In January 2012, a 29-year-old Iranian refugee, Muhammed Rahsapar, committed suicide at a refugee center in Würzburg, a town in central Germany. His death sparked an outcry at the conditions in which refugees were housed. Rallies culminated in a 600-kilometer march from Würzburg to Berlin, where the refugees and their allies set up camp as a public protest in Oranienplatz, a square in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Adam Bahar spent many nights there in a tent.
Bahar had just entered Germany four months before the march, having fled political persecution in Darfur, Sudan. “When I arrived, no one welcomed me,” Bahar, now 32, told me by phone from Berlin. The Berlin Refugee Movement, as it’s now called, began working to change that.
Today, Bahar lives in an apartment and all that’s left of the camp is an information stand, but the movement remains active. For the past few weeks, Bahar and others have met trains bringing refugees from across Germany to Berlin, handing out flyers in different languages on the asylum process. Five hundred refugees now arrive in Berlin each day, many of them disoriented. “Is this Berlin?” is the first question they ask Bahar.
The European refugee crisis dominated the Western media this summer. We have been inundated with images–and rightly so–of thousands of desperate people struggling to cross national borders before barbed-wire fences and security protocol snap into place.
But while the current emergency creates the impression of a mass of victims, refugees who came before are well-organized in some cities. From Berlin to Stockholm to Geneva, they are mobilizing to reach their peers and demand their rights.
When a person requests asylum in a European country, they enter a waiting period as national authorities consider eligibility, based on the UN Refugee Convention or European Union asylum policy. The waiting time varies across countries–in Germany, for example, the average waiting time in 2014 was 7.1 months (it is now likely longer). During this period, people are considered asylum seekers, without the same rights as refugees.
As city authorities in Berlin rush to open emergency shelters to prevent homelessness, Bahar says conditions for asylum seekers have already begun deteriorating. He noted with concern a national law passed in July 2015 by the Bundestag (federal parliament) that “restructured” the asylum process, giving the government increased powers to detain and imprison asylum seekers. The Berlin Refugee Movement is increasingly politicized, and developing demands; it wants to abolish restrictions on freedom of movement for refugees assigned to live in government-run centers and the right to work, among other things.
“People are isolated and living in inhumane conditions,” said Bahar. “The media should come and see how people are actually living.”