On 24 June 2014, Kreuzberg – a vibrant, multicultural neighbourhood of Berlin – was virtually turned into a police state overnight.
Up to 1,720 officers, some in full riot gear and armed with machine guns, were deployed in an area no bigger than a few blocks.
They were there to remove 40 refugees who were staging a roof-top protest against their imminent eviction from an abandoned school building on Ohlauer Strasse.
Hundreds, at times thousands, of demonstrators came out to support the political demands of the refugees.
The siege lasted for eight days, during which time freedom of movement - even for members of parliament and journalists – was completely restricted.
Local businesses suffered huge financial losses as customers were unable or unwilling to make it through the police barricades.
Several violent confrontations between demonstrators – some of which were school children – and police officers took place.
The roof-top drama finally came to an end on 2 July, when the local authorities granted the 40 refugees permission to stay in a part of the building so long as no-one else moved in.
However, their central demand – the right to remain in Germany permanently – remains unfulfilled.
And the tax payer has been left with a massive bill for the police operation, costing over €5 million in salaries alone.
How did it come to this?
Asylum in crisis
The crisis in Ohlauer Strasse was a logical consequence of the disastrous regulation of asylum in Germany.
In 1993, following decades of debate about ‘acceptable’ levels of immigration and concerns about ‘legitimate’ asylum seekers, an amendment was passed to the 1949 German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) that effectively abolished the right to seek refuge in Germany.
This shameful so-called ‘compromise’ (Asylkompromiss) is not only in direct contravention of Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but is morally reprehensible when one considers the circumstances under which the Basic Law was written.
Specifically the clause on asylum was conceived, in part, as reparation for the atrocities which took place during the Nazi era.
During this time, millions of Germans of Jewish, Roma, Sinti or African descent lived and died under similar circumstances to those now trying to escape war-torn countries like Syria, or human rights abuses in countries like Uganda or Eritrea.
Although in absolute terms Germany receives the greatest number of refugees in Europe (in 2012, 77,500 applications for asylum were recorded), in comparison to the size of its population, Germany actually receives far fewer applications than Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland or Belgium.
Moreover, expenditure on asylum as a percentage of total national expenditure in Germany is almost negligible.
The demands of Germany’s refugee population are simple – to have full access to their human rights.
Specifically this means: the abolishment of the (uniquely German) compulsory residence requirement, which effectively bans refugees from moving freely around the country (Residenzpflicht); the abolishment of the requirement for refugees to live in designated (usually remotely located, isolated and prison-like) encampments; the right to seek employment or education; and an end to all deportations.
And yet, despite years of political campaigning and lobbying, and the thousands of needless deaths caused every year by the enforcement of Fortress Europe; despite disenfranchisement at local, national and European Union government levels, disinterest on the part of mainstream German media and apathy from the general public, nothing has changed.
“The government has completely ignored us”
In autumn 2012, a protest camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg soon became the symbolic centre of the refugee movement and at the end of 2012, some of the refugees (including women and children) moved from there into an unused school building in Ohlauer Strasse.
Because the squats were tolerated by the local government, this automatically meant the authorities had legally assumed responsibility for the welfare of the inhabitants.
But by November 2013 the conditions both at the camp and the school were unfit for human inhabitation. The local government was criticised by doctors for failing to take the necessary action to improve the facilities. Indeed according to Patras Bwansi, a refugee and human rights activist from Uganda, “the government completely ignored us”.
But rather than seek direct dialogue with the refugees, local politicians unilaterally decided to evict the residents of the camp and school.
By April 2014 divisions within the refugees had been sufficiently exploited to enable some of them to destroy the camp at Oranienplatz in exchange for the promise of a new place to live, a favourable review of their asylum application and a guarantee that they would not be deported during the next six months – promises which are yet to be fulfilled.
During the violent destruction of the camp at Oranienplatz, Sudanese refugee-activist, Napuli Paul Langa, climbed up a tree and remained in it for five days in order to ensure that at least an information point would remain on site.
A group of refugee-activists set up a 24-hour picket directly opposite the destroyed camp and went on hunger strike for two weeks.
The remaining refugees refused to move.
Yet two months later, the confrontation was brought to the brink of near fatal disaster when the authorities decided to clear the school.
The Ohlauer Crisis
On 20 June – World Refugee Day – a local government representative visited the school, where between 200 and 300 refugees, Roma families and other homeless people were living. Plans for a “voluntary move” were announced.
Four days later the police arrived en masse.
For some, the heavy police presence was intimidating enough to encourage them to leave quickly.
However for about 40 others, the protest was taken to a new level. And while the police set barriers up around the school, completely restricting access to the public, a roof-top protest began.
The standoff led to eight days of occupation, with many of the refugees threatening to jump to their deaths if the building was stormed by the police.
Up until the last minute, it was unclear how the deadlock would be broken: at times it seemed inevitable that the police would storm the building and that the refugees – with nothing else to lose – would carry out their threat to jump.
Without the massive support from other refugee-activists, local residents, business owners, supporters, as well as solidarity demonstrations all over Germany and as far afield as Istanbul, Brussels and New York, this almost certainly would have happened.
Learning the lessons
Not everyone agrees about the significance of the Ohlauer crisis.
Some commentators consider the refugees to be ‘blackmailing’ the state. And there are racists who consider Germany’s current asylum policy as a legitimate method of preventing the country from being “overrun” with unwanted foreigners from Africa and Asia.
But their position only makes sense if one believes that some lives are worth less than others.
Some people, however, understand that the Ohlauer episode has further revealed deep cracks in German democracy and that this does not affect refugees alone.
When a left-wing Berlin neighbourhood like Kreuzberg can be locked down for over a week something is very wrong. Thankfully, the number of people who recognise this is growing.
Petitions are circulating requesting the right to asylum to be fully reinstated; journalists are inviting a radical rethink of the regulation of asylum in Germany; and local residents are opening up their homes.
Those of us who are not refugees have been lucky – this time.
We narrowly avoided a fatal situation taking place right under our noses.
By bringing their struggle for human rights straight to our doorstep, the Kreuzberg refugees reminded us all of our own humanity and shown us how fragile our democracy can be.
We should not need a louder wake up call to protect them both.