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Church accused of 'starving out' refugees in Regensburg

Ben KnightAugust 8, 2016

An ugly stand-off at a church in Regensburg has now ended, after the local diocese filed charges against four families of Roma refugees who took shelter inside. The refugees left after police turned up in force.

Flüchtlinge in Pfarrheim von Regensburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Weigel

A month of talks, several protests, and a hunger strike have finally ended at the Catholic St. Emmeram community center in Regensburg, Bavaria, where four Roma families from various Balkan countries had taken shelter since early July.

In a final, and apparently successful, attempt to force the refugees out over the weekend, the church had pressed trespassing charges, stopped providing food and barred refugee helpers from bringing provisions themselves. Late on Monday, the refugees left the community center voluntarily with a police presence outside.

The diocese confirmed that what it called a "protest action" had now ended. "The final 16 people have left the community center and are on their way to the authorities, who will clear up the remaining business," a statement released Monday read. "The community center is now once again available for church use. The necessary restoration work can begin."

On Friday, the local Catholic diocese issued a statement saying that it had been left with "no other choice than to increase the pressure" by pressing trespassing charges, though it added that "an emergency doctor is reachable." Some 16 people were still in the center at that point, including five children and a six-month-old baby, down from a peak of 50 sheltering inside in mid-July.

The situation, which had become increasingly fraught over the past month, escalated last Thursday, when talks ended in a stalemate because the Roma made what the church described as "non-satisfiable conditions" - in other words, as Stephan Dünnwald of the Bavarian Refugee Council explained, the refugees had asked for some kind of guarantee that they could stay in the country.

Flüchtlinge in Pfarrheim von Regensburg
Four families are believed to be left in the community centerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Weigel

No alternatives

But by Friday, the remaining families inside the church said they were willing to leave. According to a statement from Sunday by the Bavarian Refugee Council, three families said that, for "lack of alternatives," they would like to return to their home countries (Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo), while the fourth said they would like to go back to the state of Baden-Württemberg, where they have "residential tolerance status."

In return, they asked the church to supply food until their voluntary return can be organized, as well as help from the Catholic Caritas charity and the foreigners' registration office.

In its statement condemning the church's actions as "outrageous," the Refugee Council accused the church and the authorities of showing a lack of will in helping the refugees to leave. "The apparent claim of the central foreigners' authority of the Oberpfalz region that a voluntary departure could not be organized from Regensburg is factually wrong," the statement read.

"They could find a way if they wanted to guarantee the voluntary exit from the country," said Gotthold Streitberger of the Bavarian Refugee Council.

Streitberger told DW that he had been prevented from entering the center at the weekend, and that the church had threatened the security guards with dismissal if they did not stop food being taken in. "Some people came with food, and the security guards said politely that it can't be taken in, so they tried to set it down outside, and the children wanted to come out and take it, but that was banned too," he said.

Tense situation

"The refugees are very tense and nervous at the moment," he said on Monday. "They don't understand why they are being starved out now that they've said they want to leave."

The "Bayerische Rundfunk" broadcaster quoted an unnamed volunteer saying they had managed to smuggle food inside over the weekend, but Streitberger could not confirm this.

For his part, the church's priest, Michael Fuchs, angrily accused the refugees of exploiting their own children: "While parents in need normally try to keep their children out of conflicts and publications, these children have been used from the beginning as banner holders, as photo objects on the protest front, and yes, in concrete threats even as potential orphans through the suicide of their parents," he said. "Just for the sake of the children, the parents' actions must now end quickly."

Deutschland Regensburg - Flüchtlinge - Hasije Shabaj und Amet Shabaj
Refugees had previously occupied Regensburg cathedralImage: DW/K. Brady

Streitberger said such angry exchanges were all the result of the tense month-long stand-off. "You have to remember there was a period of around eight or ten days when the area was completely kettled by police - a huge police presence, and there was no access possible at all," he told DW. "And in that time of course [the refugees] were in despair, and it came to some escalation, and someone did say that then they would only leave as a corpse and that their children would be orphans ... but that was about ten days ago and they took that back."

Stephan Dünnwald admitted that the church had provided humanitarian care at first - food and shelter - but it had not made use of the legal privilege that allows churches in Germany to take people in its protection.

"The church has let its role be dictated by the Interior Ministry," he told DW. "They haven't offered the refugees anything - one Caritas charity worker went there to look at their cases and see if it made sense to find a lawyer for them or something, but he was withdrawn and wasn't allowed to go back."