Friday, January 28, 2011


Purgatory in Provincial Germany
Life Behind Bars Drives Asylum Seekers to Desperation
By Dialika Krahe

Hartmut Schwarzbach / DER SPIEGELAsylum 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?"

Nicknamed 'Guantanamo'

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."

Public Debate

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.

Purgatory in Provincial Germany
Life Behind Bars Drives Asylum Seekers to Desperation
By Dialika Krahe

Photo Gallery: 5 Photos
Hartmut Schwarzbach / DER SPIEGELPart 2: No Better than Being in Prison

A few weeks ago, asylum seekers in Germany drew attention to their situation by going on hunger strike in hostels and camps in places like Augsburg, Böbrach and Denkendorf. A few went on hunger strike in Nostorf-Horst, getting the name of their camp known. The protesters reminded Germans that they exist, some 50,000 asylum seekers who are trying to gain entry into a country in the midst of a heated debate over how to fish the smartest, best and richest immigrants out of the currents of global migration.

Ali Reza Samadi, the tailor from Afghanistan, was the first to go on hunger strike in the Nostorf-Horst camp. He lives in one of several U-shaped buildings, painted gray and white, in a room off a long, brightly lit hallway. He shares the room with two other men, and he sleeps on a bed made of dark brown metal with a thin mattress on top. He has nothing but a few articles of clothing in his locker, and the hope that sometimes transports him beyond the boundaries of the camp.

Nothing for Six Days

He usually stands along the fence, wearing sandals and jeans, and with dark circles under his eyes, a young man who looks much older than his years. Around lunchtime, Roma families, Kosovars and Ethiopians, carrying cups and spoons, crowd around the entrance to the cafeteria. But Ali Reza no longer wants to wait in line for food, not today and not tomorrow. He hasn't eaten anything for six days -- no bread, no potatoes, nothing.

"Somalia is also participating," an Afghan calls out across the yard. Jamshid, the Iranian, joins Ali at the fence, and so do Alef from Jalalabad and Prince from Ghana -- a global community behind bars. The paths that took them to Germany are as different as the reasons they gave officials for having fled. Ali Reza says that he fled the bombs in Kandahar. A death threat forced Prince to leave Ghana, hiding on a container ship. The Taliban accused Alef of being a spy, and Jamshid told the Germans that the Islamic authorities were persecuting him in Iran. All of these refugees embarked on their journeys in search of a new life in a safe place.

The life they found in Germany is no better than prison, they say.

"Why does someone exist in the world when there is no place for him anywhere?" Ali Reza asks. It's a question he can't stop thinking about.

More and More Hopeless

Three months and 20 days ago, he says, after spending two years running and hiding, he arrived in Germany on a bus and thought that his future was about to begin. He stood at the bus terminal in Hamburg, carrying a backpack and a few articles of clothing. He wanted to go to Germany, he says, because the country, "known for its human rights," appealed to him.

He went to the Hamburg registration office for asylum seekers. The officials there gave him a train ticket to Nostorf-Horst. As he sat on the train, he watched as the buildings of the city outside the window slowly disappeared and gave way to meadows and forests.

Nostorf-Horst is known as an initial receiving center, of which there are about 20 in Germany. When Ali Reza submitted his asylum application, the interpreter told him that he was only required to stay for three months. When he arrived at the camp, he was given a set of clothing from the camp store, including underwear, sandals and T-shirts -- the uniform of a refugee. He tried to make himself at home in the 4 square meters of space allotted to him. He soon realized that there was no key to lock the door, and that his roommates tried to keep their food cool on the windowsill. He understood that he would receive an allowance of €40.90 ($56) a month.

Ali Reza discovered that many had been in the camp longer than anticipated. There was Alef from Jalalabad, a 22-year-old boy with a scarred face and sad eyes, who had been in Nostorf-Horst for eight months. And there was Prince from Ghana, also 22, who had already been there for 11 months. He heard about others who were forced to live in the camp for a year and a half. With each day and each new story he heard, Ali Reza felt more and more hopeless.

Killing Time

Trzeba knows who Ali Reza is, he says, but adds that he doesn't know anything "about a real hunger strike." He takes us on a tour of the hallways. "We don't have any no-go areas here," he says. Roma families stand around in the hallways and children walk from room to room in their socks. "Despite the close quarters, we consistently manage to provide for an orderly communal life," says Trzeba. "Orderly" is a word he likes to use.

A day in the life of a camp resident begins early, in an "orderly" fashion. Wakeup time is 7 a.m., when residents hurry to grab a spot in the shower room. There are three white-tiled rooms at the end of each hallway, with toilets, sinks and showers. The stench of urine hangs in the air outside the bathrooms, which dozens of people share. The shower stalls are open. Anyone who wishes to be clean in Nostorf-Horst can't be too concerned about privacy. "Africans don't mind," says the shower room attendant, "but people from the Arab world don't like it so much." They have separate showers, he explains.

