The Refugee Protest March: “Let’s walk and see where it takes us”

A suicide at the beginning of 2012 in the southern German asylum camp, Würzburg, triggered off an urge to start a protest among people living in other camps. An important issue was to prevent the isolation between the camps and the cities. An example of this isolation is the German asylum law, the so-called Residenzpflicht [mandatory residence], which prohibits one from moving out of the town area that the camp is placed in. Breaking the Residenzpflicht is illegal. The punishment is a fine of 30-100 euros, and it puts the success of one´s application for asylum at an even bigger risk.

by Liv Nimand Duvå and Nicoline Sylvest Simonsen · Illustration by Paula bulling

The Tent Action started in the spring of 2012. Tents were raised in areas near the camps to create awareness of the conditions of being a refugee. This led to a big protest march, starting in southern Germany and ending in the northeastern capital, Berlin. The people, in what was to become an entire movement, walked 600 km within one month. They walked around 25 kilometers a day, spending the nights in their itinerant tent camp. On the 6th of October a big protest tent camp was built on Oranienplatz, a public space in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. When visAvis visited the camp on Oranienplatz at the end of October, around one hundred people were living there. Refugees from the protest march as well as supporters and activist from Berlin had their daily doings in the camp – everything from organizing actions, daily meetings, providing legal support, cooking in the home-made kitchen and guarding the Info Point. All activities took place outdoors, around the fireplace or in the different tents.

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Alongside the activities on Oranienplatz, a group of refugees from the same movement were on a hunger strike at Brandenburger Tor. The police were guarding the strike day and night. Especially during the nights, they systematically confiscated the protesters’ warm clothes, blankets and sleeping bags.

The pros and cons of the different forms of actions – hunger strikes, demon-strations, presence in the media and solidarity actions – were widely debated throughout the meetings. We were only there for a couple of days, but we found ourselves welcomed and included in the meetings. The following pages will give a general impression of the march. After a statement written by Turgay Ula, one day before the protest march began, we conducted two interviews on Oranienplatz in October 2012 where participants from the movement reflected on different aspects of it.

Why we are marching towards Berlin

Manifesto by Turgay Ula

Well, we begin a protest march from Würzburg to Berlin on the 8th of September 2012. Why do we do this? We do it because we want freedom and respect. For months on end we have been doing actions, boycotts and hunger strikes. Now we start a long march, which will last for about a month.

We are walking towards Berlin because that is where the power is seated. Historically, all freedom marches have been directed towards places that represent power and violation of freedom. We do the same thing. Our concrete demands are known to be: suspension of isolation, closing of refugee camps, abolition of the German Residenzpflicht, annulment of all the categories which place us as the lowest-ranking class, no more attempts to subdue us with longstanding asylum procedures, abolish Frontex which is responsible for the death of so many people under flight, no more deportation to capitalist-imperialist war-zones and dictatorships.

As late as yesterday I tried to obtain permission from the relevant authority for the march to Berlin. Because I tried to inquire about the reason why we don’t have the freedom to travel, I was thrown out of the office. Yes, they have taken over all locations. Many still believe the lie about the freedom of movement within the EU, but we see these lies. And noone can stop us. We continue to march and thereby abolish the borders.
We won’t leave it at that, the march. We are trying to build up solidarity and the basis for a collective and alternative life among us. We are trying to maintain and preserve our human qualities, which they have tried to break through isolation and loneliness. We are trying to develop our abilities and build another life by establishing tent camps where a collective life is able to take place. In these tent camps, we support each other, theoretically and practically, mutually in eash of our own further development. Each one of us is trying to support one another in this development.

As late as yesterday, 60 refugees drowned in the sea right off the Turkish coast. We have seen that the border river Meriç, is full of dead bodies. We have seen the beggars in the streets of Athens. We have witnessed young women on the run having to sell their bodies. We have been forced to watch pregnant women being beaten by the police and refugees being belittled. We don’t want to be a part of this crime by keeping quiet about it.
We will not rot in isolation some place. We walk in order to free ourselves. Walking makes you free. So let us walk and see where it takes us.

Interview with Patrick

How is it to be in the camp on Oranienplatz?
I find it good to be here. We have got many supporters, and I have met many refugees. I have found out that all of us are in the same struggle. We are fighting against the same problems. We have meetings every day, both refugees and supporters. Through these meetings we have been able to conduct successful demonstrations all around. It’s very interesting, because people are ready to discuss and see a way forward for our movement. That is why I believe that our movement will last.

How did you become politically active?
My local activists explained us all about our rights. This encouraged me to become active in refugee politics. Then I thought, now is my time to stand against these brutal situations we are facing: being treated like animals. We are human beings and we should be treated like that. I became a part of The Karawan and The Voice [German networks made up of refugees, migrants and antiracist groups]. We organized seminars and I started The Voice in Passau, where we organized actions against deportations in front of the town hall and in a shopping mall. And now I’m here, struggling for our rights. Last week we made a demonstration in front of the Nigerian Embassy where many of us were arrested. We have been resisting all kinds of torture – this made us rea-lize that we can really stand against the brutality of the system. We are ready for the struggle.

Today during the meeting, a woman talked about experiences of gender oppression and racism within the camp. What is your stand on this?
I also have such experiences. What I have discovered is that some people don’t know why we are here. They don’t really understand the major aim – why we are protesting. Not everybody has been involved in politics and activism before, which brings in confusion and misunderstandings. If you really understand why we are here, why would you bring in racism? With solidarity we can overcome this. In solidarity we are one family, and then nationality shouldn’t count. We should take the word solidarity very seriously, and remember that we are people, not animals. We speak and we understand each other. If every-body is able to understand the value of our weapon – why we are here and what solidarity means – we can manage to stand against our oppressors.

