. "We are refugees, not criminals!"
The ongoing protest is meant to call attention to the significant procedural shortcomings of Germany's asylum policy. Recently, it has been joined by demonstrations of an entirely different sort. Earlier this month, a newly opened shelter in the eastern Berlin neighborhood of Hellersdorf became the scene of heated clashes between far-right protesters and hundreds of anti-fascist demonstrators. Dozens of political refugees -- mostly from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Serbia -- arrived at the shelter, established in an unused school building, only to see chaos unfolding outside their windows for several days running. Some reportedly left out of fear.
The protests in Hellersdorf have been orchestrated predominantly by the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) as it strives for relevance in the upcoming election. But they are symptomatic of a second significant refugee-related challenge currently facing Germany: The number of asylum seekers arriving in the country is rising rapidly and has far outpaced the ability to properly house them.
According to Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), more asylum seekers arrived in the country in the first half of this year than in any six-month period since 1999, with the total for 2013 expected to top 100,000. Thus far, 52,000 refugees have arrived in Germany, an increase of 90 percent over the same period one year ago. The newcomers are primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya .
A Slow Process
Cities are struggling to keep up with the influx, but the problem has been particularly acute in Berlin. Many asylum seekers come here first and, even if they will ultimately be relocated elsewhere in the country in accordance with Germany's geographical allocation system, they have to be housed initially. But all the city's shelters are now full, and the reserve capacity established for spikes in arrival numbers has proved insufficient. Officials are currently rushing to establish new housing.
But it's a slow process. "If I want to create a shelter for refugees, it takes a half year, a year, or more, just like with any construction project," says Franz Allert, head of the Berlin city-state authority responsible for asylum seekers. "It doesn't go faster … just because they are asylum seeker shelters."
The protests in eastern Berlin can, in part, be seen as a side effect of the rush. Allert notes that his office generally seeks to open a dialogue with residents in neighborhoods where a new shelter is to open. This in fact happened in Hellersdorf, when officials invited residents to a public informational meeting led by district mayor Stefan Komoss, on Juy 9, less than a month before the shelter's scheduled opening.
The meeting, however, was hastily organized and poorly planned -- and was quickly taken over by right-wing voices. Organizers expected 400 to attend, a far cry from the over 900 who showed up. Chants of "Nein zum Heim!" (No to the shelter) echoed from the surrounding concrete block apartment buildings and the NPD made it clear that it would fight the refugee home, a pledge met with cheers. Local residents voiced concerns over rising criminality and worries that newcomers would receive greater benefits than locals. Since then, the NPD has organized marches, leading to the clashes earlier this month.
"There is sometimes no time to talk with people in the neighborhood," admits Allert. "That creates dissatisfaction among the residents, and I can understand that. But at the moment, we unfortunately have no alternative."
Limited capacity for new arrivals, and the protests in Berlin, are not the only serious problems that authorities now have to contend with. As Germany's infrastructure for taking in refugees buckles under the influx, its asylum policy is also coming under criticism. According to Germany's Basic Law, or constitution, the right to asylum is extended to all those who are "politically persecuted" in their country of origin. If asylum is granted, the applicant receives a temporary residence permit for three years, which can then be converted into permanent residency.
The problem is that the vast majority of asylum seekers in Germany get caught up in a kind of limbo. They initially arrive at one of 19 reception centers throughout the country, where they submit their applications. According to BAMF, it takes an average of about eight months for a decision to come down on an asylum application. But stories are plentiful of applicants waiting for much longer. Some say they have heard nothing for years.
"The long delay is unacceptable," says Bernd Ladwig, an expert on human rights and migration at the Berlin-based Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science. "Very often these people remain in an intermediate position regarding their status for an extended period of time, and in the interim they do not have any kind of clearly defined, respected status. If it is going to take so long, then they absolutely should have more rights extended to them."
While applicants await word, they are required to adhere to the so-called Residenzpflicht, or compulsory residence, which bars all asylum seekers or those who have been given a temporary stay of deportation from leaving the city or county where they filed their application. They are usually required to live in state-run shelters -- often in extremely cramped quarters in cordoned-off facilities resembling detention camps. In the past year, several asylum seekers living in a facility in Eisenhüttenstadt, the main communal housing center for the state of Brandenburg, went on a hunger strike to protest conditions there.
"As far as I know, compulsory residence is unique among European countries," says Ladwig. "This is something that needs to change. You can't conclusively show that this is a necessary restriction to fulfill the right to asylum. I've not seen any effort to justify this restriction."
'Stop Locking Us Away'
Another problem is that, while asylum seekers are given a moderate monthly allowance for "personal daily necessities" and are technically allowed to work, they are forbidden from earning more than €1 ($1.32) per hour. Furthermore, special permission must be granted for access to legal counsel and, if an asylum seeker leaves his shelter or area of compulsory residence, he faces potential deportation.
The result, Ladwig says, is that asylum seekers wind up isolated and often -- as with the new housing facility in Hellersdorf -- antagonized. "These people are already here," he says. "The work restrictions should be relaxed and they should be given freedom of movement. I see no compelling reason to concentrate the refugees into these compulsory residence camps."
