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 John Adebayo (name changed), who lived in accommodations for refugees in Ingolstadt, Munich, and Miesbach. He criticizes violent treatment of refugees by staff and police and demands the dismantling of refugee accommodations to protect their residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
NH: How long have you been living in accommodations for refugees in Germany?
JA: I came to Germany in 2017. I arrived in Munich, after six days they transferred us to Ingolstadt. I stayed there for close to eight months before I was transferred back to Funkkaserne in Munich. That is where I stayed with my wife and my kids for almost two years.
There were many problems: regarding transfer, police harassment, security brutality. When you talk about some of the things that go on in these centres, it looks so ridiculous. When you tell people that, “This is the kind of treatment we have to live with,” People tell you, “Oh, that is not true. That is not what we see in media. That is not what we see on television.” Sometimes I just decide to keep quiet, because if you say something, it does not mean anything. Nobody is going to believe you, because they will tell you they have never seen anything like that.
How was life in the accommodations for you?
The situation in Ingolstadt was terrible. The standard of living in the camp was totally zero. You do not even treat animals the way they treated us. Staff is literally telling you that you are not welcome. They just want to be wicked to you. You are not allowed to cook on your own, they say that they want to give you food. Okay, I accept that, no problem. But it is my right to eat good food. You give me bread, I eat in the morning, in the afternoon you give me the same thing, in the evening you give me the same thing.
Sometimes you go out, you buy bread on your own. You want to take it inside. You cannot. They will tell you, “No.” That you are not allowed to bring in bread into the camp. I am not even talking about the maltreatment, the beating, the injuries that the security operatives inflict on individuals.
Can you give an example of maltreatment?
In Funkkaserne, a pregnant lady, she was my friend, had an accident in the room, in which she seriously injured her leg. The lady went to the social workers in the camp to complain, “Look what happened to my leg.” They said, “Okay, no problem. They are going to help you to fix the leg or treat the leg.” Something like that. The lady said, “No.” That they should call ambulance for her, because the leg had a big cut.
The social workers refused. They just gave her first aid and left her like that. After like three days she fell sick. She then went back to the social workers to tell them that, “Look, this leg has turned to something else. Please call me the ambulance.” Because if you call the ambulance yourself, they will tell you that if the bill comes, you are the person to pay. But if the social worker calls the ambulance, there are no bills. So, that was the reason why the lady said, “Okay, call the ambulance for me.”
They refused again, which generated an argument between the husband and some of the social workers. The social workers called the police and told them the man wants to fight them. They never said anything about what had happened, they just said the man wants to fight them. The police came and they did not even ask the man or the lady what happened. Then they put them in a room and said they will be transferred to Ingolstadt. The guy said, “No.” That he is not going. He asked, why a request for an ambulance to treat his wife’s leg resulted in a transfer. It turned into a big argument.
The next thing, I do not know what happened there, the police put something on the lady and the man’s body and they fell unconscious. She was a pregnant woman! Then they covered the lady’s head with a paper bag and put the lady and the man in the bus. I was surprised, I was thinking maybe they were dead, because of the way the police handled them. These are the kind of treatments that we get each day.
Even when we only request a transfer from the camp, social workers will just call in the police. The next thing you know, the police will come, start hitting you with a stick, pointing a gun, telling you to go inside. “If you cannot stay here, go back to your country.” When the police comes, the police will not even ask you what happened. They will say, “Okay, this person reported you to us, he said you hit him, we are taking you to jail.” They handcuff you like a criminal, put you in the van, sometimes you spend three days, four days, a week in the cell.
After they release you, you have a letter telling you to go and pay a fine of 2,000 euro. You are giving me 120 euro every month. And now you are giving me a letter to go and pay someone 2,000 euros. Where will I get the money from? If you do not pay, after I think three months, something like that, they will take you to court. The judge will just say, “Okay, because you could not pay the money, you are sentenced to three months imprisonment.” He will not really investigate what was going on. At the end of the day, they just want to make you feel unsafe, make you feel uncomfortable. There were quite a few of these cases reported to our group, Refugee Struggle for Freedom.
One time, I personally had a confrontation with one social worker that almost led to a fight over baby food. They are supposed to give me some food for my baby, but the guy refused to give it to me. He was saying that I should go and buy the food. I told him they brought this food because of us. “Even you”, I said, “You are even working here because of us. If we are not here, you will not be here working. If we are not here, they will not bring this food for you to share.” So, probably that was what triggered him. That made him so angry that he pushed me. It almost turned into a fight before some of my friends pulled me back. But generally, I decided to distance myself from everything that will lead to a confrontation or a fight between me and security, or social workers, whatever, you know. It is not a fair game.
