Are refugees really welcome? Inside the fight to save Berlin's Wagenplatz Kanal

The Berlin Senate is trying to replace a refugee-led activist space with a refugee camp. Why?

Ree X
21 April 2016

In the East Berlin district of Neukölln, one of the poorest districts in the city, lies the Radikal Queer Wagenplatz Kanal, one of the city’s oldest and only refugee-led, queer and predominantly people of colour (POC) wagenplatz.

For those not familiar with the concept, a wagenplatz is a space where people who share common values and ideals create a living community and where wheeled dwellings, such as wagons, provide living accommodation. They vary in size and have the added appeal that you can always join or leave, provided that you can wheel yourself in or out.

The Berlin Senate is considering whether to replace the Kanal, the only refugee-led wagonplatz in the entire city with...wait for it: a refugee camp.

This might seem like just an ill-considered maneuvre, but the Senate has many sites to choose from in the district of Neukölln and that the Kanal is the only site listed there on which people live.

The obvious next question would be: why would any political body in Germany want to do such a thing, given the widespread use of the 'Refugees Welcome' narrative?

To understand what underlies this worrying move we need only look back at the last couple years of refugee struggles here in Germany and what the “Refugees Welcome” has actually meant on the ground. As ever, the devil is in the detail.

The situation

The Kanal can barely be sighted from the main road, which itself has the appearance of an industrial highway leading nowhere: you might need a friend to point out where exactly the entry lies, especially when approaching at night.

But once inside you find yourself in an open area filled with colourful wagons of various sizes, surrounded by what feels like a deciduous forest. The Kanal is an impressive space, home to various projects with outdoor and indoor meeting areas, a permanent stage, and a permanent bike workshop, among other things. It’s quite a contrast to the highway outside.

The Kanal is as much a cultural and political space as it is a home and the people who live there have always been very clear about this. It also has a long history of political and social activism and was one of the key organisers in the recent women's march for International Women’s Day in Germany’s capital.

The fact that the Kanal has in recent years become an important hub of political and social activity for the refugee movement has been precisely because of the political struggles of the previous years. The wagenplatz offers a concrete alternative to the dominant, white-washed “help the refugees” narrative.

Their statement reads:

"The instrumentalisation of BPoC [Black People of Colour] by white people in order to show their political correctness is not a new phenomenon. Visible in all aspects of life within a white supremacist society are the effects of charity politics, which are not in favor of deconstructing power but places people in an unsafe, unstable, victimised position."

The state

Berliner Immobilien Management GmbH (BIM) manages the property of the Kanal on behalf of the Berlin Senate. The Senate is the executive governing body of the city, and the district Mayor of Neukölln, Franziska Giffey, works in close collaboration with the Senate. All three play a part in determining whether the Kanal will be replaced with a Modularen Unterkünften für Flüchtlinge or modular shelter for refugees, the new go-to word for racist inhumane refugee camp. This MUF would house up to 500 refugees.

It would be all too easy to believe that more space for refugees is but another example of German generosity, that refugees are indeed welcome. But in reality, this is but one example, in a list of many, of the state’s attempt to displace self-organised communities. 

The fact that the Senate knowingly listed the Kanal, according to district representative Bernd Szczepansk as a potential MUF site (something it is not supposed to do) should not go unnoticed.

Just two years ago BIM GmbH, who are effectively the landlords, presented those living at the Kanal with a racist and anti-immigrant contract, which would prevent them from giving shelter and/or accommodation to refugees: 

“the contract is immediately terminated [...] if the Wagenburg Kanal e.V. gives shelter to refugees on the rented space”

“any un-agreed use of the area [...] gives the landlord the right to an extraordinary termination without notice. In particular, this includes exceeding the maximum number of caravans and the accommodation of refugees”

To sum up the situation: the state won't allow refugees to house one another, will threaten those when they try, and is now trying to replace refugees with refugees. The Kanal, a home and self-organised refugee-run project space, refused to sign. What’s more, they demonstrated outside BIM headquarters.  

As Sho, resident at the Kanal, says: "How can you put so many people together in one place who have nothing in common apart from the fact that they are refugees? Life isn't just about eating and sleeping, which is what the lager is all about. Our lives are more than this, we are political and social beings."

Are refugees really welcome?

That the Berlin Senate, BIM, and the Mayor of Neukölln are considering replacing refugees with a refugee camp is ironic at best and at worst, a deeply cynical manoeuvre. The problem with the Kanal is that it doesn’t fit in with the idea that refugees should remain helpless, dependent on the authorities and isolated from the communities in which they live.

The ‘Refugees Welcome’ narrative was globally embraced last year. The generosity of the German people (see the Economist’s “Germany! Germany!”), the German media (see the New York Times’ article here) and even the German political establishment (see the Guardian’s “Refugees welcome? How UK and Germany compare on migration”) were all well documented.

What failed to reach the mainstream media were the various refugee-led struggles that took place in Germany in the years previously. The month-long march from Bavaria’s Wuerzburg to Berlin is a prime example.

Following the suicide of Iranian asylum seeker Mohammed in a refugee camp in 2012, asylum seekers decided to protest the living conditions forced on them, such as the Residenzpflicht (in English “obligation of residence”), a law which forbade refugees from moving outside of a designated 40 km area, depending on where they were housed.

Beginning in early September, the 28 day long march was greeted by Berliners in Kreuzberg and culminated in a year long occupation of the famous district’s Oranienplatz and the Ohlauer school.

The fact that this model of political struggle was taken up by refugees in many other German cities and, more importantly, was organised and led by refugees was not so well-reported but was well-known. Many of the key leaders in this struggle are involved in and/or live at the Wagenplatz Kanal. This has not gone unnoticed: many of those living at the Kanal often refer to the email BIM sent in which they state that they “wouldn’t want to have a second Oranienplatz in the Kanal”.

Last year Berlin received 80,000 refugees and so to all it would appear that they are indeed welcome - but with a few minor caveats: they remain in controlled and restrictive camps run by the authorities or in German (read white) households, and don't attempt to exercise any power by organising with others in their community. God forbid they demand decent living conditions or that Germany stop selling weapons.

The future

In the face of current overt, covert and deeply insidious racist, anti-immigrant, and transphobic bigotry (according to hate crime monitoring groups, hate crime doubled in Berlin in 2015 compared to in 2014), those living at the Kanal have created and shaped a strong, vibrant and safe community. In doing so they have been able to garner support from the wider queer/people of colour communities and have a huge impact on the political scene here in the capital. What’s more they have taken away the state’s most vital tool: isolation.

Jennifer, organiser at the Kanal and member of International Women's Space, states: "The lager system is a very old colonial system. We take the initiative to have spaces like the Kanal where [people are] self-organised and can live together in their own way".

Alice Walker once said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any”. The Kanal is under threat of eviction, not because they think they have no power, but because they have decided to exercise it, and all too often for the Senate. This is most welcome.

You can follow the campaign here.

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