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Pambazuka: Dehumanised - A short history of the institutionalized deprivation of migrants' rights in (Western) Germany - Jana M. Grieb

The current racist agitations against refugees and their homes cannot be separated from the laws which for decades have put migrants into camps and collective housing. The historical perspective on German immigration politics shows how discourses of distinctive national identities and legislative change mutually reinforce one another.

In autumn 2015, Germany enjoyed very much the role of the charitable helper and, as if to defy Heidenau [2], enthusiastically produced pictures of crowds welcoming refugees at train stations. Meanwhile attacks on refugee homes still take place almost on a weekly basis. This demonstrates that PEGIDA[3] doesn’t merely represent a marginal trend. Rather, their weekly Monday demonstrations in Dresden and other cities reveal patterns of thinking which are deeply rooted in German society as a whole. The migrants' and refugees' right to stay in Germany is categorically denied; their mere presence is declared a threat. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the image of a burning asylum seekers' home, towards which so called 'concerned citizens' direct their anger. By passing the buck to a few East-German Nazis and congratulating themselves as the 'helping nation', German politicians obscure what made the camp-like conditions in which asylum seekers have to live possible in the first place: the political culture which institutionalized the deprivation of refugees' and migrants' rights.

The disparate legal treatment of migrants as well as the associated rhetorical figures have a long tradition in (Western) Germany [4]. This is already apparent in the fact that Germany was not officially recognized as a country of immigration until 1998. And even though German society is gradually accepting to be an immigration society since then, German legislators tighten up immigration and asylum laws on a daily basis. In the following article, I will shed some light on these legal, political and discursive continuities, especially bringing into focus the history of placing migrants in camps and collective housing. In so doing, I would like to demonstrate how recurring patterns of denigrating migrants and refugees are closely linked to racist special laws, such as Residenzpflicht[5] and compulsory accommodation in camps.

The first camps

The history of immigration in Germany does not, as commonly assumed, only begin after World War II. In fact, theKaiserreich (German Empire) ranked second after the USA among the biggest so-called “labour importing countries” in 1914[6]. 'Cheap' workers from Poland were recruited to work in East Prussia. Even then, labour regulation policies for migrants were strict. The workers were denied any labour rights. They were put up in isolated barracks and sent back to their home countries by the end of the season in order to prevent permanent settlement. These exploitative politics corresponded with dominant racist and social Darwinistic stereotypes, such as the kriecherische Polacke (the 'fawning Pole') who was supposed to be particularly adapted for the hard work in the mines[7]. Under the legally prescribed racism of National Socialism, Polish workers became forced labourers for the German war industry.

Such barrack camps existed in many German cities and villages. They were “successively occupied for instance by National service workers [Reichsarbeitsdienst-Kolonnen] in the Third Reich, then during the war by forced labourers [Fremdarbeiter], later by Displaced Persons and by German expellees, and often they were converted into camps for 'guest workers'[8] in the early 1960s” (translated from German) [9]. While the so-called expelled refugees of 'German origins' were commonly expected by German society to be easily integrated, the concentration camp survivors and former forced labourers as well as the 'guest workers' were regarded as foreigners who were not supposed to stay.

Camps and collective housing as living facilities for migrants and socially underprivileged people can thus be traced back to the German Empire. Naturally, the respective living conditions differed significantly depending on the political situation and the historical context. However, we can identify certain historical continuities with the present-day so called collective housing for refugees: the degrading discourses to which the respective inhabitants are subject, the purpose of control and regulation of unwanted migrants, and their exclusion from social life.

The permanent guest

The developments of laws likewise point to the continuous politics of preventing immigration. In 1965, the German parliament passed the Ausländergesetz (Foreigners Act) which was based in large parts on theAusländerpolizeiverordnung (Foreign Police Act) from 1938 and the Verordnung über ausländische Arbeitnehmer(Regulation on Foreign Workers) from 1933; a fact which was never made subject to public debate. The law rigorously regulated labour migration into West Germany through residence permits and allowed for flexibility regarding the respective demand for labour and the economic development.  At this time, Germany had already made bilateral agreements concerning the recruitment of workers with eight countries, encouraging the arrival of migrant workers in large numbers[10]. As with the Polish seasonal workers, immigration laws aimed at preventing permanent settlement of the newly arriving so called 'guest workers' through the 'rotation principle'. The 'guest workers' too were put up in already existing barrack camps or in provisional accommodations close to the factories.

