I am originating from Cameroon and since August 2020, I am in the asylum process in Germany. Even though I enjoyed the academic status of being a student that fled to Europe for an exchange programme, the stress and trauma I have experienced before reaching Europe was still fresh when reaching Leipzig. This difficult situation in the course of arriving is the foundation of my research and my motivation to bring out the difficulties and internal conflicts that asylum seekers undergo in the process of asylum seeking in their host country. For my internship in the Leibniz Institute, I had a couple of difficulties because of my legal status, which was not favourable. I had to fight with the help of the Institute and the social workers in my “Heim”. I was finally uplifted the Dublin decision on May 31th, 2021 and I became eligible for the internship.
Since the month of July, I became a trainee at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography within the framework of the Science Initiative on Integration. Here I am working in the HERA project EEYRASPS, which investigates arrival experiences of young refugees in European cities. Within the framework of the project, my task was to report on everyday experiences as an insider – a refugee in Leipzig. I carried out this study for a couple of three months reflecting my experiences and doing narrative interviews with the other refugees that were sharing similar situations of Asylum. The situation and the context in which I was carrying out the interviews was complex, with some of my interview partners were suspicious of the nature of the talks. In this blog I would like to describe some autobiographical experiences and insights from my empirical observations and conversations with other asylum seekers.
Arrival infrastructures for refugees: the “reception center” and the “Heim”
The reception center is usually the first approved, official place of arrival for asylum seekers in Germany and a typical zone of transition with all its challenges and shortcomings: For me the time of transition from the reception center to the “Heim” was particular stressful: In this time, I was informed that I was under the Dublin. Due to the fear of deportation, I stayed away from my room, which was very stressful for me. The reception center has the difficult task to harmonize the various conducts, social backgrounds, habits of the arrivals and make people regain hope about life in a very vulnerable situation. People from different nationalities are urged to respect different cultural background. One of the main difficulties in this surrounding is the noise. The people were not very disciplined and they were not respecting the strict rules and regulations. Beside noise, smoking of substances such as Marijuana, weed and the dealing of all form of drugs was rampant. These practices of smoking often spark off the alarm, so that the security agents come to rooms. The constant coming to rooms leds to checking the private rooms of the people, scattering everything. Usually, after a couple of months or year in the camp, an asylum seeker is transferred to the Heim. Here, people are accommodated in rooms for 2 people, family rooms or sometimes also individual rooms.
The Heim is a place where you can cook your favourite meals alone with the monthly stipend of the social welfare benefit contrary to the Reception center, where meals are provided. Despite the fact that much more efforts are made to improve the meals in the reception centers, the majority of the asylum seekers complained about the meals and equally how the meals are served. Some time you will eat and have stomach problems or receive insufficient meals. People enjoy a little much more freedoms in Heim than in the reception centers. In reception centers, systematic checking, control of private properties, control of identities and body checking is constant. This exercise applies to asylum seekers every time they have to go inside the camp. In the Heim, people can enjoy the right to move in and out without been checked. However, the non-checking result to the increase in the rate of drugs dealing and other social evils in the Heim. Last but not the least, the Heim provides better opportunities for people getting into the publics space and enjoying the right of integrating themselves easily and quickly into the public spaces as compared to the Reception center.
Experiencing the life outside the “Heim” – significance of public places
The lack of communication and the knowledge of language is a fundamental problem for asylum seekers. Outside the “Heim”, people face so many problems because they cannot express themselves. There is a tendency by Germans to ignore someone that cannot express his or herself in German language. This is extended to some institutions where you have to request a service or help e.g. with translation. Moreover, there are the problems of racism and exclusions in public transports. When you get on a bus or a tram, the people will not want you to sit near them. I often experienced that people change their position or stand and stay up. My observation is, that people are not comfortable sitting near blacks in public transports. Sometime it makes you feel rejected and ashamed to be excluded because of your colour.
There is also the issue of (lacking) trust between black people and the police officers. If any scandal happens and there is a black person near, the police always ask the residence permit of the black people and they are registered. I have a couple of people that have complained about those issues. The police officers do not have confidence and trust on Africans. The Africans on their part always feel marginalised, discriminated and excluded from the public environments. However, there are some important places in the city that are popular among asylum seekers, like the Leipzig central station and its surroundings. One important reason is, that most of the reception centers and “Heims” do not have free Wi-Fi networks. The asylum seekers with their small budget cannot afford for the internets in their phones. Beside their food needs, cloths, bath stuffs and other small necessities, they are sometime left with very little money to use. They enjoy going to places where they can have free network so that they can communicate with their families or do some research about their countries and the world. When I was still in the reception center, we had organised a group of people and we used to move to the Central station of Leipzig. There, we had free internet and we could stay there from 16 o’clock to midnight.
