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Berlin's Refugees Kicked Themselves Out of Their Own Protest Camp

The police didn't have to lift a finger to evacuate the two-year-old demonstration.

by Marcus Staiger
10 April 2014, 9:20am

Two years ago, a number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany reached the end of their tether. The group, scattered in various facilities all over the country, were fed up with the way they were being treated under the "residenzpflicht" law, which requires those with refugee status to live within certain geographical boundaries. The law was presented to the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 as a violation of fundamental human rights, but the Court didn’t accept the complaint for judgement.

To protest the law, and what they say are severe limitations to their freedom, the refugees decided to leave their shelters and head for the capital. Their demands at the time included the absolution of Residenzpflicht and the establishment of other laws that allow refugees to integrate themselves into society. What they got was a spot in the middle of Oranienplatz, a square in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood, where they were allowed to set up some tents.

The camp quickly developed into a focal point for the growing debate around German and European asylum policy, as well as a massive administrative headache for the Kreuzberg municipality. Monika Herrmann – the district mayor and a Green Party representative – tolerating the camp for more than a year and a half, while entering into drawn-out negotiations with the refugees, has drawn criticism from both the left and right. 

On the one side, conservatives and residents complained about the illegality and the perceived lawlessness in the camp; on the other, left-wing activists and supporters of the refugees’ struggle lambasted the administration for its unwillingness to make the concessions that would end the protest. However, many of the refugees’ demands (such as abolition of the Residenzpflicht and the granting of their residency permits) involve federal legislation that Berlin lawmakers cannot influence.

Finally, at the beginning of last month, officials offered to put the refugees’ deportation on hold for another six months, under the condition that they take down the camp and move to housing provided by the city. A number of the refugees, weary of conditions in the camp, saw this as a great opportunity, while others saw it as a manipulative move that would derail their cause with a few empty promises. 

Berlin's Interior Senator Frank Henkel and police chief Klaus Kandt must be ecstatic. The refugee camp on Kreuzberg's Oranienplatz was evacuated on Tuesday, and – miraculously – the police didn't have to use force on anyone – a masterclass on how to make a protest movement slowly wear itself down and eventually implode without the state lifting a finger.

At about 6AM on Tuesday morning, a group of migrants – armed with hammers, crowbars and knives – moved into the camp and began demolishing the huts they had established on the square themselves. Ignoring the pleas of other refugees, and residents who didn’t want to abandon the fight, they gradually destroyed all the tents and dwellings.

As you can imagine, this quickly led to tensions between the different factions of refugees. Knives and crowbars were brought out, leading again and again to serious confrontations between a melee of refugees and activists. No police turned up on the square until late in the afternoon. 

Wednesday's events were the result of a tactical approach, conceived months ago by the city of Berlin. Dilek Kolat, Berlin's Integration Minister, pledged to solve the problem on Oranienplatz in January. To find a solution they invited several delegations from the refugee camp to a meeting. When it became clear that the fugitives had very different expectations and demands, Kolat began to gradually exclude certain groups and include others.

Towards the end of the negotiations, Kolat focused on the group of so-called Lampedusa refugees, who – in contrast to other asylum seekers – have valid Italian papers, and were promised money payments and accommodation for at least six months. Other groups of refugee activists thought that offer wasn’t enough, and Kolat succeeded in dividing the movement. The original demands – abolition of the residence obligation, abolition of all deportations – faded further and further into the background.

Protests on Oranienplatz have continued, with activists gathering this morning to show their solidarity with the refugees who didn’t take the government deal. But now that half the authorities’ battle has been won, it’s fair to assume that their demands are not going to be heard any time soon.