Male immigrants were to a large extent employed in the unskilled segment of the labour market. Young ‘strong Southerners’ [sic!] were supposed to bring their labour to the construction or metal industry and go back to their home countries once they were not needed anymore. The racial division of labour made it possible for German workers to move up in the hierarchy of wage groups. At the same time, the social inclusion of migrant workers was made difficult due to their spacial isolation in camps and collective housing. Migrant workers were accused of 'ghettoization' and forming ‘parallel societies’, supposedly for their ‘unwillingness to integrate’, especially in times of economic recession. From 1966 on, the extreme right-wing National Socialist Party (NPD) began to rise. They used the atmosphere to fuel further anti-immigrant prejudices, blaming the 'foreigners' who supposedly took away jobs from the Germans.

Migrant workers resisted the unbearable conditions in the camps from the beginning (e.g. Italian workers in 1962 in Wolfsburg). Their situation improved over the years due to their struggles which were partly supported by workers unions and governments in their home countries as well as by German charities, churches and press reports. More than half of the recruited workers lived in proper apartments in 1972, and by 1980, the number had increased to 90 per cent. During the years of the 'guest worker'-recruitment, the employers' economic interests actually fostered permanent settlement, despite the rotation principle. 'Obedient' and skilled workers became permanent employees and were able to bring their families to Germany.

De facto, Germany had become an immigration country in which job-seeking immigrant workers settled permanently, sent their children to school and made use of social services. 'Guest workers' thus lost the flexibility and mobility which had been so useful for the German authorities and employers. From 1970 on, a heated debate about the pros and cons of 'foreigner employment' flared up, especially among employers' associations. As a result, the German Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs issued a recruitment stop in 1973. It was implemented because of the energy and economic crisis according to the official version, yet motivated by discourses about West Germany’s ‘limited capacity’ to absorb foreign labour and its high cost. Ironically, the recruitment stop only furthered the immigration of migrants' family members through family reunification which now remained the only legal form of immigration.

From the recruitment stop to the tightening of immigration laws

Due to attempts to repatriate former immigrant workers on the one hand, and improve the situation for the second generation of immigrants on the other hand, immigration policies after the recruitment stop were riddled with contradictions. The consequences of the faults of recruitment policies in the 1960s now became obvious. However, when the social democratic government decreed the restriction of further immigration in 1981, it held on to the idea of Germany as a non-immigration society.

Despite these efforts, the non-German population increased towards the end of the 1970s. More refugees migrated from the Global South to the Global North. The right to asylum now played a decisive role in accepting or rejecting migrants. The constitutional right to asylum had been set up for the “politically persecuted” in the wake of the experiences of World War II. It had been supplemented and reinforced by the Geneva Convention on Refugees (GCR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). People from non-European countries who fled from persecution and civil war more and more frequently applied for asylum. Yet the right to asylum had also become the only legal way for labour migrants from the former recruitment countries to immigrate into Germany. As a result, the public attitude towards migrants which was already charged with racism intensified the debate concerning ‘economic refugees’ and the alleged abuse of the right to asylum in the 1970s and 1980s. The discourse about ‘non-integrable’ Turks who were argued to burden the welfare system mixed with the rhetoric of ‘asylum frauds’.

Instead of responding to the rising numbers of asylum applications with appropriate protection and staff increases in the immigration agencies, the government took various steps in order to ‘reduce asylum fraud’ from 1978 onwards. The application procedures were expedited, visa requirements were introduced for immigrants from the most common countries of origin, and the deliberate decline of living conditions for asylum seekers was declared “deterrent strategy”. These measures mark the beginning of a still-ongoing deterioration of living conditions for refugees in Germany. It was accompanied by racist arguments about the ‘purification’ of German culture and the criminalisation of migrants.

