The makeshift asylum seeker camp in central Berlin has now been cleared after a compromise was reached following a prolonged stand-off. But many observers think Germany's integration policy is in urgent need of reform.
After marching for nearly a month all the way from Bavaria in southern Germany, the first refugees arrived in Berlin on October 6, 2012, and began constructing a provisional camp on Oranienplatz in the city's central Kreuzberg district. Now, the people, who mostly fled to Germany from Africa, have taken down their tents and left.
There was some fighting, but no major violent clashes between police, the refugees, and the activists supporting them. The refugees have been put up in a hostel in the neighboring district of Friedrichshain and an asylum seekers' home in Marienfelde.
"The agreement was implemented by the refugees," insisted Berlin's state integration commissioner Dilek Kolat of the Social Democratic Party. She conducted negotiations between the refugees and the city authorities from the start of the year, and the "agreement" was a compromise that she brokered. It meant that the city's conservative Interior Minister Frank Henkel would not clear the camp by force - an acceptable alternative for the refugees.
Kolat could not promise the refugees residence permits, but did manage to secure quicker assessments of their individual cases. On top of that, all of the around 150 asylum seekers were allowed to stay in Berlin, in accommodation that protected them from the cold, the rain, and the rats.
Permission to stay in the German capital is a minor victory for the refugees. Some of them had applied for asylum in other German states, and so were legally obliged to stay where they had submitted their applications. In the case of those that had applied for asylum in Bavaria and Saxony, they were legally obliged to stay in the actual districts. This had been one of the main reasons for their protest.
Many Green party politicians, such as Kreuzberg mayor Monika Herrmann, have called for this residential obligation to be scrapped. "We have to assume that more and more refugees will come here to build a new life, and because they are being persecuted in their home countries," Herrmann's spokesman Sascha Langenbach told DW. To strictly force them to stay in certain areas made no sense as a long-term solution, he argued.
Herrmann also called for more engagement from the Berlin authorities well before Kolat began her negotiations. "With all due respect to Mrs Kolat's achievements, if the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg - supported by local structures, churches, and Turkish-Arab aid organizations - had not helped the process at Oranienplatz for so long, the refugees would certainly not have been able to gain as much they did," said Langenbach.
But Langenbach is not completely satisfied with the result. "We would have liked to have seen further-reaching prospects being offered, such as integration courses and opportunities to get qualifications for the job market," he said. "We would have liked to have found a way to show the refugees that they are welcome here and that they aren't a burden to society."
The asylum seekers in Kreuzberg also received a lot of help from Berlin's branch of the Caritas charity. In November, 2013, this Catholic aid organization offered 80 people shelter in an empty senior citizens' home that its workers prepared within two days. Caritas has now offered additional help following the clearance of the camp, through medical consultations and legal advice. Press spokesman Thomas Gleissner pointed out that many of the refugees arrive in Germany traumatized by their experiences and desperately need help. For this reason, the charities Diakonie and Caritas are now setting up 15 new job positions for advisers around Berlin.
Gleissner is convinced that there is much room for improvement in Germany's refugee policy, and that Germans are prepared to help. "They have a feeling that this isn't an anonymous mass, but people in a desperate situation who want a new start," he said. "And we want to help them."
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