Escaping from asylum to act as citizens: political mobilization of refugees in Europe

These forms of protest (except for the Sans Papiers movement in France) were for many years largely ignored by a wider public. This changed fundamentally in 2012.

Elias Steinhilper Ilker Ataç
19 September 2016
open Movements

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Traiskirchen, Austria,July 2015.Ilker Ataç. Own photo. 2015 will enter the history books as the year of the (erroneously termed) “refugee crisis”, pulling forced migration out of a niche in public debates and academia into the mainstream. Despite the issue’s prominence, it is mostly journalists, aid workers and policy makers who speak about refugees, largely muting the voice of those taking risks while escaping war-torn or economically desperate areas.

The (in-)visibility of refugee mobilizations in Europe

Their role remains predominantly limited to either passive and ideally grateful recipients of governmental or civil society ‘help’, or as dangerous subjects undermining national sovereignty and threatening imagined communities. Rarely are refugees perceived as political subjects with claims to rights and recognition.

Despite their marginalization in public and academic discourse, in many European countries various kinds of political mobilizations of refugees have emerged from the 1980s onwards. This includes spontaneous and short-termed protests against deportations and inhumane living conditions in refugee camps as well as church asylum, hunger strikes and sustainable organizational structures in many European countries.

Nevertheless, these forms of protest were (with the exception of the movement of the Sans Papiers in France) for many years largely ignored by a wider public. This changed fundamentally in 2012, when protests erupted in many German cities, Vienna, Budapest, Amsterdam, den Haag and Lille. Refugees set up camps in inner city areas, organized bus tours and marches, sewed their lips and went on hunger striker to underline their desperation due to inhumane living conditions in the camps, endless waiting periods and, more generally, systems of social and spatial isolation.

In this article we discuss the geographies of control and contention shaping contemporary refugee protest movements by portraying two movements which emerged at roughly the same time in Germany and Austria: the Oranienplatz-Movement in Berlin and Protest Camp Vienna.

Our aim is to pull these mobilizations out of a niche in public debates and academia.  Academia has largely ignored these protests, most likely, because refugees as ‘precarious residents’ have been viewed as unlikely candidates of political mobilization due to legal constraints (including ‘deportability’), limited economic resources and social and cultural capital. Mobilizations of refugees disrupt social and academic routines and urge us to re-evaluate common wisdoms and heuristic toolboxes. We intend to contribute to this collective process by sketching out a spatial argument.

Geographies of control in contemporary asylum regime

The political demands of refugee activists have by and large remained the same since the mid-1990s. They are deeply rooted in the everyday experience of exclusion and a lack of social and economic perspectives in their host countries. A Berlin based antiracist initiative has recorded almost 2000 suicides or attempted suicides in German asylum facilities in the last 20 years.

Mohammed Rahsepar could have been just another of these tragic cases, when he hung himself in an asylum camp in Wurzburg, Germany in early 2012. However, his fellow refugees in the camp and Rahsepar’s doctor immediately attributed the responsibility to the inhumane conditions in the German asylum process, isolation from society, the endless procedures and the constant Damocles sword of imminent deportation.

Outraged by the death of their friend, refugees demonstrated in front of the city hall in Wurzburg and demanded improved health care, accelerated asylum procedures, decentralized accommodation of refugees, the abolition of “Residenzpflicht” as well as the right to work. They subsequently set up a camp in the city centre, some went on hunger strike and sewed their lips to mark their status as voiceless non-citizens.

Administrative procedures in the asylum process in all European countries entail multiple spatial restrictions complicating the social participation of refugees in host societies in general and political mobilization in particular. While significant differences exist between the conditions among EU member states, patterns of exclusion and isolation are systemic.

The detention of asylum seekers for administrative purposes are widespread; asylum seekers are almost routinely concentrated and encamped in facilities with ideal circumstances for surveillance and policing. Access to Internet and other communication facilities is usually strongly limited or absent. So-called reception centres are usually located in remote areas, distant from populated inner-city areas and public services.

In Austria, with the exception of Vienna, asylum seekers are widely dispersed to the rural periphery with its eroding socio-economic structures, which produce further social and spatial separation and exclusion from the receiving society. Germany has been infamous for its unique “Residenzpflicht” (mandatory residence), prohibiting the crossing of administrative borders during parts of the asylum process.

Such policies disregard individuals’ right to self-determination and are counterproductive with regards to social inclusion, as it hampers asylum seekers’ access to social networks and other sources of support, such as independent legal and social advice or specific health services. Several of these mobility restrictions and tactics of isolation are deliberate acts of deterrence. Until 2013, the asylum procedure regulation in the German region of Bavaria explicitly stated that conditions during the asylum procedure should “encourage” asylum seekers to return to their countries of origin.

Escaping from asylum and acting as citizens: a spatial repertoire of contention

“In the morning, when asylum seekers wake up, they are scared of being deported. If they want to meet friends, the Residenzpflicht prevents them from doing so. Everywhere in their life hurdles exist, built by the state, because we are not meant to be part of society”   (refugee activist in Wurzburg, translated by the authors).

Experiences of isolation and exclusion from society have fundamentally shaped the strategies used by refugee activists: mobile tactics such as marches and bus tours as well as autonomous camps are central components of a refugee activist repertoire of contention across national contexts. The very idea of leaving the refugee camps and setting up protest camps in inner-city areas was grounded in the need to gain visibility and access to networks outside the system of isolation.