The reality of the camps

As if to respond to the conservative politician Lothar Spät’s demand to put “all foreigners” into camps, the federal government decided to reform the Asylum Procedures Act in 1982. Carrying on the tradition of sending labour migrants to camps, a requirement for all asylum seekers to live in collective housing was introduced. A residence requirement was set up which prohibited asylum seekers from leaving their county of residence without special permission from the authorities. A work prohibition of two years was imposed. Social services were delivered exclusively in non-cash form of vouchers and food stamps. Whoever refused to cooperate faced allocation cuts of 20-30 per cent.

These coercive measures set up the structure which regulates the lives of asylum seekers until this day: isolation, marginalisation, dehumanisation. The isolated camps in forests, industrial areas and small villages must be understood as manifesting racist mechanisms of exclusion [11]. The housing situation and food stamps clearly mark asylum seekers as ‘the other’ and assign them a special confined area. Attending political or religious events and visiting relatives requires the authorities’ permission. All spheres of life, such as food, place of residence, hygiene and privacy are under external control. As recently as 2008, the federal government justified these conditions by claiming that “persons with uncertain residence status lack the need to integrate” and could be expected to endure “exclusion from […] social life” for 48 months [12]. On 18 July 2012, the German Federal Constitutional Court declared the financial and material services for asylum seekers unconstitutional, as they put their recipients under the poverty line. As a result, the payments were increased for the first time in 20 years. The housing and residence requirements, however, remain in place.

The large number of mental illnesses and suicides in the camps is not surprising in this situation. The suicide of Cemal Altun [13] is one of the few cases which received attention from the media. Some of the asylum seekers who could not be deported under the GRC and EHRC spent decades in camps or collective housing. In a report published in 1983, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees harshly criticized the coercive measures of the camps and the mental strain that these meant for asylum seekers. The German Interior Minister responded to the criticism by cancelling a meeting with the Commissioner. One must not forget though, that the restrictive measures were resisted – by the increasingly well organised migrants, by anti-racist and anti-fascist activists and the student movements emerging in the late 60s, by human rights organizations, churches, trade unions and the Green Party, by critically-minded academics and last but not least by the refugees themselves. Then and now the banners of the protesters bear the same message: “No one is illegal” and “No Camps!”. Abolishing the constitutional right to asylum

Reducing the number of applications for the asylum status by setting up disincentives such as the camps did not work. Since 1985 (70.000), the number of initial and confirmatory applications for the asylum status increased continuously, reaching a peak of 440.000 applications in 1992. The acceptance rate was low due to harsh bureaucratic procedures, yet because of the GRC or bureaucratic issues, many unsuccessful applicants could not be deported. However, in the public debate the low acceptance rate was taken as evidence for ‘asylum fraud’. The rainbow press created the dehumanising ‘horror scenario’ of a ‘flood of asylum seekers’. Neo-Nazis and the right-wing parties Die Republikaner (REP) and Deutsche Volksunion (DVU) used these public discourses for their own ends and mobilized against all those who did not fit into their racist and nationalist world view. In 1986, as many as 60 “xenophobic assaults” in West-Germany were recorded by the police.            

In the same year, the Christian Democratic Party (CDU/CSU) began to publicly question the constitutional right to asylum. The issue of refugees and immigration became part of the party agenda, most likely as a concession to the far-right voters. A malicious campaign with the objective of fundamentally restricting the right to asylum evolved. The newspaper Welt wrote in 1990:  The “outdated constitution could […], considering the rate of more than 90 per cent fraud […], become an existential threat to our welfare system”. Further legislative changes (a 5-year work prohibition which drove asylum seekers towards illegal employment) failed to sooth the public mood.

