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 Rosa Sabetnia, who is committed to achieving decent housing conditions for refugees. She spoke about her everyday life in the Albert-Einstein-Ring refugee accommodation in Hamburg and her protest experiences during the pandemic.
Can you describe to me how you and your family are accommodated?
We have a room of 18 square metres. Our son is 12 years old and goes to school. In the room there is a refrigerator, food, cupboards, beds and table that we use for writing and dining. That means there is hardly any room for us to move around freely. We eat, we sleep, the child goes to school and all this happens in one room.
For me personally, as for all the other families, this means that we never get any peace and quiet. It is always noisy. There is always something going on, it is always loud. There were between 24 and 28 families living in each floor. There is a common kitchen, a common bathroom, common toilets. Six families share a kitchen, a toilet, but for women there is only a shower at the other end of the hall. There you share the shower with the women from twelve families. These are eternally long corridors with rooms on each side. In the middle is the kitchen and at the end is the toilet and bathroom.
How has the pandemic changed your everyday life?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been certain rules and notices from the health department have been posted everywhere, with rules on social distancing, masks, and hygiene. They were hung in every corridor and on every door. However, the hygienic conditions here have always been miserable, partly because so many people live together. The posted rules of social distancing and hygiene cannot be observed in any way. There is no way to keep distance. We cannot do what is demanded of us, because the conditions make it impossible. For example, there are sometimes 15 people plus children in the kitchen because two families share two hotplates each. If all families cook at the same time, which sometimes happened and children were added, we stood very close together and breathed the same air.
Did the rules have any effect at all?
It was really very, very strange when the rules regarding social distancing, masks and hygiene were introduced. The effect was primarily that we no longer saw our social workers. They came to work, but everything was sealed off with glass panels and keeping a distance. We were not allowed to approach the office. It was all very, very strict. Every time we stood in front of the office we thought: But how can that be? How is it possible? Why only their lives? Why are they protected with social distancing rules and we are not? We really were not allowed to come closer; everything was locked up and we at the same time had to live crumped together. What is that? Does our life mean nothing? Don’t we have the right to protection through hygiene measures and to life?
Were there people in the accommodation who tested positive for COVID?
One day my son came and was very agitated and said: “Mom, there were a lot of people gathered outside the office and they were screaming: Health, corona, corona case. And they're all agitated and standing around.” I said, “Are you sure you’re saying what you’re saying?” “Yes, mom. I am sure.”
I got scared and I went to go there and see it all. There were actually eight people knocking and screaming at the door, but no one answered or said anything. It was a form of protest, so to speak. In the end I did a lot of research to see what was going on, what did these people want? Then they said that a whole family on the third floor had fallen ill with COVID. They wanted to hide it all to avoid a panic. And nobody reacted to it in any way.
The next day we gathered again in front of the office and there was a statement from the camp leader: “Yes, some people are infected with the coronavirus, but they are fine, they do not have a fever, they do not cough. Do not worry!” This information was misleading, we know that anyone with a positive test can be a carrier of the disease. Nevertheless, they have to be quarantined, measures have to be taken. That means he simply lied to us. He did not tell the truth to avoid all this, but also to confuse us a bit, although we all know that everybody reacts individually to COVID. While the diseased were not isolated at all, he tried to downplay the issue. In the end it was said, “The family is in quarantine.” We asked, “What is this quarantine?” They must take a bath. They must go to the toilet. They have to provide themselves with food somehow, because nobody cares, and they have to do it somehow. And it is not a quarantine if they continue to use the common rooms.
What did you do then?
We demonstrated and protested on the Jungfernstieg. Unfortunately, however, many migrants do not dare to raise their voices and publicly express themselves and complain. This is associated with fears. Nevertheless, fortunately, people did appear, 25 participants were allowed.
We prepared the posters here in the yard. When we were in the courtyard, my husband, my son, and I, preparing the posters, when suddenly three police officers were standing in front of us. It turned out that the janitor had alerted the police officers that we were somehow trying to create a disturbance here in the camp. That we are preparing the posters with the aim of creating unrest. The police then contacted the appropriate authorities and found out that everything is allowed, that we have a permit. They then apologized and left the yard.
What consequences did the police action have for you?
It spread fear. At that moment it was a very stressful and fearful situation for many of those around us. Suddenly they all disappeared, and nobody was around us anymore. Our son was very stressed and had massive fears. Police officers are very frightening for many. Many get scared by them. You know, most of the people here who have fled, they come from countries where the military ruled, where security services have a lot of power and authority, where there is no freedom of expression. In other words, the people are preformed and pre-traumatized anyway. They do not realize that you can also raise your voice here if something does not fit, because we are not in these countries that are at war.
In the camp this situation is exploited by people because they know exactly how afraid people are of security services. They know how they are already marked by traumatic experience and that is unfair. It is unfair to take advantage of that. We can express our opinion peacefully and calmly, to express our needs. It is not about rioting or causing unrest.
Has your protest changed anything?
After we complained in front of the office that the family was not properly cared for and that we were not properly cared for either, the next day the whole family was picked up by ambulance. Police officers were there. This means that the voices were useful, although the staff tried to fob us off with excuses and treated us like children, which was anything but convincing.
Otherwise, little has changed. Everything is as usual. We pleaded for disinfectants, hygiene sprays or even masks to be made available, because many people do not have enough money to buy masks or sprays or disinfectants. I personally reduce expenses on food and clothing to provide myself with it. We have therefore asked if it would be possible to provide this. But they did not.
In living together in the accommodation, it is of little use if you take care to protect yourself individually, if not everyone does so — or if they have no possibility to do so. The majority cannot do this. During the vacations, for example, the children were permanently in the hallways and played there. Ten or fifteen children, but they had no other options. There was no way to keep their distance. The children were on vacation and were playing in the hallways. There were no rules for that in the accommodation. One family lives in a room and has visitors. Eight people plus the family. That means, all are together. So, there is no keeping social distance or hygiene measures. In the public transport system, which many here use, everyone has to wear a mask. There are no instructions here. Sure, it depends on people, but many people also need certain rules, something like a law to follow, there is no such thing here.
The only thing that has fortunately changed now, after all this raising of voices and the demonstrations and protests, is that on each corridor — I suppose it is on every corridor — only three to four families have to share a bathroom and a toilet instead of six families before. We were able to appoint someone who is in permanent contact with the office or with the management to make sure that this agreement is respected. My husband took care of this and asked the janitor time and again: What is now? What happens now? But despite these improvements, I want to make it very clear to you that all this is not okay. This in no way corresponds to the necessary hygiene measures during the pandemic and is far from what the public health department recommends.
Such a situation should also serve to ensure that many return voluntarily to their countries of origin. Life is deliberately made uncomfortable. But you know, the people who are really in danger in their home countries, they cannot return under any circumstances. Therefore, it would be better to enable them to live a dignified life here.