The view from Berlin

In the last week I heard some good news about a friend in the Calais camp – it’s at the end of this post 🙂

A friend living in Berlin writes…

Cops watch Calais camp entrance
Cops watch Calais camp entrance
“In October I spent a few days in Britain, and it was only then that I realised just how grossly deficient UK media reports on the humanitarian crisis here on the continent have been. The occasional commentary in the Guardian just doesn’t do justice to the masses of people moving ‘into’ and across Europe, fleeing from wars – Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq chief among them.

Railway stations are full of exhausted refugees, desperate to get to a place of safety, anywhere they can feel safe after months of journeying, months of walking, being interned in concentration camps on the EU borders, being beaten by police and security guards, thrown off trains (whether or not they have a valid ticket). And when they finally get to somewhere like Berlin they queue up for days, even weeks, in order to register as refugees; sleeping in parks and on the streets in the minus temperatures. Of these people – exhausted, wounded, pregnant, young, old – few, if any, find a bed the day, or even the same week they arrive.

Germany seems to be getting a good press in the international media – Angela Merkel’s “Welcome Culture” may make good headlines, but with several thousand refugees arriving in Berlin alone every day (compare that to Cameron’s offer to take in 5000 over 5 years!) the Welcome Culture certainly hasn’t tricked down to the authorities dealing with registering, tracking and issuing papers to the refugees. As mentioned above, people are queuing in below-zero temperatures for days. They’re facing security guards who are happy to either take bribes (to jump the queue) or to be violent (if you think this an exaggeration then check out the YouTube videos of security guards chasing and beating refugees at the Berlin Lageso registration centre).

Once registered the refugees may be issued with an accommodation voucher for a hostel place – a hostel place that doesn’t exist, or is denied them because the authorities haven’t paid the bills. The ‘lucky’ones have a place in a gym, a large tent, an army barracks or an aircraft hangar. Several dozen people on camp beds in a small place with an average of two toilets per 300.

The authorities’ response has been, at best, inhumane and disinterested, yet ordinary German people, even businesses and universities have been trying to plug the gaps. In smaller towns welcome committees have been organised to receive refugees who arrive in the middle of the night, driving them to accommodation so that they don’t have to wait outside the registration offices until opening times.

Clothes, food and toys are collected and handed out to refugees at railway stations. Schools are illegally(!) offering places to refugee children. Businesses are offering apprenticeships, local transport authorities are offering free travel, people are cooking food, opening their homes to those fleeing war.

And the State’s response? All too often the State has taken people away from the new homes they’ve found with friendly Germans, sending them to far corners of the country in the name of efficient distribution – as if these exhausted and traumatised people were a parcel from Amazon. Soup kitchens are closed down (health and safety!), applications by Germans to host refugees in spare rooms take months to process, empty buildings squatted to provide space for refugees sleeping
rough are brutally evicted within hours…

But if you’re not involved in attempts to help refugees then you’re only like to notice this unfolding humanitarian crisis in media reports. Nevertheless, every week I receive at least one text calling for people to turn up to protect refugee accommodation centres from fascists (and let’s be clear, these are real fascists of the 1930s variety, not some vaguely nationalist hooligans out for a ruck). Every
week there is at least two or three demonstrations called by far-right and fascist groupings (and that’s just in Berlin!) Over 100 refugee accommodation centres have been attacked so far this year, over 60 were arson attacks – see this map for locations.

The media is split between those fanning the flames – encouraging fear and xenophobia – and those providing clear and (relatively) honest reporting on what these people are going through, have gone through – why they are coming.

But the real ‘why’ isn’t being mentioned. The fact that Afghanistan and Iraq have become places to flee from because German and British troops were there ‘on the ground’, making a terrible situation much, much worse. The politics, stretching back to before WW2 that led to the geo-political situation in Asia and Africa, the support given to the dictators of these countries (and now NATO is moving towards fighting on Assad’s side).

Not to mention the fact that even now the Germans, the British and many others have made huge profits on arms sales to the same regions that people are coming from. Take Heckler & Koch as an example – a German armaments manufacturer, previously owned by BAE) which, according to media reports, provide over 30% of small arms (pistols, rifles, machine guns etc) to the Middle East. German tax money supporting deadly exports, but imagine the German government’s surprise when people flee those same German bullets.

There’s no real positive side to this, except the fact that so many Germans are prepared to take up the challenge that the state is deliberately ignoring. Do the ‘good’ Germans outnumber the ‘bad’ – the Nazis, the scared, the inhuman and ponderous state? Right now I really couldn’t say, and that’s a scary thought because the challenge that this humanitarian crisis is presenting to the German State and the EU is tiny compared to what is going to come in the wake of climate change and growing international inequality.”

…I heard this week that a young friend who has waited three years to have her husband allowed to join her in the UK (they were married only 6 months before they had to flee Syria) has heard that some solicitors who went to Calais to help in just such cases have obtained his right to enter. She and he will meet again today.

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