In June 2012, several refugees in the city of Würzburg stitched up their mouths to protest the lack of response to their political demands. Four demands have been at the core of the reinvigorated refugee movement ever since: Germany should abolish all Lagers (asylum centres in which the large majority of asylum seekers is housed, sometimes for years and decades, and often in isolated areas of the countryside), stop all deportations, abolish mandatory residence law (Residenzpflicht, a legal requirement for many refugees to only live and move within narrow district boundaries defined by the local foreigners’ office) and guarantee refugees the rights to work and study. The refugee movements’ long-standing critique of German asylum law and the discriminatory regulations governing the lives of many asylum seekers has gained visibility in recent years – yet in the past months, it has been eclipsed in the press and in public debate by the new idea of a German Willkommenskultur (“welcoming culture”). Heeding the history and present of refugee resistance in Germany has never been more crucial.
The recent refugee movements in Germany are part of the larger struggles of immigrants and minorities against racism in post-War Germany (e.g. the Ford strike in 1973, or the movement of Antifa Gençlik, founded in 1988). The history of racist violence, which came to head in the reunified Germany of the early 1990s, provides an important reference point for current debates. Increasing arson attacks on asylum centres, and racist pogroms in the 90s were cited as important justification for claims by politicians and the media that Germany had “reached capacity”. As a result, the German government severely restricted German asylum law in 1993.
Subsequently, self-organisations such as the Refugee Initiative Brandenburg brought their critique of isolation and human rights violations in German asylum homes to international attention. Other refugee organisations such as The Voice, Karawane and Refugee Emancipation developed strategies to reach out to refugees and invite them to join a political struggle for human rights that included speaking out against the total lack of education and work opportunities and denial of health care.
The revived refugee movement in 2012 was convinced that the master’s tools – individualised recourse to the courts and bureaucratic labyrinths – would never dismantle the master’s house. Refugees from all over Germany defied mandatory residence law, mobilised across Lagers and set out on a protest march from Southern Germany to the federal capital, insisting that they must be present and visible when decisions about their lives were made. They occupied public spaces, buildings, embassies, churches, trees and roofs in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Hannover and took to hunger strikes.
While the refugee movement eventually gained access to the mainstream media and shifted the discourse on migration, asylum and refugees slightly, this was recently swept away in the context of Europe’s “refugee crisis”. Starting this past summer, thousands of Germans offered their support to newly arrived migrants, and Germany was lauded in the international press as the ‘welcoming champion’. Yet, while the current flurry of activity offers conveniently de-politicised gestures of charity, it mostly ignored or sidelined refugees who were already self-organized. These groups have made clear that sincere support must engage in the politics that frame causes and experiences of the flight to Europe as well as the experiences refugees make here.
A colonial mask of silence is being put back on refugees through the charity dimension of the Willkommenskultur hype: It “prevents her/him from revealing those truths, which the white master wants ‘to turn away,’ ‘keep at distance’ at the margins, invisible and ‘quiet’”.
Rather than thanking Germany for its supposed generosity, the refugee movement in Germany has not tired to point out the past and present interconnectedness of prosperity and peace in Germany with poverty and war in other parts of the world: it scandalizes neocolonial resource extraction from the Global South and weapon exports, and generally calls for resistance against nationalist, racist and capitalist border regimes. It is uncomfortable for the majority of German society to be faced with people as (political) subjects who frame their demands from a postcolonial perspective, who speak out against rampant racism across German society, and who refuse to differentiate between socio-economic and political refugees by pointing out that economic questions are also political.
But the racist violence of the 1990s euphemised as “concerns of the citizenry” had paid off – and continues to do so. A sharp rise in arson attacks on asylum centres as well as rising rightwing agitation and violence once again occasion sombre warnings by politicians and pundits/journalists about the need to ensure that the “mood” of the population is kept in check. These public figures suggest that high numbers of refugees will “provoke” racist violence. To prevent violence, they advocate reducing the attractiveness of Germany for refugees by curtailing their rights. Political parties across the spectrum, media, and a significant percentage of citizens now demand deportations and the worsening of living conditions for all migrants – especially those not considered ‘proper’ refugees – in the name of Germany’s “welcome culture” for ‘real’ asylum seekers.
In both the smouldering remains of burned asylum homes and the political manoeuvres that follow, recent history looms large: a first batch of legislation to tighten German asylum law was passed in July, followed by another set of restrictive changes in October. A recent cabinet agreement was hailed by its advocates as the “harshest measures ever to limit the intake of refugees in Germany”. The measures particularly lash out against Roma people from the Balkans fleeing persistent racial discrimination and people escaping poverty. Several countries are newly reclassified as safe countries of origin, meaning people fleeing persecution there have very little chances of getting asylum in Germany. Lager control is tightening; incarceration and deportations increasingly facilitated.
Which path Germany will now follow might depend on which experiences become a reference point in current debates: The shadow of the 90s where violent racists succeeded in having asylum laws restricted or the history of self-organised refugee resistance. Those who decide to “help” need to start by listening to what refugees actually want. As The Voice activist Rex Osa has reiterated in a recent interview: What refugees demand is that the notion of “help” needs to include support for self-organisations of refugees and requires a double perspective: It is important to look at both reasons for people to flee and the racism they experience in Germany. It is only then that the status quo of self-congratulatory, paternalistic help can be transcended into political solidarity.