Can Europe Make It?

Between exit and voice: refugees' stories from Lampedusa to Hamburg

European politics currently serves to reinforce the ‘Fortress’, leaving refugees vulnerable and futureless, battling a system which is waging war against them. But 'Lampedusa in Hamburg' demonstrates that civil society can work effectively with migrants for their rights to a safe existence.

Susi Meret Elisabetta Della Corte
22 January 2014
A group of protestors in Hamburg rally in support of the 'Lampedusa refugees'

Migrants march in Hamburg in support of Lampedusa refugees. Demotix / Mauricio Bustamante. Some rights reserved

While we were travelling across Italy in mid-October to document the many different migrant realities, the media and public in Italy and abroad were mourning the death of the three hundred and sixty-six migrants, drowned in waters off Lampedusa at the beginning of the month. From the island of Lampedusa - dubbed the “gateway to Europe” - as well as from Rome and Brussels, we heard daily declarations and promises of migration policy changes. While politicians had to bow down before the latest immigrant tragedy, suggesting honouring the dead with Italian citizenship, we were seeking out the voices of the living to ask what it means to be a migrant inside Fortress Europe - an arena where waging war against immigrants seems to be the only diligently practiced response. In our journey from south to north, we saw borders erected everywhere; not just at Europe’s external frontiers, but increasingly within it, in its urban spaces, in people’s lives.

Two months after the October Lampedusa tragedy and those that followed it, politics is still only offering to reinforce the Fortress, pouring yet more resources and efforts into border control programmes such as Frontex, the EU Integrated Border Management (EUBAM) and Eurosur. Nothing has changed. But on our trip we also encountered other ‘voices’ in civil society, reclaiming rights and recognition. These realities, which often start locally, seem to be growing increasingly inclusive, involving multiple actors and using different strategies to support the emergence of new forms of consciousness. ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ is one, and perhaps also the more promising, of these initiatives.

'Emergency Lampedusa'

On November 2, a public demonstration was held in Hamburg Mitten for ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’. More than 10,000 people showed up, and the event was followed by several other public initiatives which similarly gathered large numbers. The events demonstrated how the violation of rights such as the right to work, and the right to a decent living, can act to mobilize large sectors of civil society from diverse political positions.

‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ is the latest stage in what can be called the ‘Emergency North Africa’ odyssey. The emergency started in 2011, under the NATO-supported war in Libya, exacerbated by the geopolitical instability in Tunisia and Egypt. In 2011, the official number of registered migrants from Libya in Italy reached 28,000 - but actual migrant figures are expected to be much higher. Originally, most of the asylum seekers originated in the sub-Saharan region - as well as from other parts of Africa - all of them forced out of Libya where they had managed to make a living, despite their already long and difficult migration life stories.

In Italy, the emergency was a profitable economic business for most of the actors involved in the care of asylum seekers. The government allocated double funding to cover the daily expenses of the migrants - with amounts reaching 40-45 euros per person per day. The resources were hastily shared amongst the improvised hosting organisations and structures. Asylum seekers were housed in dismissed hotels, empty residences and houses that had never before been used for such a purpose. The large number of requests for asylum led to lengthy waiting lists and many did not get an answer until the end of the programme in 2013. The total costs of the emergency, after years of mismanagement and nepotistic administration reached over €1,300,000,000.

The project, however, was abruptly ended in February 2013 under the Monti government amidst an institutional silence in both Italy and Europe. With the emergency declared over, it seemed that nobody cared much about the life and future of the thousands of refugees. In a bid to remove them from being under Italian responsibility, the authorities issued a one year humanitarian permit to all - and in many cases a bonus of 500 euros, which many used to travel to Switzerland, France, and Germany. According to the directives of the Dublin Regulation, however, which considers the first safe country of arrival the one responsible for asylum, most of them were sent back.

'Emergency North-Africa' shows that even when migrants succeed in crossing the border and obtaining refugee status, they still have to face a system that wages war against them.

