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February 22, 2013

Immigrants in Germany Struggle With Legal Status

by Michael Scaturro

Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, who have sought refugee status in Europe, often face long waits before governments give them the go-ahead to work and settle in the countries where they have sought safety.  

Last year, some asylum seekers decided enough is enough.  In Germany, Austria, and elsewhere, they left their detention centers and erected tent camps to draw attention to their cause.  One such tent city remains open this winter in Berlin with the support of local residents and other immigrants. 

Back in October, immigrants from across Germany marched to Oranienplatz in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood to protest what they see as government foot-dragging in processing their asylum cases. 

The camp is run by the migrants themselves, with the support of local residents, and volunteers like Coco, an American woman in her early twenties.

"We sit at the infopoint, and a lot of the refugees who are staying here at the camp come and ask if we can help facilitate and help them find a place to eat, or a place to shower, or someone to wash their clothes.  And they've compiled this huge binder database of lots of people in and around this area who have volunteered rooms in their homes or have let us know if they have free rooms or showers or couches or if they can do a wash," said Coco.

The camp is expansive.  It has several tents with metal chimneys piping out smoke from stoves.  There are even tents where migrants and their supporters hold legal clinics, says Aisha, a woman from Somalia.

"We are discussing how we can help women to know their rights.  That's why we are here," she said.

Standing on the other side of the camp, in the food tent, is a young man in his early 20s, from Mali.  He is very withdrawn and prefers not to give his name. 

He says the traveled through Libya, then to Italy, before coming to Germany by train.

Napoli Polanga, from Sudan, sought asylum near Frankfurt, more than a year ago, and is not sure when she will be granted refugee status.

"Now we are just hanging around - we don't know what to do," she said.  "They just tell us to eat and sleep.  And this is not what we want.  So that's why we came out, said enough is enough, this is the time for resistance."

The movement has three demands, explains Napoli Polanga: "To abolish the 'lagers' - you know lagers, right?  Lagers are camps - prisons.  German people put us in these camps.  It's ridiculous.  We also want to abolish deportation.  We also want freedom of movement within Germany."

Paula Riester, a Green Party councilwoman in Berlin, says her party, and its supporters allowed the camp to remain and are helping raise money to keep it going. 

She said she does not think that the current government will make changes to the laws and that the only hope for change is if a new government is elected in the fall.

​​Oliver Mohr, a spokesman for immigration minister Maria Boehmer, said he understands the immigrants' frustration, but that German politicians have to take the next step.  He explains that German lawmakers must ratify the changes if the immigrant situation is to be approved.

Until changes are made to the law, the immigrants are stuck.  Those whose applications for asylum were accepted by German authorities are seen as the lucky ones.  But others who arrived in Germany from third countries, like Italy, face deportation to Italy if they petition the German government for asylum.  The reason is an European Union-wide immigration law known as Dublin II.  Some of the migrants say they want to see Dublin II changed, but that is not likely to happen.  Nevertheless, Napoli and those who support her say they will continue their fight.