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 interview, Huke spoke with Asif Ahmadi about his experiences with COVID-19, deportations, and violent security guards in different refugee accommodations in Germany.
How did you experience your asylum procedure?
My first contact was in in Berlin. I just introduced myself at Tempelhof, then I gave them all my documents, passport, ID card, every document a person can have, but after two-and-a-half years — 31 months — I have this cross in my papers that I do not have an identity. The cross is for people whose identity is not known by the government. I do not know what happened.
My second contact with the BAMF [Federal Ministry] was in Bamberg. I had my first interview in June, and they sent me a paper, “We’re investigating about your Dublin case.” That was one month after my first interview, then nothing happened. After 30 months, just like one month ago, I received a letter that they did not approve my application for asylum. I just now appealed against it. I am waiting the courts to decide. When you appeal against the first interview, they will send you to court. If the courts take another 30 months to decide, it will be five years I am staying in Germany with nothing.
Can you tell me about the day you first arrived in a refugee camp in Germany?
Actually, it was not daytime, it was night. The usual situation is you just go there with the paper you have in your hand, I got this paper from Berlin, and you get checked by security in the entrance. They took me to Block 2. There’s Block 2 in Bamberg that people who come newly to Bamberg go and stay a night there.
I think it was Friday I arrived in Bamberg. They took me to Block 2 and I stayed there with so many other people who were new. We slept there, in the morning the security came and took us to the canteen to eat breakfast, then they took us to the doctor. They took blood from us and so on. I did it in Berlin before, but I did it again in Bamberg.
Security takes people after the doctor to the housemaster. The housemaster takes you to the room where you must stay. A usual day in Bamberg is something like they open the canteen at 7:30AM for breakfast up to 9:30, then we had lunch at 12:00, we have dinner at 17:00.
You must check the post. There is a list in the post you must check if there is an invitation to the interview, if you have got a negative answer, if you have got a positive answer, if you have got a transfer to another city. Some things you should check every morning, and people come and stand in line to take their letters. If they are sick, they come to the doctor. Again, they stand in line.
I think for half-a-day, people at Bamberg stand in lines. It is like two or three hours they stand in line to come to the doctor. We had a bus every hour from morning to evening and we received 100 euro. I have the receipt here. It was not possible to have a refrigerator, nor to cook in the rooms or inside the house.
How was life in Bamberg?
There is security everywhere inside. They do not allow other people to come inside. If somebody from outside wants to come inside, he must leave his passport at the door so they can understand this is your guest, but everyone must leave by 20:00. After 20:00, when it is dark, noone except refugees should be there. Then there is no authority. I can say securities are the chief in that time. They do whatever they want. There were so many fights with securities there. They said some bad words to the girls and somehow this girl would go to her brother and say that security told me something. Now they come and fight.
Without any reasons they were coming inside the room because the doors had nothing as a key. Without any reasons they would open the door to you room and if anybody is naked, having sex, they entered because after 20:00 there is no authority, there is no chief, nothing. No social workers, no BAMF, only securities are in the camp after 20:00.
If they had a problem with somebody, they would not let him go inside the office. They would say no, it is closed. And, for example, at 20:00 if we had something like a small speaker with music, they would enter and say, “Show us your passport” in a not very polite way. I think they were misusing their clothes they were wearing because there were no names on the ticket on the clothes and nobody could detect what is happening. We had a pregnant woman who was under the knee of a security because he felt he is the police.
Did you have a chance to do anything against abuses of power by securities?
Now there is a process in the court of Bamberg. We are three people as witnesses who encountered securities took a Nigerian man, an African man, who was sitting on the ground and eating, they took him outside, pulled him very violently outside of the canteen — we could see from the windows — they beat him very badly.
Fortunately, somebody filmed this. Two people, one person from inside and one person from outside, filmed these actions, but so many things happen in Bamberg without any film and they are not held accountable. So many violent situations happen against women, against special groups, but because nobody witnessed, and nobody filmed it is not prosecuted.
How was your experience with the police?
We had violence against the refugees at 5:00, 4:00, that police wanted to come and deport these people to, for example, France as a Dublin case. I personally had no problem with the police when they came, but I saw sometimes when they were coming in the morning to take people for Dublin cases because people did not want to go there was some violence.
We had some cases of violence. But always they said, “It’s not violence because people resisted — they didn’t want to go, and we have to take them.” Sometimes they took the father without the mother and children, sometimes they took the mother. I do not know why they separated the people. They did not take the child and they take the mother and father. The child is shrieking at night. At 4:00 in the morning, you just hear sounds of crying and shrieking. Everybody is coming out, “What happened, what happened?” Somebody is on the ground, the police have taken the person to the ground, the flashes are going around. When this happens every day, if you are a very healthy person you will get some psychological problems, even people who are very okay.
How was medical care?
If you have a cold, if you have minor diseases and illnesses that are not very important there is a possibility to go to the doctor. For example, in Büchlberg, where I live now, there is a doctor you can go to, but for very bad illnesses where it is very serious, they do not give any treatment because it may cost an operation, it may cost something else.