Lampedusa in Calabria: ‘Here alone and without a future’

While Italian and European political authorities gathered in Lampedusa, we met a group of African refugees from ‘Emergency North Africa’ in nearby Lamezia, Calabria. All had come to Lampedusa, or the Sicilian east coast, from Libya in 2011. Unlike others, the refugees we approached here had managed to occupy houses and were organizing themselves within. Some others had joined them from other parts of Italy, where they otherwise had no place to stay. They may have shelter for now, but who knows for how long? There are no local organizations, and no support structures to help them.

Initially, the group did not welcome us. As one of them told us “every day someone comes to talk and talk. But nothing ever happens”. When asked how they are keeping themselves afloat, they explained that sometimes they find occasional work in agriculture, hired on a temporary basis for onion and orange picking when there are no eastern European migrants available. But as one refugee from Burkina Faso commented, he had worked for two months for a farmer on the agreement of 700 euros per month, five days a week for more than ten hours per day. But he had never been paid.

Most of the group agreed that they wished to leave Italy as soon as possible. “There is no future”, they commented, with no prospects for employment in the north or south of the country. In the past at least, there had been work opportunities in the industrial districts of north east Italy, but the economic crisis has changed this. Moreover, with the humanitarian residence permit, refugees also need an Italian domicile for renewal, which they say can hardly be found, yet alone paid for. Many are thus at risk of being deported.

A few kilometres south towards Lamezia, 6-8 refugees have rented the facilities attached to the local football field. They live in what is normally the cafeteria and locker rooms in an area which is just a few square metres, and yet they pay 40 euros per person - as well as the additional costs for gas and electricity. The group were forced to accept this accommodation when they were pushed out onto the streets by the owner of one of the houses nearby following the halt in government funding - he had locked them out and walled up the entrances. As one of the refugees commented “In Italy there is a big problem, there is no work... I thought that all are equal, I cannot understand why they treat us like this”. The area is also far from safe - as one of the refugee inhabitants explained, local gangs appear at night intimidating the residents. They climb on the roof of the building and make a terrible rumpus. Having happened repeatedly, many feel that this is yet another reason to leave. Lampedusa in Hamburg: ‘We are here to stay!’

In early spring 2013, the emergency resurfaced thousands of miles from Lampedusa: in Hamburg where Africans from the emergency number approximately 300-350. There is also a ‘Lampedusa in Berlin’, a group of about 200-250 which last year, together with other asylum seekers, occupied Oranienplatz in the Kreutzberg district. They are now currently resisting eviction from the authorities.

The examples of the 'Lampedusa in Hamburg' and in Berlin are paradigmatic of the biographies and journeys of thousands of men and women denied mobility and trying to survive the consequences of migration and rejection-based asylum politics. Since their entry into Fortress Europe, most of them have had to deal with a situation that deprives them of freedom of movement and of the chance to find work to rebuild their lives: they are seemingly devoid of any real chance of a certain future.

Of those refugees who came to Hamburg from Italy after the end of the ‘Emergency North Africa’, many had tried before arriving here to make a living in Naples, Rome, Milan or Turin. In Hamburg, we talked to one native - A. - of Bamako, Mali, inside the Church of St. Pauli.  Around us some were finishing their breakfast whilst others cleaned the Church that today hosts 75-80 refugees of the Emergency. For A., immigration experiences had been tough: over nine months in the overcrowded immigration detention centre of Sant’Anna in Crotone, and living homeless in Rome for more than a month. A similar fate was shared by several others such as O. and M. from Mali, and Al. from Sudan. Their travels to Germany may have been different, but each was a tale of difficulty. Some came by bus, others by train, a few by plane. The 500 euros they had received from the Italian state had gone towards the tickets - unless the money had already been used for basic needs. Some such as A. meanwhile had never received his money, and had been forced to borrow from friends.

