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 Ansu Janneh, who participated in the struggles #ShutDownLindenstraße against the living conditions in the Lindenstraße reception centre for asylum seekers in Bremen during the pandemic, about his life in quarantine, civil disobedience, and political protest.
How were you accommodated in Lindenstraße?
I do not want anyone to go through this situation. If you explain it to people who live here in Bremen, some cannot believe it, because they do not even know this kind of camp exists here. Many people do not know this. When I arrived in Lindenstraße, there were about 700 people living in this camp. It is a very huge building, and you have six, seven people sleeping in a room. Some rooms are about three metres by four metres or by two. It depends. The rooms are not same-sized, some rooms are a little bigger and some are smaller, with four persons sleeping in a room. But in most cases, there are five or six people per room.
In my room we were about six people. There is one door, you have one big corridor to one end and then you have one big, long corridor to another end, and you have another one, about three hallways on every floor. It is a very tall building. It has four floors and I lived on the fourth floor. The rooms do not have windows. The only windows you have are towards the corridor, but you are not allowed to open them. Between us and the next room the wall is not up to the ceiling and if a person in the other room talks, or is doing something, you can hear it. Even if they speak low you can hear them, and it is disturbing you a lot. This makes it hard for people to sleep in the night.
How did the situation change during the COVID-19 pandemic?
When we heard the news about COVID, we started to speak up about it. We started to speak to the security, the AWO [Arbeiterwohlfahrt, the organization that runs the centre], to say: “What do we do now, because you cannot keep us in one room like this? The situation requires social distancing, and we cannot have any social distancing in this camp.” And then they said: “Yes, we will take measures, don’t worry about it.” But everybody was scared.
They started to distribute some papers to us in the camp describing how you must wash your hands, how you must distance yourself from others, how you must always clean. A lot about how to protect yourself. They attached these papers on walls everywhere in the camp but there were no hand sanitizers in the bathrooms. The bathrooms and toilets are in the corridors, the whole floor will use only three bathrooms or four. You can have 30 people living on one side that are using three bathrooms or toilets and then how can these people protect themselves from COVID?
You are supposed to clean your hands, but sometimes there is no proper running water. Even the water we drink, we must fetch if from the sink in the toilet. There is no water that they give you. There are no proper taps. You cannot cook for yourself. We must stand in a very long queue to take our food downstairs from the kitchen. We line up like prisoners to collect our food and then they will just drop whatsoever on the plate for you and then throw the plate at you to take to the table and sit down. So, in this dining room where we eat there are a lot of people grouping up and no measures were taken.
Did people protest publicly against the conditions?
Most people in the camp are scared to participate in protests because there is so much repression after protests. The people who work for AWO will confront you and tell you stories: “Yeah, if you’re not careful your protest will affect you negatively.” The securities will also tell you many stories and you are scared. Still, I felt I wanted to protest because I felt like I must speak about this. I cannot stay quiet when this kind of unjust system is affecting all of us.
I felt like I had no choice, because if I complain to AWO they do not want to hear me out. If you have problems with the securities, people who cook for you or people that work for AWO, they call the police and they arrest you whatever you say. If you complain to the police and say: 'But why do you have to do this, you don’t know what has happened’, they do not listen to you. They say: ‘We are only here to empower the securities or the AWO. That is our job and when we come here, we listen to what they say and not what you say.’
I started to connect with Together We Are Bremen. I told them: “We have a problematic situation here and I really want to speak up, I don’t want to stay quiet.” First, we made some placards and wrote about what is going on. We wrote about COVID, how we cannot have social distancing here, things like this, “save us from corona”, a lot of things.
We wrote them and we took pictures of this and then we sent them to Together We Are Bremen and they put them on their platforms, so people got to know about the situation in the camp. We planned to do demonstrations because it was serious how things were going by then, demonstrations against this system, how we cannot have social distancing in a place with about 700 people, who use the same bathroom, the same toilets, and you have six people in a room where there are no windows. Where you do not have any air coming into the houses.
We had our first demonstrations, and we went out to speak up against all this and a lot of people in Bremen came to know about the conditions. Afterwards, a lot of people faced repression from AWO. They told them: “You will be leaving the camp because we, AWO, are here to help you, but then you are going against us.” We know they are there to help but you are not going against them you are going against the system. They should be happy for that, but they threaten you to stop you from protesting.
We feel it is our right to speak up. Therefore, we did the demonstration. It was successful, it was on the news, it was in the newspapers. People from Together We Are Bremen helped us. They said: “Why don’t we make it a bigger demonstration and speak up more about it so that Anja Stahmann (Green Party), who is the Senator for Social Affairs in Bremen, will hear this?” We wanted to build up pressure to change the situation. We made a lot of banners and organised a big demonstration and we went to the streets, we went to the senator, we went to different places and then we went to the Mayor and we handed over a petition with about 5.000 signatories. The Mayor said he will see about this and they will find a solution to it.
