The fact that ‘Insel 36’ and ‘Erstaufnahme II’ were grouped together on the 'Berlin Human Rights Film Festival' timetable was no coincidence. Whilst both films depict refugees and asylum seekers living in Germany, one focuses on the positive aspects of German welcome culture whilst the other raises some serious questions about the legality and morality of 'reception centres.'
‘Insel 36’ documents the lives of a group of refugees living in a makeshift camp at Oranienplatz, in the heart of Kreuzberg, Berlin. They have made this small tent city their home in protest against the movement restrictions placed upon new arrivals, who are obliged to stay in reception centres under the “Residenzpflicht” laws. These reception centres are often located in old industrial or governmental buildings, situated in remote areas, and with very limited facilities. This creates an institutional, almost prison-like atmosphere and leaves many residents feeling trapped and unable to fully participate in public life.
In a bid for freedom and self-autonomy, some of these people have chosen to abandon the reception centres and seek their own accommodation. One such person is Napuli from South Sudan. Napuli is a prominent voice in the Insel 36 community, and the only female resident. Coming from a political family, Napuli is resolute in her belief that everybody has the right to live wherever they wish. Her message, and the message of all the Insel 36 residents is clear – “Kein Mensch ist Illegal” (No Man is Illegal).
Unluckily for the Insel residents, in choosing their own living space, they are breaking ties with official asylum procedures, which effectively means that they are illegal residents in Germany. They are also living on public land which is another breach of law.
You can see both sides of the situation – on the one hand you have a group of people who simply want to be treated as equals. They want the right to work, to live, to study, to be accepted into German society. Under international humanitarian law, this is their basic right – “To be a refugee is not a crime. To be a refugee is not a decision you make on your own... You are born here, but your life will be somewhere. This is what human rights say", explains Napuli.
On the other hand, if there are no official procedures in place to take care of, monitor and document who is coming in from where, then this will have major effects on German society and its infrastructure.
There are many scenes in the film which depict this fundamental clash between the rights of the individual versus the collective need for order. In one scene, the Insel residents have gone on a trip to one of the reception centres they used to live in, but they are not allowed inside. Napuli gets very angry, “You are Scheiße!”, she shouts. The guard is adamant that they do not live there so are not allowed on the premises without proper authorization.
“We don’t come here to disturb you people, we come here to be good like you.”
In another scene, at a local community meeting, one Insel resident stands up and appeals to the room - “We don’t come here to disturb you people, we come here to be good like you”. But then a local resident stands up and retorts, “In this area we have enough problems – drugs, robbery, filth, noise and illegal employment”. It is, of course, inaccurate and unfair to label refugees as the cause of endemic social and structural problems that predate their arrival. Refugees continue to be negatively stereotyped as lazy, violent and criminally inclined, despite studies proving that there is no correlation between crime rates in Germany and refugee populations.
In their quest for residency rights, the inhabitants of Insel 36 organise protest marches, where they wave banners and chant the mantra - "We are here, we will fight, freedom of movement is everybody's right!" (We actually saw them at yesterday's #Unteilbar demonstration in Mitte!) They also offer community talks and activities, fundraising events, and trips to different cities. All their activities are peacefully conducted, and violence is strongly frowned upon. But, despite their peaceful protests, the Insel community remain thwarted at every turn. The police regularly visit their camp, and they live in constant fear of raids, deportations and the demolition of their new home...
Meanwhile... in the South-Western province of Baden-Württemberg, the residents of a small village called Meßstetten prepare to welcome a group of refugees into their community.
The refugees will be hosted in the old army barracks located next to Meßstetten. One of the local residents comments on the poetic irony of hosting war victims in an old military facility - “The barracks came to Meßstetten in 1914. They helped train the army for the second world war- and we know how many victims there were from that. Now, we are seeing a reversal – the barracks are closing and victims of war from all over the world are coming to live with us. Hopefully, one day, there will be no armies or wars anywhere.”
