Forty Balkan refugees are seeking church asylum in a cathedral in the quaint German town of Regensburg. DW's Kate Brady went to Bavaria to find out why deportation to their statutorily "safe" homelands isn't an option.
Shortly after 8:30 a.m., a couple of Bavaria's summer tourists snapped photos in the Regensburg Cathedral. Digital shutter clatter and the beeps of successful shots echoed through the Gothic structure, breaking the stillness of the church. And then came the raucous laughter of a toddler.
Behind a heavy-duty door marked "cathedral treasure" were about 40 refugees from the Balkans, most of them Roma from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia who had left a deportation camp in nearby Ingolstadt on Tuesday to seek church asylum at the Regensburg Cathedral, dedicated to St. Peter, the first pope of the Catholic Church.
Between a jigsaw of camp beds, tiny heads peeped out in curiosity. SpongeBob SquarePants, Batman, Minnie Mouse - from the array of pajamas you'd be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a Scouts sleepover. But these children and their families are making one last effort to avoid being deported from Germany.
Since 2015, Germany has classified Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo as "safe countries of origin," meaning that people from those nations no longer have the right to seek asylum here. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia were given the same status the previous year. Several human rights organizations have criticized the move, arguing that the rule of law in many Balkan countries is not comparable with that in Germany and other EU nations.
Many of the people who have taken refuge in Regensburg Cathedral told DW that the Balkans are anything but "safe" for them.
Among them is 43-year-old Bardhok Bardhoku. He moved to Germany from Laq, Albania, with his wife and three children last summer. The youngest of his two daughters was born here in Germany.
"Albania is not a 'safe country,'" Bardhoku said. "There are many criminals in parliament, and money from the EU to help rebuild Albania falls into the wrong hands."
"Our children can’t go to school as they face threats from the mafia," Bardhoku said. "They can’t go to a doctor or the hospital without money. You might have to sell your house - or even your body."
Over 30 years after the death of longtime strongman Enver Hoxha and a quarter century since the end of nominal communism in Albania, the country is one of the poorest in Europe, with unemployment estimated at about 30 percent.
Bardhoku, who ran an internet cafe in Albania, said he was being pursued back home by the mafia over a property dispute. "We can’t go back," he said. "My children would be under threat. They could be murdered."
No easy return
Twenty-seven-year-old Ademi Albana said her family was threatened by criminals in Kosovo. "My husband is being chased with a death penalty," she said.
The mother of three has been in Germany for 17 months this time around. She spent the first 12 years of her life in the northwestern city of Bielefeld, where she was born. After the 1990s war, her family was sent back to Kosovo.
None of Albana’s children have been able to attend school during their year and a half in Germany, including her eldest son, 10-year-old Erzan.
"I want to stay in Germany," he said. "I just want to go to school and learn math, geography, everything - even tests!"
A school field trip and herds of tourists milled about the cathedral as the family told their story in a tiny courtyard, the only outdoor space available to them.
"What can I say?" Erzan continued, watching the students file past. "School in Kosovo was very different. If I got one number wrong in math, then I’d be punished."
"Our hands would be caned until it broke," he said. "And it wasn't a little one!"
Asked if he missed the rest of his family back home, he answered bluntly: "We don’t have any. They’re all dead."
Eight years since Kosovo declared independence, Erzan’s hometown of Mitrovica, continues to be divided between ethnic Serbs, who moved to the north of the city after the war, and ethnic Albanians in the south.
"We can’t go back now anyway," Erzan said. "Some Serbs destroyed the house."
"Two years ago, they came and shot at the house - just shooting for an hour," he said. "We had to run away quickly."
"They went into our rooms and took our bed and our television," he said. "They took mine, too," he added. "It was only a small one."
Solidarity and donations
For the past 48 hours, the refugees have been provided with food and goods from the Malteser aid organization, as well as the donations from the public. Outside the cathedral a group of supporters have set up camp in solidarity, calling for donations of basic items such as blankets, nappies and cool boxes.
"We cannot thank them enough," said 33-year-old Mohammed Shakiri. He moved to Germany with his wife and four children from Kosovo in 2014. His wife is in need of medication for a mental illness; one of his sons suffers from epilepsy.
Almost half of Kosovo's 1.8 million inhabitants live in poverty, with about 40 percent of employable people out of work. Shakiri said ingrained prejudices made life particularly difficult for Roma. "They don’t want to give us work," he said. "They won’t let us go to school. We can’t get a house. We have no chance.”
"We’ll stay here until our demands are met," Shakiri said.
What will happen in the coming days remains unclear. In the meantime, the police, who are working closely with the diocese, have said there's no need for action against the demonstrators while the cathedral continues to offer church asylum.
With summer temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius (85 F), the small confines of the makeshift camp and lack of washing facilities are bound to take their toll.
"Of course hygiene’s important, but the main thing is we're safe," Albana said, before being distracted by the arrival of a woman who appeared to be in her 60s.
"Is it true that you've set up camp here?" the woman asked, gesturing at the dozens of beds.
"This is wrong," she said, not waiting for an answer.
"A church is not a refugee home," she said, while her husband, guidebook in hand, looked on sheepishly, casting a glance at the door as if considering making an escape.
The woman said she was Greek and that she, too, had come to Germany as a refugee. She turned down Albana’s offer of a coffee and eventually left.
"That's happened a few times," Bardhoku said. "But they’re the rare cases. Most of the time we have the support of the people," he added. "Now we just need the support of the state."