Do you have a message for refugees around the world?
I call on them to come out of the camps to break their fears. To participate actively in refugee politics, because that is the only way they will understand their rights. That’s why I call for my brothers and sisters in Copenhagen to come out, join the movement and stand against all such inhuman situations.

Interview with Refugee from No Man’s Land

How did you manage to organize yourselves between the camps?
Through connections between friends. We knew each other from the arrival camps and we had stayed in contact after that. We informed the other camps about what was happening, asking if they wanted to join. It is not something that just happened ‘like that’. It was a long process of communicating through phone and email. We also went to the other tent camps in Germany to support friends and help them to start the movement. We helped them putting up their tents and stayed with them if needed. We worked like a family.

What was the next step?
A friend pointed out that even though we raised tents in different cities, there would still be the possibility of being locked to a specific place, to be isolated again. So we agreed that we would find a way to really come out. He suggested the march, which would enable us to keep moving, come together and create unity. We started planning how to do it. A lot of people, especially activists and supporters, said that it was impossible. 600 km in Germany is impossible, they said. But the march of the refugees shows that we want to change something and that we are strong enough to do it. We have enough power. We organize ourselves. Coming together was not a problem. That is our biggest message. The march also meant breaking the Residenzpflicht by walking. During the march the police never checked us, because if they did, they would have made us appear bigger, giving us free advertising.

Now your camp has moved to Oranienplatz in the middle of Berlin. Why is it important to be out in the public?
The people of this country are not our enemies. They all have an idea about us. For instance people think I’m a criminal or a bad guy because that is the image created by the media and the government. Seriously, maybe I’m a cigarette smoker, but not a criminal, not a drug dealer. We want to break this perception. A lot of Germans don’t know what asylum camps are. They don’t know what it means to live in there for 20 years… or even one day. They think that Frontex is the hero of Europe. And why do the refugees come to Europe? Because Europe is dealing weapons, oil, coal with other countries. And that creates war. Why would I come to Europe if there was no war? And the government advises against going to these countries because it isn’t safe. So, why would it be safe for me? If you are a refugee, you don’t have a country. You are from No Man’s Land.

Earlier today you were critical towards the obsession with democracy. Can you elaborate on that?
Europe is trying to export democracy to places like the Middle East and North Africa. But have we ever seen a perfect democracy? And are you really sure that your democracy is so good that you want to bring it to other countries, countries you don’t even know? Seriously, are you even a part of a real democracy, do you have the right to speak up? As I see it, democracy is the new religion of capitalism.

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So, what is your alternative?
First of all, in our movement we never vote. We discuss. Say, Patrick and I have different ideas at a meeting. Still, we discuss and through discussions we find better ways. Voting would only make us stick to some standard ways; we would never have a chance to be creative in our thinking and solutions. Nobody is in charge here. Maybe we argue and discuss a lot, but we are a unity where everybody, regardless of education and skills, can express their ideas. Our strongest force is that we speak with each other, even though we have so many languages here. Yesterday for instance, the meeting was in English, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, French and German – around six languages in one meeting, and in the end we were still able to make a decision. People from the outside don’t see how this is possible. But for us it’s possible, because in the end we all have the same problems as refugees. I might be a Christian or a Muslim, a Communist or an Atheist, but we don’t care about our personal ideas. The important thing is to talk about our rights in society. The governments always try to separate you through religions and nationalities, because they are interested in power, in money. And you see people fighting between religions, fighting for nothing.

In which way is your movement a part of this broader struggle?
I see this camp as a symbol of the refugees’ fight in general. We crashed the nice face of Germany; that is our power. Our friends who are hunger striking at Brandenburger Tor are doing the same. The police beat them up because Brandenburger Tor is supposed to be the nice face of Berlin. All the tourists go there. At Brandenburger Tor you can’t be a human, only a part of a business. And we are not. I hate this superficial peace, this nice face of the city. And that is why I’m here. I want to be the noise in the society.

How do you see this as a movement, which as the word implies, is moving forward?
If we change something here, it will also change in other countries. If you go to Turkey, Italy, Greece or France you will see that the situation for refugees is like hell. We are in a better position. I’m not only thinking about myself, but about refugees everywhere. If changes are to be made, we must go very deep. It’s a long process, not just a question of one month, two months or even a year. It’s much bigger. It’s not just about Germany, but about all the people in the world. We should not discuss the isms, such as Marxism, anarchism and socialism, but find each other as human beings. The isms are just names that the system tags on us. Instead, we should look at who we really are. Of course this movement does not stop here. It will continue.

And who are we really?
If you are a refugee, you are one of the freest persons in the world because you don’t have a nationality. No matter what you do as a refugee, the system will tell you that it’s not good enough, that you are not integrated enough. But we have power, we stand together and we will use our power. Be a refugee! Be proud! When you have crossed the borders of maybe seven countries, you are in this fight already. If you are here now, it means that you can fight, that you can find your power again. Remember your way, your energy, your dreams. Then you can make a fight – not a war. In a way, I see all people today as refugees – refugees in our families, in our cities, in our sexuality, our generation. When your teacher, father, mother or anyone in power, tells you what to do, you become a refugee within the norms. We are all refugees.

Links:

http://refugeetentaction.net
http://thevoiceforum.org/about
http://thecaravan.org/