(By: conjuncture magazine)
After reflections on the United States’s border militarization, this article looks at the situation in Europe — a political entity that frequently presents itself as a defender of human rights, as a place were ethical values are leading its politics.
The fortress I am talking about is today’s Europe. Though there are hardly any marauding bands of knights and thieves out there being held back by the strong walls of the fortress. But if I take a look at the media, something else endangers the continent: a flood! Unfortunately this panic-provoking vocabulary does not refer to global warming with the risk of rising water levels. Rather, this “flood” refers to human beings — humans that search for protection, that is, for asylum in Europe.
Already the semantics – using the word flood – shows a brutal dynamic of dehumanization. Additionally, it implies that the arriving refugees are destroying or at least attacking the continent. (if one can even call them “refugees” as they do not receive the refuge they were hoping for when they had to leave their homes)
The pictures of people dying in the Mediterranean, kept at bay by the modern walls of the Fortress are used for short moments of indignation, together with the insight that “something” has to be done about these dead bodies. What good luck that the German government has a solution at hand: the Fortress has to strengthen it’s walls.
Taking Care of an Inhumane Discourse
To “understand” such a brutal decision, a look is necessary at the development of the German laws regulating asylum and refugee-politics.
In the world outside of the fortress, there are some basic rules for the question of what to do if someone asks for asylum. “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” — this is what the United Nations proclaim in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written after the experiences of World War II. A declaration formed by the idea that a human — for the mere fact of being a human — has some very basic rights. For good reasons, the right to search and find protection from (unjust) persecution is among these rights.
Influenced by the debate in the UN and the brutal results of a world denying asylum to people (mainly jews) persecuted under the the Third Reich, the German constitution of 1949 included this right in article 16: “the politically persecuted enjoy the right to asylum”.
For decades the law was barely questioned, but with the first economic crisis of the new state in the late 1970s (the oil crisis and in the following down-turn of the economy) the preparation for reform initiated.
Instead of questioning the economic systems, it was easier to blame the “Gastarbeiter”. Similar to the American “bracero”-program, the German state developed a program to recruit foreign workers, mainly from Tukrey and Greece, for the growing post-war industry. These workers were named “Gastarbeiter”, literal translation: guest workers. That this concept is already extremely problematic is – hopefully – obvious, but can’t be analyzed at this point.
Inspired by radical wight-wing parties and racist organizations, the Christian Democratic Party, the CDU, (yes, that is the one Angela Merkel is part of) started to work actively on a new discourse. For the election campaigns of 1983, 1987 and with a growing intensity in 1991, the CDU strengthened an extremely racist perspective on migration. This project was supported by two big right-wing newspapers (namely Die Welt and Bild)
Without any relation to reality or numbers, non-Germans were declared as an economic problem. Even if everyone who took a short look at some basic numbers knew that the German social system, society in general depends on immigration and profits not just culturally but also economically from the migration. Together with the mentioned newspapers, they fabricated the image that every stranger arriving in Germany potentially wants to steal “German” money. From these images, it is a close step to say, “foreigners steal my car” or the commonplace alternative “the foreigners get everything and I get nothing”.
That elements of these discourses are heard now during the law suit against the terror-group National Socialistic Underground (NSU) should not surprise. Not only because the group was founded during the early 1990s, the time when the racist-conservative discourse arrived “in the middle of society” but also because these imaginations are the basis for the hate they built up before they decided to kill people just for the color of their skin, their name, or their religion.
Aside from the growing power conservative politicians and the media gave to the violent radical right, they also made these racist positions socially acceptable. A decade before the NSU was uncovered, the result of this racist strategy of the conservative showed it’s scary face.
Hoyerswerda, Solingen or Rostok-Lichtenhagen are probably the most known cities in which foreigners have been attacked in an extreme manner. After campaigning successfully with the image of the dangerous foreigner, the predictable results ensued: Germany has its violent riots back. Nazi-skinheads and fascists attacked migrants, refugee-shelters and houses inhabited by people that are defined as “non-Germans” with molotov-cocktails, getting applause from the people living in these areas (literally – in Rostock-Lichtenhagen there were up to 3,000 people applauding the Nazis for setting a social housing appartement-complex on fire).
“Never forget” or “Never again” — this is what we say about the exceptional cruelty this country was capable of executing during Word War Two. If we do not forget that these kind of violent riots against jews, the pogroms marked the beginning of the racist, antisemitic, anti-zigan, and ableist politics just 50 years ago, a responsable political reaction would have meant to educate, to punish the offenders, and to give special protection to the attacked people, as well as to potential victimes of such crimes.
Making Hate and Exclusion a Law
Not in Germany. As no one in the government is named Hitler, is there no risk to fall back the violence of the Third Reich? The reaction of the government (still under the CDU’s leadership) is to reform of the asylum policy – at this point there has to be mentioned, that the reform of the law can not only be blamed on the CDU as the reform was also supported by the Liberals (FDP) and the Social-Democrats (SPD).