For example, we have here a guy who was beaten in Iran and suffered injuries to the head. He has a problem hearing a bad noise in the right ear. It is like one year he is here and any time I go with him to the doctor they say. “We need to give you a hearing device. Maybe you need to go for an operation, something like that, but because you are not a citizen of Germany and you have not yet received an answer from BAMF, we cannot give you treatment.”
How was your relationship with your roommates?
Difficult. You share a room with people, and you do not know where this guy came from. Some people had committed crimes in other countries, in Germany. They were in prison, but after prison they got back to the camp and you are living with a criminal in your room. I do not know, any time you want to go to eat you have to take your laptop, you must take your documents — and I have a whole folder of documents.
In the evening, many people are drunk, many people consume drugs and fighting. Two or three times, police were coming to the camp in Bamberg and two times the ambulance from the hospital maybe for fights, maybe for nothing. And too much noise at night, not from the people, but also from the securities who stand two meters in front of your window and talk to each other till the morning and you cannot complain about it. Food at Bamberg was poor, it was just two pieces of bread and cheese, the same every time. We were given 100 euro to go and buy something to eat, when you bought it in the summer because there is no refrigerator in your house it is very difficult to keep the food. I do not know what to say. The situation is very, very horrible.
Did you experience racism?
One time, I was in the street in Bamberg, I was walking and a woman with a flag in hand came to me and said: “Let’s go!” I said, “Where?” She said, “There’s a demonstration against the refugees.” I said, “Okay, let’s go, I don’t come, you go.” She was like 55 years old. She was running, very excited. If you took this woman inside the AnkER (Ankunft, Erfassung, Rückführung) centre and we kept her in for one week — not even one week, two days — with the same situation the refugees have there, she would not run for this demonstration she will come to our demonstration, because people do not know what is happening inside “Alcatraz”, as I call the AnkER centre.
It is an island inside Bamberg. Bamberg is a good city, it is a very beautiful city with a very rich culture. We had a saying we will all say when we go outside the camp: we enter Germany, when we are inside the camp, we come to... I do not know. We are treated differently.
Where did you live during the COVID-19 pandemic?
In Büchlberg. Our accommodation is not between houses but next to the factories. If you want to go to the nearest city which is Passau, we pay for tickets four euro going and four euro for coming back, so with these 300 euro we receive, and most of them go to the lawyers, the costs and food, if you go ten times per month it could be 80 euro.
We just started our quarantine about 20 days ago. 20 days ago, we just entered, and securities told us, “No, you cannot leave from here.” We said, “Okay.” We cannot complain about the food here, today it was chicken and pasta. The first time they told us we should go to quarantine there was a case from Afghanistan, and he was living in Block B. They told us somebody got positive from Block B. The same day during mealtimes I saw so many people from Block B, the block that is infected, came here to take their food in Block A.
Our camp manager has not been here for 20 days. He has the responsibility to do the quarantine but the method he is using is not okay because at the time of quarantine they do not pay any attention to the mask, the disinfectant, anything — they do not give these things to us, they give us only food. In our block we have like 25 people, we share one bathroom, one toilet, and one kitchen. Since the time the quarantine has started, because the person responsible for the camp is not here and there is no good supervision, the situation of hygiene is very low here now. The corridor has not been cleaned for four days. I see the same trash. The toilet and kitchen are awful. I cannot say it enough. I try to not go to the toilet and not go to the kitchen. I just eat the frozen food they bring us in the room.
After one week they took a test from us. Only a child was infected, again in Block B. I wrote an open letter to a newspaper. We signed a paper with 16 people and said to them we do not want any more people just coming in from the other block. But nothing worked and in the next test a guy from our block was infected. I said, “The first day I told you if you block between the blocks nothing will happen, but you didn’t do that, you put everyone in contact. Now all blocks are infected and there is no disinfection, nothing.”
I hope today the results could be negative for everyone. Each time somebody is infected, or some people are infected they will prolong the time of the quarantine. Quarantine for me is hard, I do not have any movement, I do not see the sun. Slowly we see people are getting violent with each other. That is why people fight here because when so many people stay in a room for a long time, not going outside for fresh food or fresh air, the situation starts getting worse.
How did the quarantine affect people’s access to language courses or work?
You are not allowed to go out of the camp. People who are working, as I heard from them, told me they will lose their jobs if they get quarantined. Others who were at school had their B1 tests. They said if we stay in quarantine, we will lose our course. Not all schools have online learning, so they must repeat the class for another six months.
What is your opinion of the way the German asylum system works?
They keep people in the camps not only in quarantine times but in general. This way they are wasting their money, as I see, because these people here do not go to any German classes. Nobody asks them to go to German class, they just take the 310 euro, but do not do anything. So many of them developed drug addictions or have depression problems. They receive medical care for their depression problems here.
If people only receive a Duldung, they have nothing to lose. Some start to get aggressive. They drink, they smoke because they think they have lost their life forever. Other people are waiting months for their second court hearing.
We can use refugees in a very good way, we can employ them in job training. If somebody knows how to work on a farm, we can send him to farm because there is a need outside. There is a labour shortage, but the asylum system stops people from accessing the labour market. These policies I see in Bamberg, I see in Berlin, in Regensburg, Landshut, around Munich. The policies are very stupid, it is the best word I can say.