This sentiment of hope, peace and openness with the new arrivals is echoed by virtually all of the Meßstetten villagers (at least the ones who were interviewed). There is only one dissident - an angry older lady who is filmed pulling up in her car and shouting that she is barely surviving on the money she receives from the state to care for her husband, and why are these people receiving more money and support than her?
Despite her accusations, it certainly does not seem that the newcomers are living in the lap of luxury. The Meßstetten volunteers who organise and run the centre have done their best to make it as comfortable as possible, but it's certainly no 5* hotel.
"'Reception' denotes a guest/host dynamic, however, a guest has the option of leaving whenever they wish and a refugee does not."
The building resembles a school, with long corridors and shiny hard floors. Due to its remote location, the centre has no Wifi. This means that residents are forced to queue for hours to use the communal computers. These computers are in short supply and high demand, resulting in endless queuing and places on the waiting list being bartered and sold internally. After getting wind of this undercover scheme, the volunteer team change their strategy and implement a new system for the computer rooms.
There are some really heartwarming examples of German welcome culture throughout the film – the volunteer who clears out the old sports hall and organizes football matches for the residents; a group rendition of the Nativity play, watched by bemused residents; and a very memorable visit... from Santa Claus! These are simple and sincere attempts by the Meßstetten community to share their culture with the new arrivals.
Whilst 'Erstaufnahme II’ mostly focuses on the experiences of the Meßstetten villagers as they self-organise and run the space, it still provides a partial glimpse into the general structure and milieu of a German reception centre. Although life within its walls could definitely become boring, tedious and frustrating, everybody works together to try to make the space as functional, democratic and enjoyable as possible. However, does this go far enough? Even if the refugee residents were housed in the most lavish of surroundings, their presence there isn't optional - it's mandatory. It therefore seems paradoxical that the German government, one of the first signatories of the 1951 Convention, refers to these glorified prisons as 'reception centres'. 'Reception' denotes a guest/host dynamic, however, a guest has the option of leaving whenever they wish and a refugee does not. Repeated violations of the Residenzpflicht can result in a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 5,000 German marks or deportation.
According to German Residenzpflicht law, first established in the 1982 Asylgesetz (Asylum Law), an asylum seeker must remain within the limits of his or her "Landkreis" (local administrative district). This directly contravenes Article 26 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that "each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely within its territory, subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances."
There have been calls to alter or entirely abolish the Residenzpflicht laws for some time. Pro-refugee and left-wing groups call for its immediate abolishment, whilst transnational bodies, including the UNHCR, suggest a reappraisal of the suitability and compatibility of Residenzpflicht with international refugee law.
So far, nothing has been decided. There remains a central conflict between the need for safe, regulated spaces for asylum seekers, and the freedom of movement rights of the individual. Germany as a host nation with one of the largest intakes of refugees (in Europe) needs a way to monitor and process its asylum applicants, and also help them integrate into German society - this is most easily and efficiently done if they are all living in the same place. However, forcing newcomers to live in reception centers under Residenzpflicht restrictions interferes with their right to freedom of movement.
Reception centres, and the German residents who keep them running, remain an important part of the asylum process. However, for individuals like Napuli who reject the limitations they inherently represent, they too have the right to be welcomed and officially legitimized by the state. Who knows what the future holds for German welcome culture and its not-so-welcoming Residenzpflicht laws... but, if you would like to know more about Napuli and the activities of the Oranienplatz residents, then you can always head to their next meeting!
*** Please note that the words 'refugee' and 'asylum seeker' are both used in this article. Residenzpflicht laws apply to asylum seekers. After applicants have received their official refugee status, these laws are relaxed. However, a large proportion of asylum seekers are refugees who simply have not yet been recognized as such by the state. The reason Residenzpflicht has become such a problem is that people can sometimes wait years for their asylum application to be processed, and meanwhile they must abide by Residenzpflicht, even though they are in fact refugees and therefore protected under the Refugee Convention. ***
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