Refugee shelters in Germany took on prison-like characteristics in many places during the COVID-19 pandemic and developed into hotspots of dynamic infection events. For many residents, the pandemic significantly worsened their already stressful living conditions. The protest of the residents, however—despite repeated resistance to the lack of infection protection in various shelters—often received little public attention.
As part of the research project “Endangered Lives. Everyday Life and Protest in Refugee Shelters in the Wake of the Corona Pandemic”, Nikolai Huke conducted 16 interviews with residents in German, English, French, and Farsi. The interviews reveal an appalling picture of living conditions in refugee shelters in many respects. The problems described range from racism, inadequate medical care, noise pollution and lack of privacy, to traumatic experiences due to deportations and violence from security forces. In this first interview, Huke spoke with Ali Mohammadi, an asylum seeker currently living in Germany.
NK: Where did you live before you came to Germany?
AM: First, I was in Greece in the Moria refugee camp. At that time, there were between 8,000 and 9,000 refugees of various nationalities in the camp. Most of them had come a long way, with many fears and dangers. Through the forests, through the sea in a rubber dinghy, it was insanely dangerous and unsafe.
In the camp it was incredibly stressful and there were many terrifying situations. In every corner something happened, fights, many arguments. For example, you were standing in the food line and people were fighting and hitting each other. That was incredibly stressful. The problem was you were practically forced to apply for asylum there, otherwise the police threatened you that you would be deported. For example, they would say, “You arrived today, we will deport you back by tonight if you don’t apply for asylum.”
Can you describe your daily life in Moria?
The situation was incredibly difficult. I am disabled, I am in a wheelchair, which means that for me it was all incredibly complicated and stressful. When we arrived there, I lived in a tent with 16 people. Our tent was on the very edge, so we were able to see all the conflicts directly. Our tent was broken with knives or people were thrown onto the tent.
In the time after I arrived I did not have a wheelchair. I could not stand up or do banal things like go to the bathroom. I could not do all that. I was lying on a mattress on the floor. I had no friends or family in the camp, but some people around me who helped me occasionally. The bad thing was: no matter what happened, for example if there were arguments or conflicts, I could not even run away from the tent. If you have not experienced it yourself, it’s hardly possible for you to really understand how stressful this situation was.
The cold and the overall situation in the camp caused me to experience extreme physical pain. I suffered a lot. There was one doctor for about 9,000 refugees in the camp. Medical care was only available for major emergencies, for example heart attacks and other situations where life was immediately already in danger. Someone like me with extreme physical pain or urological problems was not cared for.
What kind of conflicts and disputes were there in Moria?
Conflicts often arose during mealtimes, for example. You can imagine it like this: all 9,000 people are standing in line and everyone wants food. And then they get on top of each other and suddenly there is a mass brawl with 400 people. There was also alcohol consumption, drug consumption, and selling of drugs and alcohol. That got out of control to some extent and then there were also mass brawls.
Another place where there were conflicts was the doctor. There was always a very long line. People were waiting to be seen. And then, for example, someone came who was acutely ill, in respiratory distress, having a heart attack or about to have one, in other words, things that were very life-threatening—of course they wanted to be seen more quickly, and people clashed.
Securities and staff on site, when they noticed that people were getting into fights and that a mass brawl was imminent, simply left. They closed the offices, the doctor also closed the practice, and then they just left because they were afraid. And so suddenly there was no one left from the staff.
Where did you live after you left Moria?
I lived in the camp in Moria for eight or nine months, then I was transferred to Athens. I stayed there for about a year while I tried to organize my onward journey to Germany.
In Athens I lived in a camp where there were containers. You lived with six people or eight people or up to fourteen people, depending on how the camp was occupied. Sometimes many people came, sometimes some left abruptly. Except for the difference that they lived in containers instead of tents, the situation was similar to Moria.
There was even a case where someone was killed. There were people arguing and somehow, they ended up with this conflict on the man’s doorstep. There were knives, stones, and all such dangerous objects involved. He wanted to protect his family, he wanted to protect his six children and his wife, so he was standing in front of his door and the children were behind him. At that moment he got a knife in his throat and died on the spot, in front of his children.
After your time in Athens, how was your arrival in Germany?
It’s very difficult when you arrive here and you have no one. You do not know how the whole thing works here—where to go, who to ask, where can you get information. Especially when you arrive at night. I went to the police. They took my fingerprints there and then it went on to a camp called Bad Fallingbostel. At Camp Fallingbostel I had to briefly describe how I came to Germany, the question was rather whether I had stayed in other EU countries.
