For months, refugees in Germany have been protesting for better living conditions. Now, some activists have begun a campaign to mobilize communities affected by refugee policies and are touring the country in a bus.
At a refugee shelter in Oberursel, a town north of Frankfurt, visitors are greeted by a sign bearing the words "Private property" and which instructs visitors to register with the administration. There's no indication of who lives in this industrial zone, surrounded by a fence with housing made of shipping containers.
On Saturday (09.03.2013), the central building's light yellow facade scarcely stood out against the cloudy sky. A few children were playing outside on the stairs, and a number of young men were standing along the street leading into the facility. Suddenly, cheerful pop music broke the silence as two small busses with rolled down windows turned into the narrow driveway.
Refugee suicide sparks a movement
The protest tour - dubbed the "Refugees' Revolution Bus Tour" by its organizers - is arriving at its 11th stop. The group, consisting of 15 refugees and a handful of activists, has been on the road since late February, and their aim is to reach 22 cities by the end of March. Along the way, they are protesting for better living conditions in refugee shelters as well as advertising for a rally to be held March 23 in Berlin. The group's members organized themselves spontaneously without the backing of a larger organization.
The protest movement got its start nearly a year ago,following the suicide of an Iranian, Mohammad Rhasepar, who hung himself on January 29, 2012, in a state-run facility in Bavaria. Prior to his death, his application to move to Kiel in northern Germany to be with his sister had been denied. Rhasepar's story led asylum-seekers from across Germany to join together and demand more rights.
Isolation and frustration
Turgay from Turkey is among those in the Refugees' Revolution Bus Tour this time. As a Marxist, he spent 15 years in a Turkish prison.
"We have three demands," he says. "Put an end to the residency requirement, the camps and deportations."
The residency requirement means asylum-seekers in Germany are prohibited from leaving their respective administrative districts. Meanwhile, 11 of Germany's 16 states have loosened up this regulation, allowing people to move freely within the state's borders. On the other hand, this freedom can quickly be restricted on a case by case basis.
Turgay finds the generally isolated location of the shelters especially troubling, comparing them to prisons.
28-year-old Mahadi from Sudan is also among the group of protesters. He has been in Germany for nearly a year, coming to Europe because he no longer felt safe after his father became involved with rebel groups. Mahadi attracted suspicion from authorities and was put in prison for months
"I have been to several European Countries. It was a terrible journey. But Germany is the worst place I have ever visited in my life. I don't like anything in Germany," he said, adding, "I don't believe in the refugee system in Germany. The way they keep people in the camps for years and years. They make people useless. They just keep them in the camps without work and study."
Financed by donations
Haydar Ucar says he joined the protest movement as a show of solidarity. The 51-year-old German of Turkish descent says he was once an asylum seeker.
The tour, Ucar explains, must be planned carefully because little money is available. The group's food and transportation costs are financed by donations. "We stay overnight with friends of the group. In each city, there's a contact that can help us," Ucar adds.
Together with other protesters, he unrolls a cloth banner as members of the group shout "Freedom, freedom!" The refugee camp's residents stick their heads out of windows one by one. Some hesitate at the camp's entryway, visibly uncertain whether they should come out or not.
The young men who were hanging out in front of the entrance before the protesters arrived are already talking to the group. A mix of German, English, French and Turkish can be heard.
The protesters ultimately enter the camp to talk with the inhabitants. Most say they've heard nothing about the planned protest, and almost no one here has access to the Internet.
"I don't think that many people here in the camp will come to the demonstration," says one man from Iran. "Some say that things are okay here. Others are afraid."
"Yes, and that's a problem," says one member of the protest group.
This particular camp in the state of Hessen has already achieved notoriety. For years, some politicians and volunteers have been fighting to secure a better housing situation for the approximately 200 men, women and children here. They complain that the rooms are too small and plagued by dirt and mildew.
The camp's residents include 18-year-old Pecan from Afghanistan. He has been granted refugee status, but cannot move out until he can provide for himself financially. Pecan has lived for over two years in Germany and he is now attending a technical secondary school.
"It's definitely hard to live in a refugee camp as a pupil. At 11 o'clock at night, I want to have my peace and quiet, but it's often loud, and people drink a lot," he said.
After around four hours, the protest group was in high spirits again. Following a night in Frankfurt, the group went on to Cologne. With the music turned up again, a few camp residents stood at the entrance and waved. As the bus disappeared around the corner, Pecan got back to his daily routine playing soccer with a couple of friends in a field near the camp.
He won't be heading to the group's demonstration in Berlin, he says: "I have school."