Fighting for freedom in free-spirited Berlin | Scene in Berlin | DW | 28.06.2013
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Scene in Berlin

Fighting for freedom in free-spirited Berlin

In Berlin, work has begun on a new documentation center on forced migration in the 20th century. It should serve as a reminder that the freedoms Berliners enjoy aren't to be taken for granted, says DW's Louise Osborne.

Despite the heavy bags weighing me down as I climbed the stairs to my first apartment in Berlin, I felt as light as a feather.

I was happy to be moving to the German capital, a vibrant city that had already promised me the freedom to pursue the career I had always wanted and the living standards I could not afford in London.

Almost two years later, as I stand at the edge of a dark square in Berlin buzzing with the sound of music and shouting - the normal soundtrack of a Friday night in the alternative district of Kreuzberg -, I realize how much I appreciate that freedom.

A demonstration banner at a refugee protest camp on Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Photo: Louise Osborne.

"No borders": Refugees on Oranienplatz are protesting for the right to freedom of movement

It is the reason many people come to the city: for the freedom to party, the freedom to live your life as you choose and the freedom to live without persecution.

Here I meet Austin. He's in Berlin, not to enjoy the party atmosphere of one of Europe's most famous clubbing cities, but to protest against the Residenzpflicht, the German law which prevents refugees from having freedom of movement.

It essentially dictates they must stay in the refugee detention centers they have been assigned to.

He came to Germany from Nigeria to escape the violence he says threatened his life there and now lives in a refugee camp close to Stuttgart in the southwest of the country.

"I've been here one year and eight months," he tells me. "I live in a room with lots of others, I can't work and I can't go to school," he says, adding that he is waiting for his application for asylum to be processed by the German authorities.

Seeking refuge

With its cheap rents and high living standards, Berlin is a magnet for students and hipsters looking for a relaxed way of life, combined with the thrills and spills of a hip European city.

But as well as attracting migrants, who, like me, are looking for a home away from home, it also pulls in those seeking refuge from violence and conflicts in their home countries.

Figures published by the United Nations show there are an estimated 85,560 asylum seekers waiting for their applications to be handled in Germany.

In 2012, 3,582 people applied for asylum in Berlin alone, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

Forced from their homes in Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Iraq, Serbia and elsewhere, refugees flock to Germany looking for a new start.

What they find is space in a room in abandoned Berlin police stations, hospitals or schools, where they share with five or six others, sleeping on fold-out beds.

They are unable to work, often prevented from going to school to learn German, meaning they can't integrate. And many now say they have had enough.

City of contrasts

Lone figures dressed in jeans, T-shirts and shabby, thin jackets sit hunched over on mismatched chairs. The grassy square is dotted with tired looking tents and small, makeshift marquees between banners proclaiming "No border, no nation, stop deportation" and "Kein mensch ist illegal" (no person is illegal).

It all makes for a striking contrast to the skinny-jeaned, smartphone toting hipsters ambling by the camp on Oranienplatz, surrounded as it is by trendy, overflowing bars and restaurants.

The camp has become the center of a raging battle between asylum seekers, desperate for more rights and for the freedom to build a life in a country they have yet to call home, and the German state - a state some say should have more sympathy in light of its past.

Demonstration banners at a refugee protest camp on Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Photo: Louise Osborne.

The refugee protest camp stands in stark contrast to trendy bars and restaurants surrounding it

Earlier this month, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at a ceremony to mark the start of construction on a new documentation center on the forced migration of persons in the 20th century by the Federal Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation.

The center, being built at the Deutschlandhaus, close to Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, will feature a permanent exhibition dedicated to those Germans forced to flee their homes after World War II.

Around 14 million German nationals and ethnic Germans were displaced from what is now Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as other European states. Expellees faced horrific conditions, including poverty, hunger, disease, the loss of their civil rights and separation from their loved ones.

Estimates of the number of people who died during the flight and expulsions range from 500,000 to two million. Many were forced out of their homes as the Soviet Red Army marched towards Berlin. Others were expelled following Germany's defeat and the redrawing of national borders as part of the Potsdam Agreement.

Present concern

The effects of the World War II are still keenly felt in a city full of empty spaces where buildings once stood before the bombings. Entire communities were torn apart here as Jews, Roma, homosexuals and many others were deported and murdered during the Holocaust.

Although the horrors are far from forgotten, I hope the new documentation center will remind visitors that forced migration is not an issue of the past, but one very much in the present as people are driven from their homes and everything they've ever known in the face of war and persecution.

Demonstration banners at a refugee protest camp on Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Photo: Louise Osborne.

Angela Merkel said that the new documentation center should be a focus for the "European spirit of reconciliation"

In her speech at the start of construction of the Berlin center, Merkel said that as well as being a reminder of the displacement of Germans, it would also be a focus for the "European spirit of reconciliation."

As a European, I am lucky enough to be in a position where I am able to move freely within the European Union - a freedom that gave me the choice to move to Berlin, work and make a home here, and allows me to return to my home in London whenever I wish.

Berlin is a city that invites diversity. It is liberal and free-spirited in ways that even other German cities are not. These are the freedoms that residents of Berlin take for granted.

The refugee protesters camped out in Oranienplatz fight in the hope that they too will one day have the same freedoms.

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