After 15 days, I received a notification that I had stayed in an EU country, which in this case was Greece, and I then had to comment on this. That means that a Dublin procedure was opened. After the written decision, I had to go to court and was told that all EU countries are the same, that the same rights apply everywhere, and that since my first asylum application was in Greece, I was obliged to return there. It was also suggested that I learn the Greek language to be best prepared for this. Why I had travelled on to Germany was not comprehensible to them. The judge then said, “You can of course convince me why you don’t want to or can’t go back to Greece.” I was questioned intensively about my life in Greece when I stayed there. The interview went on for a long time and I reported what I did when I was there.
Now I am in a waiting position and that implies a lot of fears, a lot of stress. In our camp, people are occasionally picked up by the police and every time I see police there, I have massive fears. Because then I think, what should I do if I must return? I have experienced so much misery, so much stress and fear, and it was so hard for me to arrive in Germany at all. What should I do if I must go back? This is my condition right now. I am very afraid of being deported to Greece. The Dublin procedure is still going on. No decision has been made yet. I have been waiting for about a year and four months.
Where do you live now and what are your living conditions there?
They transferred me from Bad Fallingbostel to a camp in Osnabrück. Apart from stress, fears, nightmares, fear of the police, fear of deportation, I do not really notice anything about my life here. I am only busy with my worries and fears. I have massive nightmares about that, where I keep thinking, “What if I have to go back in this misery? What if they do pick me up and deport me?” I do not really feel anything else, that is all that concerns me.
Everyone who lives here in the camp has such fears. That is, all of them have a Dublin procedure and fear of being deported. There are people here who have come from Greece, Italy, Austria, and other countries. Our days and nights consist of fear of being deported, of being picked up by the police—nightmares, insane fears. Everyone is busy with their fears and worries.
How do the deportations take place?
It happens exclusively at night, usually from 23:00 on. Up to 13 police officers arrive, even if there are only three people who are to be deported. Then they stand in front of the door with 13 officers and pick up the people. Usually what happens is that you are told, “You have five minutes to get ready, pack your things.”
If you are not cooperative and you’re not willing to cooperate, then you get in big trouble with them. Then they get nasty. Sometimes people try to escape. They jump out of the window and run across the yard away from the police. I have seen how they are chased by the police. I have experienced such a chase. I stood further away and saw how they try to run away, to escape.
There are people here who have become ill because of the situation, many people suffer from various forms of depression, mental illnesses, there are suicide attempts. I know of cases that have spent weeks in the hospital to be stabilized again after the suicide attempt. That happens more so with younger people—the older ones withdraw, suffer from heart disease, heart attacks, heart failure, and other illnesses.
What is the medical care like in Osnabrück?
The first information we got was that only very serious health problems are treated, heart attacks, life-threatening stuff. People like me, for example, I am in a wheelchair—well, I do not have cancer, but even the most necessary examinations are not done. There is only emergency care, illnesses are rather put on hold so that you do not suffer massively from them, but not treated.
People who are very ill are given makeshift treatment to get them out of mortal danger. But for proper treatment, you must wait. Until one has applied for asylum and has been transferred to the follow-up shelter, one is not treated; there is only emergency medical care.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your life?
The living situation has become much more problematic because of the coronavirus. We have a lot of people in the camp from different age groups, people who are potentially at risk, that is, older people, people with different diseases, such as lung failure or cancer or just old or people with massive allergies or small children. They are insanely afraid of getting sick.
More fears have been added to the fears that existed before the pandemic, so people feel extraordinarily frightened. Many here are afraid of a mass infection—what if everyone gets infected and everyone is locked up in quarantine? How will that be organized? How do we get medical care, how do we get to a hospital? We usually only know that urgent cases receive medical care, so what happens to the others in such a case? These are fears that we have. Mass infection, high-risk patients, quarantine, and the question of who will get medical care at all in the event of infection. Four to five people still live in the rooms, and there is neither disinfectant nor soap in the washrooms.
The virus has also made all bureaucratic procedures take much longer. The staff in the camp has been greatly reduced, which leads to many problems and insane delays. For example, it takes an insanely long time to get an appointment at the immigration office. There is very little staff there now and they cannot keep up. It takes a long time to get a transfer, the asylum procedure now also takes an insanely long time. People with Dublin procedures, who used to get a decision within six months, sometimes wait for a year because of the pandemic and because there is little staff. In the first six months, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a deportation stop. But after six months, it continued until now. The deportations continue.