How was the housing situation in the camps?
Sometimes there were three families in one room, like ten or more people from different families. If you tell this to people outside the camp, they will tell you it is not true, but these are things that always go on every day. We lived with two other families in one room. The first family had one child. The other had three. And I had one at that time. When people come, or when journalists want to enter the camp to really know the situation of things, they will never allow anybody into the camp. This way they can keep secret what is going on in the centres.
It was a really, really terrible experience being forced to share a room with other families. I consider it another strategy of the government to cause problems for the immigrants or for the asylum seekers. You have different opinions, different ideas, you live in one room with other people, you know everybody wants to exercise their own right. Imagine somebody opens the door and bangs the door. The other person is telling you that, “Please do not bang the door.” You know, these common things. “Oh, I kept something here. Your child took it.” Or “You went to the bathroom; you stay too long.” And all those kinds of stuff. These conflicts divide the people living in the camps and make it difficult to come together to face the common enemy: the security, the social workers, and the police.
How did the situation affect you and your family?
I want to work. If they allowed me to work, I could use my power, my knowledge, my strength, earn my own money and at the same time pay taxes to the government. But Germany will tell you that they do not want you to work, because they have another agenda towards you. They do not want you to work, because it is their way of telling you that you are not welcome here. They do not want you here. So, they will make sure that whatever dreams, whatever aspiration you have, they will kill that dream for you. Instead of letting me work, they give me money every month.
When I tell them that, “Okay, since you cannot allow me to work, let me go to school at least.” They will tell me that they cannot allow me to go to school because I do not have a document. I cannot even go to school, there is not even an integration course for me. If I have an appointment in an office, they will tell me to bring a translator, because I cannot speak German. I can neither understand it, nor respond. You do not allow me to go to school, you do not allow me to work, so how do you want me to integrate? Or are you just trying to punish me?
I have nothing to do. Sitting at home every day is worse than somebody who is in a prison. Because at least in prison, there are activities. The only thing that you do not have access to is, “Okay, I want to go out.” But at least there are things you can do that will make your mind ease, make your think a little less. But here, there is nothing, absolutely nothing.
We are now accommodated very remotely in Miesbach. Apart from our family there are mainly single men living here. But they brought us here with our kids. I have two kids. One of my kids is almost three years now. He cannot even talk. He cannot express himself because he does not see anybody to play with. He only stays in the room. My wife is only the woman that lives here. They will tell me that because I am from Nigeria, because I am an asylum seeker, I have no right to tell them where to put me. That they will decide where they want to put me.
When did you decide to become involved in political activism and join Refugee Struggle for Freedom?
It was after we did a rally in Ingolstadt because of the standard of living in the camp. For me, it is just a way to express yourself to the government, to do what is necessary, to do what is right. The people in the group are very, very nice people. A lot of people in the camps are scared to come forward to join the struggle. They do not want to come forward. They will tell you that if there is a policeman at the rally, the policeman will see them if they are talking. That they are afraid, they do not want any problem with the government. It is just a few of us that have the guts to say, “Okay, we want to tell the things the way they are, no matter the circumstances, no matter the situation. It is something that needs to be said. So, we must say it.”
How did the pandemic affect you?
One time, our place was sealed off completely for a month. That experience was really, really terrible. For example, you will have no more baby food and you tell them, “Okay, I cannot go out. No problem. But help me to buy this thing.” They will tell you, “No.” The situation was dramatic. Seriously.
The government is not doing what they should to protect the lives of people living in refugee camps. It was us from Refugee Struggle for Freedom who provided masks for residents. We had some tailors who embarked on this mission to make thousands of masks that we shared to each camp. But this should be the responsibility of the government!
The life of an asylum seeker does not mean anything to them. How can you justify keeping eight people, nine people in one room during the pandemic? They go out their different ways. They come back to sleep in the same room. And you are saying, you are fighting COVID! With that, can you fight COVID? You cannot. How can you gather hundreds of people in one hall to eat in the camps? The government should have said, “Okay, let us dismantle these centres, so that we can control this virus.”
But the government is just saying on the radio, on the television, that, “If you want to keep this virus in check, you have to distance yourself from other people.” Now, what about the people that live in the camp? Does the government talk about this? No. Because to them, our lives do not matter.
Nobody wants to get infected. Nobody wants to die. But the people that have the power to make things right are not doing anything. So, we are on our own. We take it upon ourselves to say, “Okay, let us do things such as providing masks. If the government is not ready to help us.”