Towards the end of the 1980s, approximately 300.000 people in West Germany lived in camps. The majority came from countries of the disintegrating East Bloc (mainly Poland and Yugoslavia) or were so-called ‘late emigrants of German origin’. In 1990, the East-German territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was integrated into the West German administrative structure. Soon afterwards, camps for asylum seekers were set up next to the already-existing homes of GDR contract workers. In the wake of the unification, the violence against migrants increased significantly not only in East Germany. Amidst the enthusiasm of the newly achieved national unity, deeply-rooted racial patterns of thinking formed a nationalist discourse based on distinguishing non-white, non-German ‘foreigners’. The slogan “Wir sind ein Volk” (We are one people) changed into to “Deutschland den Deutschen” (Germany to the Germans) and “Ausländer raus” (Foreigners out). In 1991, the violence reached a new level when a home for contract workers and a home for asylum seekers in Hoyerswerda were attacked for days by a group of about 500 neo-Nazis and local residents. The police did not stop the violence. Instead, they deported about 300 contract workers. The next years witnessed a series of daily pogroms against migrants and refugees in the course of which victims were burned, shot and beaten to death. They took place in Saal, Hünxe, Mannheim-Schönau, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Mölln, Solingen, and other cities, to name only a few. Between the reunification and the end of 1992, 1900 recorded violent attacks left 17 dead and 453, partly heavily, injured.

The pogroms at Rostock-Lichtenhagen demonstrate very clearly how the invoked image of the ‘flood’ seemed to be confirmed by the camps and collective housing. At the “Central Admitting Facility for Asylum Seekers” in Lichtenhagen the newly arrived refugees had to endure a bureaucratic process which lasted days before they were sent to different homes in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. But because the facility did not offer enough places to sleep, some people were forced to camp in the yard in front of the building. The situation thus portrayed exactly the type of ‘poverty migration’ and ‘congestion’ which the majority of the population feared. In August 1992, hatred led to the long planned pogrom against the inhabitants of the facility and the Vietnamese former contract workers who lived in an adjacent building. With great cheering and applause, Nazis attacked the buildings over the course of several days and finally burned them down while the few local police units retreated.

Instead of denouncing the violence, the CDU used the pogroms to reinforce their campaign for changing the asylum law. It was only a matter of time until the change was agreed upon by CDU/CSU, FDP (Liberals) and SPD (Social-Democrats). The racist rhetoric carried by the mainstream of society thus culminated in 1993 in the so called “Asylum Compromise” which de facto abolished the right to asylum. 

The ‘concerned citizen’ 

In the context of what was said above, it seems plausible to assume that racist mobilisation and legislative changes mutually reinforced – and still reinforce – one another. Right after the pogroms in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, the Chancellery Minister Friedrich Bohl claimed that the restriction of the right to asylum was only the government’s most urgent task – eventually the “excessive burden on people” would have to be lifted.

Today camps and houses for asylum seekers are burning on a weekly basis once again. According to official records, the number of attacks more than quadrupled to 817 attacks in 2015 compared to the previous year. And the federal government responds by 'containing the flood' of refugees through tough legislative changes once again. This reaction obscures the inherent racism of the assaults and turns the problem on its head by looking to the victims for the causes of the racist violence. The response of Saxony’s Interior Minister Markus Ullbig to the rising number of PEGIDA-protesters is particularly telling in this context. Ullbig sympathized with the “indignation” of the protesters. Instead of denouncing the extreme right-wing agitation, he proposed to set up a special police unit to work against ‘criminal asylum seekers’.

The history of legislation against migrants and refugees shows that the placement in isolated facilities never just served the purpose of effective administration and control. The camps were – and still are – tied to certain political discourses and patterns of justification with a long history. While the protection from persecution is seen in Germany as a historically derived moral obligation, refugees and immigrants are nonetheless commonly understood as a potential threat to German ‘culture’. The ‘good refugees’ are supposed to be welcomed into German society. At the same time, all asylum seekers are supposed to be deterred by the particularly bad conditions in the camps and “disincentives must be removed”[14]. Finally, the view that migration flows can be regulated and the number of asylum applications reduced through legislative changes remains dominant.

The image presented here does not fit well with Germany’s self-representation as the most generous of the EU states. The tightening of the asylum laws, that was carried out by the German legislator three times in 2015 and once in 2016, stand in stark contrast to the applauded ‘Refugee-Welcome-Volunteers’.  The latter unfortunately cannot prevent the unconstitutional legislative developments by mere depoliticized aid. A year of PEGIDA-protests, countless new ‘Nein-zum-Heim’ (‘No-to-refugee-homes’) initiatives and neighbourhood watch groups, and an extremely polarised discourse about refugees make the massive tightening asylum laws look almost like the federal government’s direct response to the demands of the right-wing protesters. The hate speech of German citizens and politicians can hence not be separated from the legal and political structures which support it. The deeply rooted institutionalized racism provides the fertile ground on which PEGIDA and their hateful agitation grow.