Many refugees of the Emergency met again in Hamburg, at the central station, on the streets or in the shelters arranged for the homeless. They came with the hope of being able to start anew. But in April, the municipality closed down the winter programme for the refugees. This was one of the first attempts of the SPD-driven municipality to send the refugees ‘voluntarily’ back to Italy, denying them basic services such a place to stay at night. The position is based on the Dublin Convention: refugees must return to Italy - their first safe country of entry - as soon as possible. The humanitarian permit most refugees have does not allow them to find work, nor to stay abroad beyond the ninety days provided by the tourist visa.

The ending of the winter programme in early spring would have pushed the refugees back onto the streets. With night-time temperatures well below zero, some dedicated associations and movements for the rights of migrants began to help the refugees of ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ to start mobilizing.

At the beginning of May, the Hamburg section of the 'Karawane', a network for the rights of refugees and migrants, met up with 50 refugees of the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ for the Kirchentag, the international conference of the Protestant churches, bringing together more than three thousand participants. At the meeting, representatives of the Protestant community, politicians, intellectuals and pundits discussed immigration and integration. The action prompted the reply of the Protestant bishop of the city, Kirsten Ferhs, who acknowledged that something had to be done.

Public opinion was equally outraged by the reactions coming from the Hamburg municipality. The attempt to set up a tent camp near the Hamburg central station, where the refugees could sleep at night, was brutally stopped by the police. It was this demonstration of force which contributed in mobilising wider segments of civil society for the rights of the refugees, and it prompted the group of ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ to become increasingly self-aware and organized, advancing specific claims and selecting its own spokespersons from amongst the refugees. In one protest in front of the town hall a banner aptly summed up their message: ‘We did not survive the NATO war in Libya to come and die on the streets of Hamburg’.

Solidarity in St Pauli, solidarity in Hamburg

The St Pauli Church opened its doors to the refugees in late May. Other places of worship followed its example: the mosque in St Georg housed 20-25 refugees, and the church Erlöserkirche began to  offer warm meals twice a week to refugees. Added to the private shelters - mainly located at St Pauli and offering refugees a place to stay in during the cold months - this helped compensate for the lack of help from the municipality.

The group of Lampedusa asks for housing rights, working rights and the opportunity to become part of society. Explained by one of their spokesmen, Asuquo Udo: “We want to become part of Hamburg society. We cannot and do not want to go back to misery, neither in Italy nor in an African country”.

In the ‘Karawane’ headquarters at St. Pauli, we met Ralf Lourenco, an activist in the Hamburg branch. “When refugees turned to us, they were already organized and had four spokespersons...We have helped them to publicize their demands - organizing demonstrations, public meetings and issuing press releases. But the content was already clear from the start”. Unlike other organisations that consider refugees and migrants ‘victims to be helped’, Karawane is committed to encouraging and supporting refugee and migrant self-empowerment and self-organization: the refugees are seen as autonomous subjects, who can represent and help themselves if given the right opportunities.

‘Karawane’ support consists mainly of practical aid: networking activities, organizing demonstrations and helping in understanding how the different social and institutional realities work within the country. But there are no intermediaries. It is the refugees who attend meetings with the authorities, the press, the trade unions, the students, the various citizens’ movements and who are at the frontline at the demonstrations. This represents one of the strengths of ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’.

But it is this specific demand which created a degree of disagreement among the various subjects supporting the claims for rights of ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’. “The Church”, said Ralf “is primarily concerned with the humanitarian aspect of the issue and tends to focus on individual cases. For the church, a group solution is not possible. Also ... they do not like political campaigns. The church of St. Pauli is de-politicized, and this has a negative impact on the group. In the last month ... the group has had some bad experiences with community representatives of the Protestant Church of St. Pauli involving themselves in political negotiations without the backup of the group of Lampedusa”.

