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'We are street kids now'

Kathrin Erdmann/slk
June 2, 2013

The fate of African refugees is currently straining relations between Italy and Germany. Several hundred young men from Africa, who had originally emigrated to Italy, are living a rough life in Hamburg.

Refugees in tent in Hamburg; photo: DW/Kathrin Erdmann 31.05 2013 Hamburg
Image: DW

It's eight o'clock in the morning, and a handful of men are already gathered in the tent that's been put up right next to Hamburg Central Station. A banner hanging on the exterior of the tent reads: "Nato's war caused us to flee. We demand our rights."

31-year-old Friday from Nigeria left Italy about a month ago when the refugee camps there were closed and came to Hamburg. The Italian authorities provided Friday with documents that allowed him to travel in the Schengen area, the bloc of 26 European countries that have abolished passport and immigration controls at their common borders. In addition, Friday was given 500 euros in cash. "That was a gift from the Italian government. They said they couldn't finance us any longer."

Money from the European Union's refugee funds stopped flowing in February. As a consequence, Italy closed its refugee camps. The men had to sleep wherever they could. "They gave us papers and said we could travel to any other EU country and start a new life." The Italian government has since rejected those claims, saying that the refugees were never given any explicit recommendations to leave the country.

Refugee tent in Hamburg; DW/Kathrin Erdmann 31.05 2013 Hamburg
The tent for African refugees has attracted a lot of attention - and not just in Hamburg.Image: DW

Wealthy in Libya, homeless in Germany

Friday lived in Italy for two years. He can't say why he ended up in Hamburg. Some 300 Africans with a similar background are estimated to be stranded in Hamburg at the moment. All of them are worried they could be sent back to Italy. "If we have to go back we'll go back to hell. We don't know what will happen to us there."

Friday says he worked as a car mechanic in Libya and had a good life with everything he wanted. Affo from Togo has a similar story to tell. After Libyan ruler Moammar al Gadhafi was toppled, both young men were persecuted because they were foreigners. The local population accused the men of supporting the dictator and of being mercenaries. Affo vehemently rejects those claims.

The past weeks in Germany without accommodation have left their marks on Affo: he seems demoralized, tired and aggressive. "We look for a different place to spend the night every day, we sleep here or there. We live rough." When he and a couple of other African men settled down in one of the city's parks they were chased away quickly. They even received a written threat: "If you don't leave the park voluntarily, we have to evacuate by force," reads the paper written by the authorities of a Hamburg district.

No work permit, or perspective for the future

Some warn of a looming humanitarian disaster in their town. The case triggered a lively debate in Hamburg's regional parliament. "The violation of human dignity is a disgrace for our city," Christiane Schneider from the Left party told DW. The Green Party joined in the criticism, accusing the Hamburg authorities of turning a blind eye on the case and abandoning war refugees to their fate.

Christiane Schneider from the Left Party in Hamburg: DW/ Kathrin Erdmann; 31.05 2013; Hamburg
Christiane Schneider from Hamburg's Left Party: "We need a European solution."Image: DW

The target of the criticism was Hamburg's senator in charge of social affairs, Detlef Scheele from the Social Democratic Party (SPD). He takes a different view: Hamburg, he said, was desperately looking for proper accommodation. Tents were not suitable in the long term, not least because of the continuing rain that the harbor city is famous for. "Negotiations are ongoing. As soon as we've found something we'll take the men there," he promised. But any solution would only work for the next one and a half months maximum, "because the men have no work permit and no residency permit in Germany," the senator stressed.

Italy or Africa

The men's fate has been the topic of negotiations between Germany's ministry of the interior and the Italian government for a few weeks now. Italy is ready to take them back. But Hamburg senator Scheele stressed that the Italian authorities had to provide appropriate housing for them. What if the Italians failed to organize that within the next six weeks? Scheele said he didn't know. All he knew was that the federal ministry of the interior had promised to help, he added.

Christiane Schneider from Hamburg's Left party said there was more to the case. "It's not fair that Italy takes some 60,000 refugees and Germany only takes a couple of hundred. We need a European solution." In the meantime, the discussion between Italy and Germany has taken a different direction altogether. Both countries seem to agree that the best solution would be to make the young men leave the EU altogether and go back to their African home countries.

Young and organized - Asylum-seekers in Europe

The war refugees in the tent in Hamburg call that pure cynicism. They argue that European countries were actively involved in the bomb attacks on Libya which helped topple Gadhafi two years ago. That makes Europeans partly responsible that men like them have lost their livelihoods, say Friday, Affo and the others. Without the attacks they wouldn't be where they are now.