"The solution is normalization," agrees refugee activist Turgay Ulu. "Stop detaining us, locking us away, isolating us."
Last October, Ulu and some 200 other asylum seekers broke their compulsory residence requirement and marched 600 kilometers (373 miles) from the Bavarian town of Würzburg to Berlin. In addition to the protest camp on Oranienplatz and their occupation of a nearby school, they have set up protest camps in Hamburg, Munich, Eisenhüttenstadt and Duisburg and have organized numerous marches and demonstrations calling for an end to compulsory residence, deportations, forced communal housing and the employment ban. It has been one of the largest, most visible protests by asylum seekers in Europe to date.
The protest camp at Oranienplatz includes a makeshift school, an information tent, a theater, a kitchen tent and a large round circus tent that serves as the main hangout. Banners bearing slogans like "No Person Is Illegal," "Repeal Compulsory Residence" and "Lampedusa Village" -- a reference to the Italian island in the Mediterranean where many African refugees land -- hang throughout the camp. With financial support from local charities and leftist groups, they organize German lessons, computer courses and legal assistance. But it's an uphill battle.
Far-right groups have staged counter-protests. The stabbing in June of a Sudanese camp resident by a young man yelling racist insults escalated into a confrontation involving more than 200 police officers.
It has been enough to awaken unsavory memories of the years immediately following German reunification. The early 1990s saw several right-wing attacks on refugee homes in the former East, including the infamous arson attack on the asylum shelter in Rostock in August of 1992. Nobody died in the days of rock throwing and fire-bomb lobbing that plagued Rostock that summer, but later that year, the home of a Turkish family in Mölln was lit on fire by neo-Nazi attackers, killing three. Another five people lost their lives in a similar attack in Solingen in 1993.
Allert is quick to note that public sentiment in 2013 is generally more welcoming. The protests in Hellersdorf this summer have taken him and many others by surprise. "We recently opened a facility in (the Berlin neighborhood of) Stieglitz and we didn't have sufficient time to notify the neighbors there either," he says. "Not a single one of them complained."
But the German general election, scheduled for Sept. 22, is rapidly approaching. And the NPD has struggled to attract votes in recent years. The asylum home in Hellersdorf has provided the extremist party with the perfect opportunity to mobilize -- and foment -- concerns, fears and latent xenophobia.
The man responsible for running the NPD campaign in Berlin is Sebastian Schmidtke, a 28-year-old who is classified as an active neo-Nazi by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. But he is also an experienced political operative by virtue of his role as head of the Berlin city-state NPD chapter. At a recent meeting with a journalist at a café in the center of Berlin, Schmidtke was on his best behavior, polite and neatly clad in black jeans and a black button-down shirt.
Even his message of intolerance was nicely wrapped in gentle, even tones, carefully calibrated so that the neighboring table wouldn't hear. "The people think, here come the foreigners and they get the same benefits as we do. Our children have no youth facilities and have to more or less play in the concrete jungle. ... Other people are given money even though they don't belong here," he says. "We have almost €2 trillion in national debt, eventually we have to think about our national interests." He makes sure to place the campaign brochures he brought along -- "Live Safely: Stop the Asylum Flood" -- face down so as not to attract unwanted attention.
'Sometimes We Have No Choice'
Yet Schmidtke is anything but passive when it comes to pursuing his vision of nationalism. Since last fall, he has organized several anti-asylum rallies in front of refugee shelters around the city. Recently, he and his followers have been hanging xenophobic campaign posters up in front of the Hellersdorf facility. In January, he attacked a counter-demonstrator with an umbrella, though he claims it was in self-defense.
He also promises that more anti-asylum rallies are to come. "We will definitely be going back to the asylum homes to establish contact with the neighboring residents," Schmidtke says.
Allert, meanwhile, is taking a closer look at what went wrong in Hellersdorf. One thing he pinpoints is that the meeting on July 9 was open to all comers, practically an invitation to the NPD to hijack it. He says that from now on, informational gatherings in neighborhoods will only be open to those who live in the immediate vicinity. He also notes that asylum facilities in Berlin often host events with locals where people bring toys for the children or warm clothes in the winter.
"This is done not because we as a state don't make enough resources available," he says. "It is done to create contact -- to reduce fear and barriers."
Human rights expert Bernd Ladwig, on the other hand, thinks the housing system itself is largely at fault. "When they concentrate refugees in these collective facilities, often without properly consulting the people who live there, it makes it easier for right-wing activists to mobilize against them. People get the impression that there are these huge numbers of foreign people with their foreign habits and appearances moving into their neighborhood. And of course some of the resentments articulated are shared by mainstream people who are not right-wing extremists but do share some xenophobic tendencies."
But with the pressure on to rapidly expand the numbers of asylum homes in Berlin, Allert also noted that his first priority is to house the newcomers. "We don't carry out a survey and if the residents say yes, we do it, and if they say no, we don't," he says. "Sometimes we have no other choice than to simply take a building and say: 'Okay, we are going to do this here now.'"