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Protesting asylum policy

Friedel Taube/sgb
July 16, 2012

The tents on the bank of the Rhine river look a bit like they're home to a circus. But in fact, they house asylum seekers and activists who have gathered in Cologne to discuss Germany's asylum policies.

Image: DW/F.Taube

A tent camp, not far from the center of Cologne, directly on the banks of the Rhine. A. seems a little lost among the newly pitched tents that will be his home for the next few days. He came from Ivory Coast to Germany to apply for asylum, but has now come to Cologne to protest against the conditions he faces as an asylum seeker. The "No Border Camp" gives him the opportunity to do so.

Residency requirement for applicants

"It was easy to come to Germany. It was an escape. In my country there was war, and I also had personal problems," A. said. He came to Germany on the plane. It will now be decided whether he is allowed to remain. He is faced with many difficulties. "I'm living in a refugee camp. The food is not good, I live with four people in the room - it is very cramped. I get only 40 euros a month. This is not a humane life," A. said.

A. would rather not read his name and age in the news, and he doesn't want to reveal the location of his detention center - only that it isn't in Cologne, he admits sheepishly. The reason for his reticence is the mandatory residency requirements, which state that an applicant for asylum is not allowed to leave the area in which he is registered. A weekend trip to Berlin or Munich is unthinkable for A., because he would risk deportation: "They tell us we must not leave this region. It's like being in prison." The trip to Cologne is a risk. But for him, this opportunity to protest is worth it.

Around 30,000 asylum seekers a year

Maria Sopala is one of the people who set up the No Border Camp. With the camp she wants to make the public aware of the needs of asylum seekers. "We always think from our 'white' perspective. As a white German, I have this freedom of movement. I can choose to travel freely, to emigrate, to lead a free life elsewhere. But for many people, this does not apply," Sopala said: "They include people who have no secure residence status, who had to or wanted to leave their countries."

There are still two hours until the official start of the camp. More and more people are coming onto the pitch; how many are already there, Sopala cannot say. As she walks across the area, she takes a critical look at the sky: For the next few days, heavy rain is forecast. But even that won't keep the campers from focusing on the issues: Around 30,000 people a year come to Germany and apply for asylum. It often takes many months before the asylum process is complete. A time of uncertainty for those affected. Sopala has had to deal with the fate of these people. "Their struggles are everyday struggles: Where can I get something to eat? How do I get an extension of my residency permit? How can I get my asylum application accepted? They all try to behave as inconspicuously as possible."

Protests, workshops and forums

Only very few succeed in their application for asylum. All the others are forcibly sent back to their home countries - usually by plane. This is where the No Border Camp protest comes in - the location in the Rhineland was not chosen by accident. "Our focus is on the mass deportations from Düsseldorf airport," Sopala said. "In Düsseldorf, Sinti and Roma in particular are deported to Serbia and Kosovo." The participants in the camp, of whom up to 1,000 are expected, plan to travel several times to Düsseldorf airport to be heard.

Fifteen large tents stand in the field on the Rhine, arranged in rows, one across from the other. The biggest tent is a little further away, but catches your attention immediately: the yellow-red striped circus tent gives the impression that a village circus might have stopped here, as if a herd of ponies and a few clowns would appear from nowhere. But there's no high-wire act here - just discussions and planning, because the topic is serious. In workshops and plenary sessions, participants will look for solutions on how the lives of asylum seekers in Germany and the rest of the EU can be improved. "This will take the form of workshops, lectures and events. There are daily workshop phases and plenary sessions," Sopala said.

Lack of understanding for the German authorities

Sopala also knows that people like A. undertake a high risk by coming to Cologne: "That's always been our dilemma: On the one hand we want people to come here, but on the other hand, we cannot guarantee them that they will not experience repression. Ultimately it is the decision of the individual, whether to come."

Even so, A. looks to the coming days with confidence. He also hopes the camp will change the situation of asylum seekers a little. "I did not think that Germany treated its refugees in this way. If you had told me that before, I would not have believed it," he said. But it is no longer possible for him to move to another European country where there is no residence requirement, and to ask for asylum there. According to European law, he can only apply for asylum in one country. "I don't want the Germans' money - that's not what this is about," he said. What he says he wants is something he regards as the natural right of every human being: to life and to work in a place of his choosing - wherever in the world that is.

main tent of the No Border Camp in Cologne
The camp's main tent may not look the part, but it's where serious discussions take placeImage: DW/F.Taube
Maria Sopala, spokesperson for the No Border Camp
Camp-organizer Maria Sopala wants asylum seekers to have the same rights as GermansImage: DW/F.Taube
poster for the No Border Camp Was ist zu sehen? No Border Camp 2012, ein Zeltlager, mit dem vom 14-24.07.2012 in Köln gegen die deutsche Abschiebepolitik demonstriert wird Copyright liegt bei No Border Köln 2012. Zugestellt von Friedel Taube
The No Border Camp is about discussions and workshops - and protesting deportations from Düsseldorf airportImage: No Border Köln 2012