Breakfast is handed out at 7:30, and anyone who isn't there on time is out of luck. Several hundred people from up to 25 different countries line up in front of the meal counter. Lines often form outside the door, and when things are slow, say the refugees, the wait can take up to an hour. Sometimes there are altercations. Recently, for example, a shouting match apparently erupted between Somalis and Afghans, who eventually went at each other with knives.

The residents receive bread, jam and tea for breakfast. Then they return to their rooms, where there is nothing to do but go back to bed, stare at the wall and kill time. Most refugees in the camp are young, in their early to mid 20s, and there are also a few children who would normally be required to attend school. The adult refugees are at a time in their lives when they should be learning, working and starting families. But there is no school to attend and no work to do. It's as if life had become a waiting room.

The Locked Kindergarten

Trzeba, the director, says that there is a German course the residents can attend. A teacher comes to the camp two days a week, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. -- one hour of instruction for hundreds of people.

Trzeba also says that there is an exercise area. The carpeted room, the size of a child's bedroom, contains a few pieces of weightlifting equipment -- for hundreds of people.

He mentions a room full of toys, which is referred to as the kindergarten. But the doors are locked. "We have more than 130 children," says the kindergarten manager, "but there's no way we can handle that many" -- and so the kindergarten remains closed.

As a result, daily life in the camp is shaped primarily by mealtimes. Rosy-cheeked women wearing caps and wielding ladles stand behind the food counter and call out "potatoes," "eggs," "meat" to the people waiting in line. The women pile generous helpings of food onto the refugees' plates from aluminum vats. Dinner is at 5 p.m., and anyone who is still hungry after that has to wait until the next morning. Some residents go to bed at 7 p.m. rather than spend the evening feeling hungry. They are not permitted to cook in their rooms.

During the hunger strike, the strikers held up sheets they had used to make banners that read: "Abolish Horst" and "What about human rights?" They spoke Pashtu, Dari and English, they shouted through the fence, they waved their asylum documents and some pointed to their war injuries. It was a small revolt, a demonstration of their perplexity and desperation over the fact that they are being fed and guarded in a camp instead of being allowed to live in freedom.

"Inexplicable," says Trzeba. "After all, they come here to us because they claim to be politically persecuted."

Purgatory in Provincial Germany
Life Behind Bars Drives Asylum Seekers to Desperation
By Dialika Krahe

Photo Gallery: 5 Photos
Hartmut Schwarzbach / DER SPIEGELPart 3: The Decision to Flee

Someone like Ali Reza is more interested in a bed and a warm meal. He comes from Kandahar, the provincial capital in southern Afghanistan that the Taliban and NATO troops have been fighting over for years. It is the kind of place where suicide bombers are constantly blowing themselves up and stray bullets fly through the air. "When I left my house in the morning, I didn't know whether a bomb would blow up right next to me at any moment," says Ali Reza. He says that he witnessed a friend being killed in an explosion.

He lived with his mother and worked as a tailor in a small shop in the market. Then the war came, he says, and his city fell apart. There was no more work to be had, no ordinary life -- only fear. Ali Reza decided to flee.

First he took a bus to the Iranian border, and then he walked across. He had brought along a backpack with clothing and $1,500 for the trafficker, and he had sewn another $200 into a space underneath the label on his jacket. In the city of Urmia, he joined a group of 25 people, including many children, who set off into the mountains toward Turkey.

The trafficker had searched him, says Ali Reza, and found and took the money he had hidden in his jacket. "If I had defended myself, he just would have left me behind," he says. He thought a lot about death, says Ali Reza. The mountains were dangerous; there were bears, and there was also the risk of being shot by the border guards. He says that he had heard stories about refugees who were kidnapped, strange stories about people who would cut out your kidney or liver to sell them.

He became stranded in Istanbul, where he shared a room with other Afghans. He worked at odd jobs for six months to earn the $3,500 he needed to get to Italy. He would need even more to make it to Norway, where he had relatives who he hoped would help him.

Better Conditions in Norway

Ali Reza is one of tens of thousands of refugees who reach Europe across the Turkish-Greek border every year. Almost 90 percent of the illegal immigrants entering the European Union come through Greece. They include Afghans, Iranians and North Africans. The Greek camps have been overfilled for a long time, and the government now plans to build a fence along part of the border.

Ali Reza made it to Rome, and from there he went to France. He traveled by train, constantly in fear of being checked. He remembers that he splurged on a kebab at the train station in Hamburg. Then he made his way to Oslo, where he applied for asylum.

He was put in a camp there. "It was completely different from here in Horst," he says. "They gave us pots for cooking, there was a shuttle bus and each refugee got €300 a month." Ali Reza was given language classes, and he devoted himself to his studies. Soon, he says, he was able to help other Afghans by translating for them. At night, however, he became overcome with fear whenever the police came to pick up the refugees who were to be deported. Everything went well for the first few months. Then, almost a year after his arrival, they were going to come for Ali Reza. His asylum application had been rejected. This time fear drove him to Germany.