Before, I was scared. For me it was like: if I say something that the authorities do not like they might kick me out, they might send me out. This was my fear. I was thinking: “They can deport me to Italy, or they can send me back to my country.” I was always scared but Together We Are Bremen gave me so much confidence to speak up and they told me: “Nothing will happen to you. No one will deport you based on what you say. You have human rights, it’s your right to speak.” I gained confidence as I saw videos from the initiative of people who stand up to say what they face in life and why they come here and the racism they face in various camps, this gave me so much confidence.
Further information on the situation in accommodations for asylum seekers and refugees in Bremen is offered on the platform Voices of Resistance as well the websites of the initiatives Together We Are Bremen and Flüchtlingsrat Bremen.
What happened after the first person tested positive for COVID-19?
As soon as there was a first case, COVID-19 started to spread wildly in Lindenstraße. They said: “We’re going to test you to see who has COVID or not.” I was tested and everyone on my floor was tested. They said I am negative, I don’t have COVID. Two people on my floor had corona, but they still did not take any measures to transfer them. They let them stay with us. We were there with them until one time they said: “Now we want to test you again.”
And then I said: “No, I’m not going to do any test again. If you test us, first you must separate people who have COVID and move them to another place. But you do not do this! You keep us all in one place and you keep bringing in new people that have not been tested.” Then they said: “We will now take people who have been tested positive to different places” and they started to pick people from the floor who have COVID and take them to another floor. They have a bigger room there where they said they are going to keep everyone who has COVID.
Then one person I know was taken to the hospital. When the person came back from hospital, they did not put him into quarantine, although he should have gone under quarantine for two weeks before joins us. We went to the securities to say: “You should not allow this person to come to join us.” Only afterwards they took this person out again and transferred him to another camp. The same evening one newly arrived person comes close to us and they put us under quarantine. They said: “Even though you have tested negative you are all going to go under quarantine.” It was the night we went home after the demonstration we were put under quarantine.
How was your personal experience of the quarantine?
I have never been to prison but through videos I feel like it is just the same as the prisons. So, you just wake up and then you sit on your bed and you have your shower and if there are people in the shower or the toilet you must wait. When they are ready you also have your shower and then go back to your room. Many times, when you wake up, the breakfast is already over because you do not wake up early. We stay up late at night, so we wait for lunch at 12:00. Sometimes you go to take your lunch and you do not like it because it is horrible food. Afterwards you are in the room again on the bed. You sit on your bed all day because there is so little space.
We were locked in the corridors. You were not allowed to go out unless you said to security that you want to at least have some fresh air. Then they will go down with you for ten minutes, so you can feel some breeze and then go back inside. And some people were under quarantine for more than a month. After their quarantine ended, they said: “No, you have to keep going.”
If you did not have Wi-Fi in the area your room was in, the situation during quarantine was even more difficult. I was lucky. The part where I was had Wi-Fi coverage, but other areas do not have Wi-Fi. It depends on the area you are in because it is a huge building, and some areas do not have Wi-Fi. Before COVID, some people used to come where there is Wi-Fi. Like in the afternoon they sit beside your area so they can have messages and talk with their families. But during lockdown they cannot receive any messages or talk to anyone. They were just locked in there without Wi-Fi.
Quarantine with six people in the room was difficult. If you have a cold, then everyone in the room will have a cold. In the end, what happened is I think we all had COVID, because we all had the same symptoms. We could not smell anything; we had this runny nose and did not have a good taste of food. It was a very, very horrible experience.
What happened afterwards?
After two weeks of quarantine, they wanted to test us again. I said: “But if I am tested again, will I have a chance to be taken out of this place because I am not safe at this place? If I do not have it, I don’t want to stay at the place where there is so much COVID.” We were about five people refusing to be tested. They told us we will face serious punishments if we do not test again.
We were there until the police came the following morning. A lot of police came in and then they said we must leave the camp. They said: “You have 20 minutes to pack all your things and you have to leave this camp now.” We did not know what was going on, because why should they just come suddenly and say we must leave? They took us to a homeless shelter with a very big police escort, and when we went to this place, they said we must go under quarantine again. They kept us there for two weeks again, makes it one month, and in that place, it was very difficult for us.
After our two weeks’ quarantine they took us to Kattenturm, which is like a branch of Lindenstraße. When we were there, they started to send us letters. They sent me a letter and said I must leave Bremen. I asked why. They said they do not know, the order came from Lindenstraße. The same happened to my friends. They said: “You people are always making trouble.”
Did your protest change anything?
I had the privilege to speak with the Green Party. It was a video online meeting and they also asked questions. It really boosted my confidence when I spoke to them and they said they did not know all this was happening in Lindenstraße and they also had interest in knowing a lot and getting involved. While we were still in quarantine in Lindenstraße, Stahmann came in to inspect the place. She promised to check the situation to make sure that all rooms have windows, all the places have Wi-Fi, and that the food will change, we will have proper food to eat and that people will have clean water to drink. But nothing ever changed. I am in contact with people who still live there, up to now the situation has remained the same. Politics is very funny, you know? In the end I had the feeling politicians from the Green Party are just like green snakes. They say: “Yeah, we’re with you”, but then in the end they do not do anything.