Of course, church involvement was crucial in solving immediate needs and problems related to food and housing, and it had a vital role in raising awareness and mobilizing parts of the community in Hamburg which had not seen the issue in political terms. But relationships were complicated when activism and participation evolve from being a predominantly humanitarian issue that links to the immediate needs of the individuals, into a political position, inevitably implying a critique of power relationships.

The reaction to the recent proposal by the Federal Senate of Hamburg to the requests of the group of Lampedusa exemplifies this. The Hambug Senate proposed that refugees accept ‘Duldung’ - a practice which requires asylum request to be made exclusively on an individual basis. For the Lampedusa refugees, this would mean losing all that they had gained since 2011 such as the recognition, after months of postponements, of asylum already obtained in Italy. If the asylum application were rejected, the consequence would automatically be deportation and detainment in one of the German immigration centers. The proposed ‘deal’ offered no recognition of the group, and instead only offered a choice to be taken individually - seemingly in the aim of splitting up the group. Considered unacceptable by the group of 'Lampedusa in Hamburg', an open letter was sent to the Senate stating their opposition to the offer.

At a Monday meeting of the St Pauli church activists, one man argued that it is a matter of pragmatism: “It is one thing to intervene when the situation shows that certain policies do not work, but it is another to claim a radical change in asylum policies...The humanitarian act is also in itself a political act”. Of course, it is recognised that there are both political and economic constraints, and that limits dictated by the very role and nature of church relations with institutions must not be underestimated. Initially, the church helped considerably, communicating the motivations of ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ and engaging people who do not see themselves as political activists but who considered the situation to be unjust.

But we couldn’t help noticing that no representative of ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ attended the meeting. A few of them sat to one side trying to following what was going on, and others listened from the upper floor, but there was no translator present to help them understand.


A sign welcoming refugees is hung from a school bus in Hamburg

Pupils rally in support of Lampedusa refugees in Hamburg. Demotix / David Fischer Baglietto. Some rights reserved.

“We did not expect such a strong solidarity” said Ralf, “and this is also one of the reasons for the results we attained up to now, even compared to other experiences, such as in Berlin”.

Walking along the streets of St Pauli it is hard not to notice the widespread and diffuse support for the group of Lampedusa. Everywhere there are posters with the slogan ‘We are here to stay’, or ‘Freedom of movement is everybody’s right’.There are Lampedusa banners in the windows, graffiti and slogans on walls and footpaths, brochures on show in local pubs and stores. The city theatre has hung a banner in support of 'Lampedusa in Hamburg'.

The refugees are the first to acknowledge this broad demonstration of solidarity on the part of St Pauli and more generally the community of Hamburg. We were told that even the police refused to proceed with the authorities’ request to carry out ID checks within the churches hosting the refugees. This is also considered a sign of a growing solidarity, the result of a new form of community network grown locally, which has spread to numerous different realities: the churches, the popular St Pauli football club, the local schools, the university, the theatre, alternative social movements and increasingly trade unions such as Ver.di and IG Metall (IG Metall having initiated meetings between migrants, metal workers and dockers to exchange knowledge and experiences). Students meanwhile organized a demonstration in support of asylum rights on December 12 and it is estimated that about 3,000 were on the streets.   

There are reasons to hope for the future of ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’. “We are confident”, says Ralf, “and we will continue to strive for a solution that recognizes the rights of the group of Lampedusa”. ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ is also a frame through which we can reflect more comprehensively on the current regulations and legislation on asylum and reception, at the national and European level, and hopefully it is a case that can positively affect others. “Many are looking at what is happening here in Hamburg”, Ralf tells us “because here there was a concrete response to the promises made by politicians on the island of Lampedusa but which were never maintained”. It is an experience that is prompting movements and organizations for the rights of the migrants to reflect on their strategies, methods and opportunities.

Meanwhile, the struggle continues. Demonstrations, events and activities have already been arranged and promoted via social media, with the hope that time will bring good news to the refugees of Lampedusa, as well as those from elsewhere.

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