He fought boredom in Horst until, after three months, an official came to his room and handed him a yellow card. Everyone in Horst knows what this means. Yellow is bad. Yellow means up to a year and a half in the camp. That was the amount of time the officials would spend trying to send refugee Ali Reza Samadi back to Norway. He is a so-called "Dublin II" case, named after the 2003 EU regulation that assigns responsibility for the asylum process to the member state where the refugee first arrived (Norway, which is not an EU member, is also a signatory to the regulation). Because Ali Reza has already applied for asylum in Norway, Germany can send him back. Germany is hardly deporting anyone to Afghanistan these days, but Norway is. A transfer to Norway would spell the end of Ali Reza's journey.

Ali Reza wanted to speak with someone, someone to answer his questions. But he lacked the necessary language skills or an interpreter, and there was no one to explain things to him. After three months and 20 days in Nostorf-Horst, Ali Reza decided to stop eating. "We don't want very much," he says. "We just want to live in our own rooms, learn German, see a doctor, cook, be able to defend ourselves."

Night-Time Visit

When Trzeba is asked why these things aren't possible in his camp, he replies that the initial receiving center isn't designed to enable asylum seekers to engage in significant integration efforts. "The asylum seeker isn't here to get to know people, but to move his case forward," says Trzeba, adding that Germany's lawmakers did not intend it to be otherwise.

Someone who is to be deported receives a letter stating that he or she has two weeks to find an attorney and file an appeal. This single requirement, even if they could understand it, is enough to destroy the prospects of most asylum seekers. Where could they find an attorney? Traveling to a city like Hamburg, where assistance would be available from organizations like the city's refugee council or Café Exil, a café where volunteers help asylum seekers deal with German bureaucracy, is prohibited. Leaving the administrative district where the camp is located is considered an infraction. An independent lawyer comes to the camp twice a week: one woman for 450 residents.

At night, officers come to the rooms and get the ones who have been chosen for deportation out of bed to take them to the airport. In Trzeba's bureaucratese, the operation is referred to as an "execution of the deportation order." "Some leave German territory voluntarily," he says, "while others need a certain amount of encouragement."

When asked what ought to change in his camp, Trzeba says: "There are no plans to change the circumstances, because the circumstances do not require changing." He merely does what he is told and he only sees what is considered politically desirable: to organize a camp in such a way that its inmates develop the desire to return to where they came from.

Legal Right

This wasn't the intention when Germany's constitution, known as the Basic Law, was enacted after the Nazi era and the end of World War II. Article 16, Section 2 of the constitution states: "Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum." The right of asylum was more firmly grounded in German law than in the laws of almost any other country. Asylum was not to be an act of mercy but a legal right, and today this right is the reason behind Germany's lengthy asylum process.

As long as refugees were coming primarily from socialist countries, the right of asylum remained uncontested. In the mid-1980s, the numbers of refugees began to rise sharply. However, now they were no longer the people "persecuted on political grounds" mentioned in the constitution, but people from the world's crisis regions: economic migrants or refugees from poverty or natural disasters. The asylum laws had not been written with such people in mind. In 1985, 55,000 people applied for asylum in Germany, and by 1991 the number had gone up to 256,000. And the larger the numbers, the fewer asylum seekers were recognized.

When the asylum law was amended in 1993, a new rule was introduced that required German authorities to return refugees to a "safe third country" if they had entered Germany through that country. Holding camps were established, partly as a deterrent. The numbers declined, as did recognition rates. In 2010, the numbers rose sharply again, for the first time in years, partly because visa requirements had been lifted for a few Eastern European countries. Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians could now enter the countries in the Schengen zone without visas, and many took advantage of the new travel freedoms to apply for asylum in Germany. In November, the EU threatened to abolish the visa exemptions again. As a result, the number of asylum applications has gone down again during the last two months.

Nevertheless, there were one-and-a-half times as many new applications in 2010 as in 2009, or a total of 41,000. And the old questions are still unanswered: Who should be permitted to live in Germany? What should their lives be like there? Who should belong to German society?

'I Would Rather Die than Go Back'

A few weeks after the hunger strike, many of the refugees were released from the camp in Horst. Prince from Ghana was sent for 12 months to a camp in Parchim in northeastern Germany. Ali's friend Jamshid, from Iran, was transferred to Wismar on the Baltic Sea, where he has been taking German lessons every day. "Everything's fine and dandy," he says in colloquial German when asked about his new life. Alef from Jalalabad received his deportation notice. Dozens of other people were distributed to other facilities. But Ali Reza remained at the Nostorf-Horst camp.

A plane was waiting in Hamburg on a snowy December day. He was to be deported to Norway and, from there, back to Afghanistan. An attorney that a refugee council had found for him brought him the news. Ali Reza collapsed and was admitted to a psychiatric clinic, where doctors concluded that he was suicidal, severely depressed and not transportable. "I would rather die than go back," he says.

A young Iranian is now sleeping in his bed in Horst. He lived in Plymouth in the UK for five years, where he worked and went to music festivals. When he was about to be deported a few weeks ago, he decided that it was time to get out of England.


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