Whereas during the 1970s and 1980s the British black and anti-racist movements provided perspectives which were emulated in the rest of Europe, today the roles are reversed. Now that the most pressing anti-racist issues involve asylum refusal, deportation, incarceration, dispersal and social exclusion, we in the UK have everything to learn from Europe. Not only have countries like Germany had a much longer history of asylum-seeking on a large scale, but organisations run by refugees are at the forefront of the anti-racist movement, setting the pace for an imaginative programme of direct action politics around asylum.
Major players in the European resistance movements on asylum gathered at Jena, east Germany in April for eight days of serious discussion and creative debate on how to unite against deportations. Co-ordinated by the African Voice, a six-year-old African asylum-seeker organisation, the meeting brought together over 400 delegates from a range of organisations from all over Europe working on human rights, refugees, domestic work, medical aid, cultural expression, state surveillance and pro-democracy. Indian Peoples’ Movements representatives could exchange views with Mexican border documentation campaigners; Tamil women discuss with Filipino migrant workers; Moroccans, Nigerians and Ecuadorians compare notes.
The Congress was the first big mobilisation by the Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants which, in 1998, led huge demonstrations of migrants, undocumented workers and asylum-seekers through 44 German cities. It was also the third European meeting of the Sans Papiers network which is active in Belgium and France. What emerged from the Congress is that the European experience for asylum-seekers and undocumented workers is becoming uniform. As Europe has harmonised racist and rigid immigration rules, Fortress Europe has become a repressive and threatening reality for everyone who looks foreign, for everyone who does not carry an EU passport. And across Europe the image of the ‘criminal refugee/foreigner’ contributes to a public consensus in favour of a ruthless state racism which involves social exclusion, detention and deportation.
Dispersal of asylum-seekers in Britain has just begun. Germany is a step ahead. Hundreds of would-be participants just could not get to the Congress, because they only had the right to remain in their particular state in Germany. To have travelled to Jena would have been a criminal act. Some were even threatened with deportation if they attended. In response to the obvious restriction this German residence law places on refugees’ ability to organise collectively, groups were formed to plan strategies to abolish the law. Protests will peak in October on the commemoration day of German reunification. And to put solidarity into immediate practice, international delegations took the initiative and visited asylum hostels and detention centres in other regions of Germany.
In Bavaria the delegation visited Ansbach, a former US military base which accommodates asylum-seekers from all over the world. Most of them are at the end of the asylum process, waiting while the German authorities obtain travel documents so as to deport them. In the meantime these refugees have no documents – not even the usual temporary identity papers – and are rendered illegal the minute they leave their hostel. The local police lurk outside or at the bus stop, knowing that anyone they question will have no valid papers and can be arrested. Police have even patrolled within the hostel and have penalised refugees (who hold nothing but deportation orders) even if they stay in their assigned rooms. It is a life in limbo. ‘Not only is our humanity denied’, one refugee told us, ‘but our right to exist.’ As the delegation got ready to leave, it was approached by four refugee women. ‘Will you come to the bus-stop with us? We need to get to the doctor’s.’ In Ansbach just going to the doctor means risking arrest and imprisonment.
‘Tambach-Dietharz welcomes all its visitors’ reads the sign outside this smallish village not far from Weimar in east Germany. What is does not say is that you are only welcome if you are not a foreigner. The hostel’s location is completely isolated – we had to drive up a number of hairpin bends and then through a big forest before we finally arrived outside a huge complex. As I took in the rundown buildings surrounded by barbed wire and security men guarding the entrance, I could not help thinking of the concentration camps.
Those at Tambach-Dietharz hostel who need shopping or to see a doctor have to walk for 11.5 hours to reach the village. If they want to meet friends or contact a lawyer, they have to find the expensive fares to the nearest city out of their monthly allowance of £26. Refugees told us about malnutrition, horrible living conditions, their fears for the children because of the sharp barbed wire. ‘By law even dogs in Germany have to live in a larger area than we do,’ burst out one resident. ‘There is nothing to do, just sleeping, eating and sleeping, that’s all,’ intoned another.
In Lower Saxony, a government trial project inflicts yet further indignities. Here Project X exists, not to detain deportees, but to psychologically break those whose country of origin is not known. For without a passport no one can be deported. And the final act of resistance by a refused asylum-seeker is to withhold his or her identity. Detainees can be held indefinitely at Project X; the only routine consists of interrogation about who they are, where they came from. Eventually everyone is deported, to any country, even if it is not their own, as long as the papers are ‘valid’.
It was reported at the Congress that even African embassies are being dragged into this sullied deportation process. Diplomats are encouraged to take part in identity parades where they finger people to the German authorities as their nationals.
Perspectives of resistance
Europe, especially Germany, might provide dark intimations of what could happen here, but the powerful networks against state racism built by grassroots organisations and refugee groups provide stunning examples of how effective resistance can be.
Italy mass street protest
Giuliano from the Italian movement Ya Basta! (That’s enough) linked to centres in Turin, Naples and Florence, gave a moving speech to the Congress about how mass protests closed via Corelli, one of the most horrendous detention camps in Milan. A civil resistance campaign of opposition to detention centres was built in Italy. Imagine 20000 people on the streets of London telling Jack Straw what they thought of his dispersal policy! Well it was 20000 people who took to the streets in Italy, occupied an ancient Milanese monument and forced interior minister Bianco to capitulate. But, warned Giuliano, though one-off direct action is impressive, the movement has to stay vigilant. ‘Another via Corelli could be just around the corner. But as long as we exist, they will never be strong enough to stop us.’
Action in Germany since the 1998 Caravan has been varied and inventive. In Hamburg it is Africans and their supporters who are at the forefront of struggles. ‘African refugees have been victimised more than any other group of refugees’, explained Mahmood Bengura. ‘In the asylum system in Hamburg it is unbelievable the way the authorities break the law at every turn. We fought against their interviewing under-age young people, their keeping people in container ships. We told them that they could not hold people in such conditions. And, then, they went and created yet worse problems for us.’
Against airline deportations
One of the most imaginative campaigns in Germany was launched by the No one is Illegal group against Lufthansa. This resistance campaign, known as deportation.class, has published its own newspaper and held a series of demonstrations at German airports. Recently the group printed its own leaflets which looked identical to Lufthansa’s own, inviting people to fly ‘deportation class’ at cheaper rates. Following the distribution of these bogus leaflets in travel agencies, Lufthansa was forced to explain itself publicly. Similar activities against national airlines which are used for deportation have been mounted in Holland against KLM, in France against Air France and in Belgium against Sabena.
Campaigners have also been stepping up their activities in Europe’s border areas where asylum-seekers and migrants are hunted down and detained in the worst of conditions. Since 1998 two border campaigns have been held on the German-Polish-Czech border and three more camps are planned for the Austrian-Hungarian, German-Danish and Polish-Ukrainian borders this summer. So far these have been organised by German, Dutch, French and Italian activists. Isn’t it time we thought of a British equivalent?
Bringing Jena home
The Refugee Congress gave us an idea of what a future framework of organised resistance in Britain could look like. The Caravan helped German anti-racist groups and refugees and migrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America to come together for a common cause and shape effective political action. While we already have grass-roots campaigns and strong co-ordinating bodies, we need broader political debates about different, more effective forms of resistance. We have to find a way to catch up with Europe, strengthen the network of resistance here, broaden anti-racist politics, build deeper links with refugee communities – we have to find a way of bringing the momentum of Jena to Britain.