After eight days, the drama in Berlin’s central Kreuzberg district appeared to have come to a preliminary end on Wednesday. For over a week, the derelict Gerhart-Hauptmann school and four entire blocks surrounding it had been under a state of siege by up to 1,700 riot police — as well as an almost constant presence of protesters and press. But the intense standoff between the district authorities that had decided to clear out the school and the 40 refugees that had barricaded themselves on the roof, threatening to kill themselves if they were forced to leave, seems to have come to an end. And it looks like a victory for the refugees.
The district agreed to most of their demands: to let those inside remain in the school, and have the building refurbished into an “International Refugee Center.” The agreement was signed by a majority of the refugees and effectively ended the siege. Now, the police have begun to dismantle their barricades and will be withdrawing from the premises. Yet this outcome seemed far from assured just a few hours earlier, when a forced eviction with possibly fatal consequences looked much more likely.
The crisis took off last Tuesday, when Kreuzberg’s ruling Green Party decided to evacuate the school, which had been occupied by refugee activists and other squatters for the last year and a half. Around noon, 900 riot police (some carrying submachine guns) arrived at the school and began cordoning off the area, while district officials entered the school and persuaded about 200 of the residents to be relocated to asylum shelters in and around Berlin.
However, around 40 refugees refused to comply with those requests. Instead, they poured gasoline in the corridors and fled to the building’s roof, from where they began pelting the officials with stones and bottles. A number of them threatened to set fire to the building and throw themselves off the roof, should the police try to evict them by force.
“We will not come down until they give us our rights. We’ve had enough of the games of Berlin politicians!” one refugee told the press last week. He was speaking via Skype, as the authorities had denied the press entrance to the school. “We don’t trust them, we’re not coming out!“ another shouted. “They are determined to stay — at any cost,” one of the negotiators confirmed.
The threat effectively paralyzed the eviction process and sent Kreuzberg’s Green party scrambling to find a solution. For eight days, they failed miserably, alienating pretty much everyone involved — the refugees, who they could not convince to compromise, the protesters, who have spent a week getting pepper-sprayed and pushed around for their efforts to block the eviction, the police, who were getting tired of all the pepper-spraying and pushing, and finally the press, who were repeatedly denied access to the school and are furious at this restriction of press freedom.
As a result, the liberal-minded Green Party found itself in the midst of a rapidly accelerating political train wreck that threatens to tarnish its human rights record for a long time to come. Ironically, this was the same Green Party that had originally decided to tolerate the school’s occupation by a small group of refugees in late 2012. The refugees had arrived in Berlin a month earlier, at the end of a nearly 400-mile march that united asylum seekers from shelters all over the country in a move to protest the ban on free movement and employment that is imposed on applicants for asylum in Germany.
But while the district expressed sympathy for the refugee’s cause, it did little to improve their lot, pointing to the fact that asylum law is a federal responsibility. The refugees carried on their protest in two locations in Kreuzberg — the Oranienplatz, where they built a makeshift camp, and the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule. As negotiations dragged on, both sites became increasingly desperate places as living conditions deteriorated.
The school, especially, began attracting other homeless people, from entire Roma families to drug dealers from the nearby Görlitzer Park. At some points, over 500 people were estimated to be living in the building, though no one knew for sure, and disputes between them would sometimes turn violent.
As the security situation deteriorated, the “refugee school” became a major target for Berlin conservatives, who came to see the “lawless zone” in the center of Kreuzberg as the embodiment of the Green district government’s misguided tolerance and incompetence.
The district finally caved to the pressure and concentrated its efforts on removing the refugee protesters from the public sphere. But while they managed to dissolve the protesters on the Oranienplatz through a number of promises to improve their residency status, the attempt to repeat the procedure at the school ended in this spectacular, drawn-out failure.
One of the major reasons for the long delay in reaching a compromise is the fact that the school’s occupants soon learnt that virtually none of the promises made to their co-protesters at the Oranienplatz had been kept.
Yet, while it is also far from assured that these newest promises will be upheld, many observers are confident that today marked an important step forward for the rights of asylum seekers in Germany. For those that have been living on the roof in constant fear of eviction for the last eight days, the least it means is that they will finally be able to get some sleep.