Both movements started with a march. The Refugee Protest Camp Vienna emerged from a demonstration on November 24, 2012, when refugees and supporting activists marched from the peripheral reception center in Traiskirchen to Vienna in one day and set up a camp in the central Sigmund Freud Park. The Oranienplatz-Movement was born after a 600-kilometer foot-march from Wurzburg in Bavaria and a parallel bus tour to the German capital.

Marches allow refugees and illegalized migrants to formulate claims in public spaces and to regain power over their own lives. The act of marching can be understood as fundamentally political, as an act of citizenship. During the marches, political demands were developed and voiced loudly with slogans such as ‘we want justice’, ‘what we want is our rights’ or ‘we are here, and we will fight, freedom of movement is everybody’s right’.

On the way to Berlin, the activists tore up their identity documents symbolically at the former inner German border and sent them back to the German Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), underlining their determination to resist forced immobilities in the asylum procedure and to prefigure a world allowing freedom of movement for all. These marches were hence as much a public protest event to successfully break invisibility (media coverage was extraordinary), as a means to shape and reinforce a collective identity.

In both cities, the movement set up a protest camp in a highly visible location – in Vienna in the Sigmund-Freud-Park, situated in the centre of the city and thereby close to an important public transport hub serving significant tourist attractions (Votive Church), as well as access to good infrastructure (University of Vienna).

In Berlin, a large protest camp was set-up at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg, a highly popular neighbourhood in Berlin both among tourists and more broadly the alternative left. The protest camp created in both cases a political space in which refugees could articulate their own opinions, exchange with other refugees and activists, share their stories, and have access to the public sphere and media. Through the protest camp, refugees had access to the organizational infrastructure necessary for initiating a broad discussion about actions and forms of participation. Soon after setting up the camp, plenary assemblies were organized on a daily basis – as extensive deliberative fora, translated into various languages.

Place, i.e. the inner city space, matters as it functions as an open stage where refugees can articulate their claims and make sure their voices are heard. Both movements raised public attention and were able to mobilize asylum seekers by moving from socially and spatially isolated locations into the centre of the city. By moving to publicly central spaces, refugees literally leave behind their excluded position – it is a claim to urban and social centrality.

Beyond making claims to visibility and centrality, a fundamental aim of the early phases of the refugee movement in Germany and Austria during the 2012 cycle was to appropriate safe spaces as spaces of empowerment and networking. The refugee mobilizations since 2012 are best understood as a seemingly paradoxical “escape from asylum”. Asylum is a safe space only in an abstract sense – the asylum procedures in reality supress the creation of voluntary relations, mutual support and trust.

Asked by journalists, why the protesters in Berlin did not accept the deal offered by the local administration of Kreuzberg, to move back into asylum camps and get individual reviews of their asylum claims, one activist answered: “We are alone there, we cannot fight together. The authorities can take and deport us easily” (refugee activist in Berlin). Oppositional movements need to control autonomous spaces to organize their activities and to recruit activists without being subject to crippling surveillance and repression by the state.

Both movements appropriated safe, autonomous spaces, the Oranienplatz and a former school building at Ohlauer Straße in Berlin, and the Votive Church and the Servitenkloster in Vienna. Safe spaces create imaginaries of hope and headquarters for the organization of mobile tactics. From its base at Oranienplatz and the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule, the movement has repeatedly organized bus tours, visiting refugee camps all over Germany with a view to bringing spaces of trust to those immobilized by state restrictions and a system of fear.

While the protest movement targeted restrictive asylum policies, the emancipatory effects of their struggle materialized also through the emergence of new solidarity networks and strong social ties.


Protesters hold a banner "Abolish the borders from below" in Vienna, Austria, March,2016. Associated Press/Ronald Zak. All rights reserved.

Refugee mobilizations since the long summer of migration

Contradictory developments during and since the “long summer of migration”, 2015 have ambivalent consequences for refugee activists and their aim to be recognized as political subjects. With the current focus on emergency response and the provision of basic services such as shelter, clothes and food for newly-arriving refugees, the capacities of solidarity structures have been limited and the traditional role of the refugee as passive victim reinforced. Furthermore, the summer of migration has been followed by an autumn of repression and a highly polarized social climate, including the passages of new restrictive asylum laws in many European countries that reversed some of the achievements of the refugee protests and which have been comparatively little contested by a wider public. Nevertheless, refugee protests have continued during and since the summer of migration on the Balkan route, against the closing of borders and against increasingly unbearable living conditions in the large emergency shelters.

We hope to contribute to bringing these protests to both public and academic attention. With regard to the latter, they urge us to re-evaluate common wisdoms and established heuristic toolboxes. An obvious starting point in this regard would be to take grievances more seriously which have for a long time been considered ubiquitous and of little relevance for processes of political mobilisation. And secondly as noted above, the specific geographies of isolation and resistance – including spatialized and mobile repertoires of contention – deserve further scrutiny if we really care about refugees as political subjects with rights and political voices.

How to cite:
Ataç I. and Steinhilper.E (2016) Escaping from asylum to act as citizens: political mobilization of refugees in Europe, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 17 September. https://opendemocracy.net/ilker-ata-elias-steinhilper/escaping-from-asylum-to-act-as-citizens-political-mobilization-of-refuge


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