* Jana Grieb is a political activist for refugee and migrant rights in Berlin. She studied Social Sciences and is currently doing an internship with Fahamu in Nairobi, Kenya. Translation by Charlotte Johann.

End notes

1. I take as a basis for my article the results of an empirical study by Dr. Tobias Pieper (2008) 'Das Lager als Struktur bundesdeutscher Flüchtlingspolitik. Eine empirische Untersuchung zur politischen Funktion des bürokratischen Umgangs mit MigrantInnen in Gemeinschaftsunterkünften und Ausreiseeinrichtungen in Berlin, Brandenburg und Bramsche/Niedersachsen', Dissertation am Otto-Suhr-Institut für Politikwissenschaften, Freie Universität Berlin. I also use Ulrich Herbert's findings (2001) Geschichte der Ausländerpolitik in Deutschland. Saisonarbeiter, Zwangsarbeiter, Gastarbeiter, Flüchtlinge, München, C.H. Beck Verlag.

2. The extreme right-wing violent riots on August 21st 2015 and the following days at Heidenau attracted strong media attention. For the first time following the wave of racist attacks in 2015, chancellor Angela Merkel visited one of the attacked refugee camps in Heidenau. Heidenau is only one example of the extreme high amount of reported attacks on refugee homes (1075), on refugees (436) and of manifestations and rallies against refugees (288) in 2015 (you can find the report (in German language) here: http://www.mut-gegen-rechte-gewalt.de/service/chronik-vorfaelle).

3.  PEGIDA stands for „Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes“ (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West/Occident). It is a far right-wing populist movement that started in the East-German city of Dresden in October 2014 with weekly rallies. The movement quickly became bigger and drew up to 25.000 participants in January 2015.

4. In this article I will focus on immigration discourses and laws in Western Germany.

5. The Residenzpflicht-law requires asylum seekers in Germany to live within certain boundaries during the first three months of their asylum procedure, but legal exceptions extend this period for certain immigrants. The territory within which they are allowed to move freely may be limited to the district or federal state of the localAusländerbehörde (foreigners' office).

6. Ha, Kien Nghi 2007: “Koloniale Arbeitsmigrationspolitik im Imperial Germany”. In: “re/visionen”. Münster: Unrast-Verlag, S. 65-71.

7. Ibid.

8. After World War II, many migrant workers were recruited to come work in Germany through bilateral agreements (e.g. with Italy, Spain, Turkey, Marocco...). They were called 'guest workers', as they were supposed to leave Germany once their work force wasn't needed anymore.

9. Herbert, Ulrich (2001) Geschichte der Ausländerpolitik in Deutschland. Saisonarbeiter, Zwangsarbeiter, Gastarbeiter, Flüchtlinge, München, C.H. Beck Verlag, p. 197.

10. Recruitment agreements between the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy (1955), Spain (1960), Greece (1960), Turkey (1961), Morocco (1963), South Corea (1963), Portugal (1964), Tunesia (1965); and Yugoslavia in 1968.

11. See Pieper (2008), p. 90.

12. Reply of the German government to the major interpellation of members of parliament Ulla Jelpke, Sevim Dağdelen, Petra Pau (…)  and DIE LINKE group (the LEFT). Printed matter 16/9018 (30 April 2008).

13. Cemal Altun committed suicide by jumping out of the window of the six-story-high court building during the hearing concerning his deportation to Turkey. It was the first case of a politically persecuted person facing extradition to the Turkish military dictatorship that attracted broad media attention.

14. Wording of the government regarding the tightening of the asylum laws (coalition committee September 6th 2015).

With the friendly support of the Landesstelle für Entwicklungszusammenarbeit and Engagement Global.

This article has originally been published German and can be read here

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