BERLIN, Germany — António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recently praised Germany’s asylum policy, calling it a “positive example for other European states to follow.”
In the streets of Berlin, however, the situation appears to be far from positive. In the last few months, the German capital has experienced several high-profile demonstrations — like a hunger strike at Brandenburg Gate or a sit-in at Alexanderplatz’s iconic TV tower — in which refugees demanded better living conditions and abolishment of laws that restrict their freedom of movement. In two other incidents, refugees facing deportation fortified themselves on rooftops of state-provided housing, threatening to commit suicide if German authorities tried to evict them.
The longest political action of the summer was the seven-week raft tour of Women In Exile, a feminist organization in Berlin dedicated to improving the situation of refugee women. During a stretch that began in mid-July, a dozen women, including former refugees, navigated through rivers, canals and roads to visit 40 refugee accommodation facilities throughout Germany. The rafts symbolized the often-fatal sea journey of the thousands of refugees who have attempted the trip across the Mediterranean to Europe and who continue on that route despite the odds against survival.
Elizabeth Nagri founded Women In Exile in 2002 with three other refugee women; it is supported by Bewegungs, a foundation financing social movements in Germany. Nagri said the tour was a success because it raised awareness on discrimination against refugees and empowered refugee women to speak up about their problems. The tour reminded Nagri of the hardship she had endured as an asylum seeker in Germany.
“It was very sad, because I was visiting places and seeing they are experiencing the same thing we experienced like 10 years ago,” said Nagri, who came to Germany as an asylum seeker in 1996, fleeing from Kenya, where she had been persecuted for political reasons. Her stay in Germany was legalized through marriage to a citizen.
In fact, the political struggle of Nagri and other refugee activists has just born fruit. On Sept.19, Germany’s government approved an historic change to the asylum law — abolishing residency confinement for asylum seekers who have been in the country for more than four months. The amendment was a big victory for Women In Exile.
The change in the law may bode well for asylum seekers in Germany, but the number of refugees trying to get to Europe keeps rising, so more complications will undoubtedly ensue. According to the UN refugee agency’s estimates, more than 2,500 people who tried to reach European shores have died at sea in the last nine months, including about 2,200 since the start of June. In September, nearly 750 people died near Malta in shipwrecks.
Yet many migrants succeed. Germany has experienced a constant increase in the number of asylum applications in each of the last four years. In the first eight months of 2014, it received nearly 100,000 asylum applications, including more than 15,000 just in August — mostly from Syria and Eritrea. During the raft tour, Nagri and her fellow activists met dozens of asylum seekers who survived dangerous journeys through land and sea before arriving in Europe.
The unexpected increase of refugees coming to Germany has meant more asylum seekers being lodged in improvised dormitories, some of which offer “inhumane” living conditions, Nagri said. In refugee quarters that house both women and men, the women often feel insecure, she noted. Families are usually forced to live together in one or two rooms, sharing bathrooms and kitchens with other people, said a recent Unicef report. Nagri heard from several women that they don’t go to the toilets, which are located in the hall, at night for fear of being harassed.
“Women are being violated,” she said. “They are having more difficulties in these living conditions.”
The housing situation is tense, said Constance Frey, a spokeswoman for the Berlin Senate’s Department for Health and Social Affairs, the authority in charge of housing asylum seekers in the capital.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Frey confirmed in a phone interview. “Right now, about hundred additional refugees arrive to Berlin every day. Few years ago, that was the total amount of refugees that arrived within one month. Given the increasing number of refugees that need shelter here, our task to provide accommodation has become more and more difficult.”
Frey explained that Germany is facing the highest number of refugees since the mid-1990s. She said the primary aim is to provide asylum seekers with shelter, food and a place to rest, and that a task force has been created to look for housing solutions.
When Nagri was an asylum seeker, she lived in improvised refugee dormitories for nearly five years. During that time she was limited by the German asylum law, now lifted, stipulating that asylum seekers’ residence permits be limited to the district in which their place of accommodation was located. The law did not allow asylum seekers to leave the municipality in which they were allocated without authorities permission, a rarely granted decision.
The purpose was to disperse asylum seekers among federal states, thereby dividing the economic burden fairly, but as a result, Nagri said, asylum seekers were pushed to live on the outskirts of society and felt housebound, useless and disconnected.
“Let refugees be free,” she said in an interview in early September in Berlin, before the law was changed. “Let them move, look for jobs, get educated and then integrate in the society, be part of the society. Don’t put them in isolation.”
Nagri, who does not have a job, devotes much of her time to activism. She views her role as assisting and empowering women asylum seekers, to help those who find themselves in the position she once was in. With other Women In Exile members, she plans to continue the struggle for refugees’ rights and to visit more refugee accommodations throughout the year.
Refugees, she said, “should be allowed to decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives.”
Yermi Brenner reports on migration and other sociopolitical issues for Al Jazeera, Global Post, Deutsche Welle and other publications. He is based in Berlin and is a graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @yermibrenner.