Beside the Leipzig Central stations, many asylum seekers equally enjoy going to parks and gardens. This are places where they can meet new friends, create new relations, forget about their traumas, and stress for a while. They are many parks in Leipzig where asylum seekers can go but the main Park where you can find many asylum seekers is the one opposite the Leipzig main station. The asylum seekers organised themselves in community around there and buy drinks, they drink and speak about their problems every day. However, they sometimes end up fighting when they don’t agree on certain terms of their debates.
Particular situation: The Corona Pandemic
It is important to acknowledge that during the Corona Pandemic, the government have enacted the different measures that had to be respected by everybody. This strongly affected my living situation as well as my empirical work since many places were closed People could not go to public’s places such as supermarkets, parks, restaurants and other entertainment places. Inside the Camp, all the recreational places, canteen, library and sport room were closed. People were only in their living rooms and could not go out easily. In addition, people were restricted to be moving in a group of more than two people. This was very difficult and it caused many psychological problems – also to me. Without books to read, without internet connection and restriction to move outside, I was usually inside the room. Waking up every morning and doing the same routine inside a room was very difficult for me. Another challenge was to book appointments in public offices or in the hospital. During the Pandemic, many offices were closed and many works were shifted home.
Since also schools inside the reception center were closed, residents were dependent on their private internets to learn some basic language skills online. Since I had lost all properties in Berlin before applying for asylum, I did not have telephone or computer to start learning. During January 2021, the Camp library was finally opened and the rule was to allow only one person inside. I applied to work inside the library and got the permission. I was working and sleeping inside the library from 20.00 h until 6.00 h in the morning. I started learning German language on my own. With the motivation to integrate myself in the German society, I was offered support by one of the social workers in the camp.
Obstacles of empirical research and conclusions
The speech of each asylum seeker depends on the reason he left his country and migrated to Europe. Those that fled because of war or humanitarian reasons speak about security and safety purpose, those who fled because of harsh economic conditions speak about labour. Each narration had its specificity and offered a kind of speaking in detail without having to disclose identity. In the process of investigations, I learnt more about the precarious conditions that asylum seekers undergo in their ways to Europe. From the force labour, imprisonments, torture, violence, sexual harassment, prostitutions, traffic of drugs and other negatives substances. The reality of the life people face before reaching the camp is the reason why many of them reach Europe with psychological problems. The rate of depression, stress, mental disorder and anxiety is very high due to all the situations they have been going through.
It is very important to acknowledge that all this research was without obstacles. One problem of research is the frequency of transfer in the reception camp. The majority of people I have arranged interviews with, were transferred to another reception center. Because of their fear of being identified, they often refused to give me their number and I lost their contacts. Secondly, many of the interviewee considered me as a spy from the German government (BAMF worker). They always asked me why they should trust me. “Are you not paid to come, spy us, and give the information to your patrons?” The asylum seekers are very careful about information and details they give to people that approach them for research. Thirdly, those that accepted to speak with me enjoyed speaking without being recorded. They were very relaxed and motivated to speak at the condition of not quoting their names too. Sometimes, they asked me to buy food or drinks for them before they could speak to me.
The questions of refugee are very complex and go far beyond the scientific representation of the conditions, process and solutions of the daily life of refugees. From my point of view, you cannot fully describe these experiences if you have not been a refugee or have not live with the refugees to know exactly what they feel. Some emotions, situations and context are very hard to explain. Hence, the question of refugee research is a matter of having patience and interest of learning about their different codes, expressions, meanings, because they are more open to those ones that can understand them very well. Since asylum seekers face social discrimination, racism, language skill barriers and a conflict of integration, it is very difficult for them, not to lose hope to peruse their goals. To alleviate this highly vulnerable situation, it would at least be necessary to make societies much more aware of the discrimination and racist acts and to raise awareness for the precarious everyday life of asylum seekers. As an asylum seeker and a resident of the reception center and the Heim, they are many suggestions that I would like to make as for example as follows:
- Reduction of the number of the length of stay inside the reception center is very important. If People are forced to stay inside the camp for a long time, they start losing hope.
- The asylum seekers should be given the right to work. Most of the asylum seekers with “Duldung” do not have the permission to work, open bank accounts or do any legal papers in Germany. This leads to an increase of crime, buying and selling of drugs, working in black and lowly paid jobs.
- The asylum seekers should be allowed to school. Even though any asylum seeker can be authorised to school according to his legal status, the procedure of recognition of the certificates are too lengthy.
- Language learning should be compulsory and free for all the asylum seekers.
- Asylum seekers that have been in the territory for more than 3 years should be given the possibility of legal residence. Most asylum seekers have been in Germany for the past 5 years. They don’t have any legal recognition and protections.
- Measures of control inside the camp should be reinforce in order to stop the illegal smuggling of drugs and sexual harassments.
- Women should be given the opportunity to express themselves, activities should be organised for women’s. Non-governmental associations have to reinforce the defence of sexual minorities.
- Members of the European Union should play a key role in helping the countries solve their internal crises. The provision of employment and decent living conditions can reduce the rate of immigrations.
Mouhamed Moubarak is graduated in political science and was doing his internship at IfL within the HERA project The Everyday experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers in open space.