The main goal of the reform is not a better protection of the victims, but solving the problem by getting rid of them. Its core element rests on the definition of safe and unsafe places in the world. The definition of Turkey as a safe country, even if it was known that torture happens on a regular basis in its prisons, shows how much the law fights the refugees. As every country of the European Union is defined as safe, there is no way to get asylum in Germany, unless you can arrive by airplane – hence you have a visa and your papers in order. This assures that you are not coming out of a country in crisis.
Additionally, Germany spent a lot of diplomatic energy in making this rule part of the European law. Since the Dublin Regulation, arriving asylum-seekers have to ask for asylum in the country where they enter the Union. For Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq, that usually means Greece; for Somalia, Sudan, Congo and the northern nation-states of Africa, that means Italy or Spain. For literally no country that has, had, or might have in the near future a violent crisis does that mean Germany. Therefore, every arriving refugee that is not able to arrive in an airplane arrives in the three Southern-European countries with the biggest economic problems.
The financial aid offered by the European Union related to the refugees is mainly focused on ‘Frontex’ (pretty much the European version of the US Border Patrol, human rights violations included.) Additionally, money is invested in the countries that share a border with the Fortress to make them hold the refugees back (Gadaffi earned about 40 million euro for stopping mainly Somalis from getting their right to asylum). The good thing about that strategy is that the inhumane treatment, tortures, or killings do not happen in the fortress but in the evil world outside. In short words, the dynamic to find a ‘backdoor’ for denying basic human rights is not just a German phenomena, but a European one. Both regulations can be seen as a result of a strong xenophobic and racist discourse that was empowered by the German government.
These regulations result in an extremely low number of refugees in Germany and an even lower number of accepted applications for asylum (about 2%). To stay with the image of the Fortress: in fortress Europe, Germany is the panic room in the ivory tower. Nevertheless, Germany is one of the loudest states when it comes to the fear-provoking statements and speeches of a flood of humans spilling into the continent.
The country that didn’t follow Bush into Iraq, the army that goes into the world to help building wells, the government that offers a thought-out and functional welfare system — Germany likes to present itself as one of the few places on earth that really cares about humanity. Look at us, since World War II, we learned our lesson — we know, we have to protect the weak. But aren’t refugees the weakest group in a society? They lost their economic and social networks, they saw cruelty that often results in psychological problems, their possibilities to communicate are often limited due to language and huge differences in social norms can make an arrival hard.
Europe is capable of more than trying to block entry to the fortress. In case refugees make it in, due to international law, it becomes very hard for the European Union to kick them back out (unless, no one is looking). There is still the possibility to deny refuge by not offering a shelter that deserves the name ‘refuge’.
As long as the asylum-seekers wait for their status in Germany they have to stay in a specific radius around the residence they are given, if not interned in. They cannot go to school. They cannot attend language-classes. They cannot work. And they only get roughly 190 euros per month (in case someone is wondering, you cannot survive with such little money). As legal work is not possible, some get into illegal markets while they struggle — yet again — to survive. Such cases are then used to keep the picture of the “dangerous stranger” alive.
The dramatic dimension of these problems might become even clearer with a look at the time periods the refugees spend in this limbo without rights, status, or even prospect. It is not a decision made in days, or weeks, or months: depending on the case, refugees can wait up to 15 years to get papers, and with them, their human rights back.
This treatment results in a shocking statement from the refugees themselves. Living in small rooms, shared with strangers with almost no money and no right to move freely, they said that it is the mental pressure that is unbearable. The day-to-day life that is lived in fear of being deported, with a total lack of information about their legal status, and a lack of any prospect. Dammed to wait for a decision that might be a decision about life or death.
Refugees reported that they survived the war, the escape, the border-crossing into Europe, but this life as a dehumanized ‘case’ in the German system broke them mentally and, after years, also physically.
Independent people as well as organizations and politicians from a broad political spectrum protested indignantly against the prison in Guantanamo and the US-American strategy to define a new group of people that does not have the right to human rights. For some reason it seem to be OK for a lot of people that Germany interns asylum-seekers into camps or houses without being willing to accept their status as refugees.
But it also has to be said: There are many who absolutely do not think that this is acceptable. Their important work has to be mentioned at this point. Amongst other moments, their work became visible in the solidarity some refugees experienced. Throughout the country, they are currently protesting the inhumane conditions they are forced to live in (refugee-strike, Lampedusa in Hamburg). Their protest is a brave civil disobedience that deserves all the respect and support. History taught us that no border lasts forever and when I checked last time, most fortresses have fallen in our days.
 The Federal Administrative Court declared torture in the NATO Member state as „usual strategy“ to keep up the public order. Already in Feburary 1990 the Consitutional Court forced the government to accept torture as a legitimate reason for asylum.