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Migration & Refugees

Asylum Seekers Protest in Silence

BERLIN, Jun 13 2012 (IPS) - Terrible images are filtering in from the German Bavarian city of Wuerzburg, where one woman and six men have sewn their mouths shut, threading fishing wire through their lips to symbolise a point of no return in their hunger strike.

The dissenters are Iranian refugees who, since last March, have occupied the central square of Wuerzburg, some 400 kilometres southeast of Berlin, in protest of Germany’s national asylum policy in general, and their cases’ treatment by local authorities in particular.

The protest has escalated since early June, when a growing number of Iranian asylum seekers decided to go on hunger strike and stitch up their mouths. The group in Wuerzburg is just one cell in a larger national movement against German policies that force refugees applying for asylum into poverty and isolation.

The Iranian demonstrators have spent years demanding German recognise them as political refugees, all the while enduring extremely tough local laws. All petitioners are restricted to communal living quarters, forced to rely on packaged food rather than cooking their own meals and denied the right to work.

With the support of human rights groups and lawyers, other protests against national asylum laws have now reached the German constitutional court, which must decide on Jun. 20 whether the controversial Asylum Seekers Social Services Act (AsylbLG, after its German name) violates the German constitution.

Currently, some 80,000 immigrants, including refugees of war, asylum seekers, and other illegal immigrants, are negatively impacted by the Act’s stringent rules.

In the Iranian case, the radicalisation of the protest has led to a deterioration of the refugees’ health and to criticism by some of their key supporters.

The group’s spokesperson, Armin Jahanizadeh, told IPS, “We all are quite afraid for our health. We are drinking only water, through a straw. One of us suffers from kidney (problems), and another one has just come out of the hospital. But we cannot stop our protest, not until the German state recognises all of us as political refugees.”

The refugee said that going back to Iran was not an alternative. “Many among us suffered prison at home,” he said. “If we would back to our country, the regime (will) send us back to jail.”

Jahanizadeh said that from the beginning of the protest until last week local physicians had overseen the demonstrators’ health. “But since Jun. 11, they have stopped coming (to the central square).”

In an open letter addressed to the local mayor, Rainer Schohe, a doctor who had assisted the refugees since Mar. 19, declared he was “giving this responsibility (for the refugees’ health and lives) back to the city”.

“The political decisions taken by the refugees, of escalating their hunger strike by sewing up their lips, forces us to re-evaluate our commitment,” Schohe added. “’Even though we respect the demonstrators’ fight for recognition as political asylum seekers and their despair, we can no longer cope with the extreme conditions reigning at the square,” the physician said.

Schohe explicitly noted that the refugees have only an open tent for shelter and suffer from a serious lack of sleep.

The new situation has led local political personalities, who have supported the refugees’ struggle for recognition, to urge them to stop the hunger strike and allow physicians to remove their stitches.

Simone Tolle, member of the Bavarian parliament, said that by sewing up their lips, the Iranian demonstrators “have exceeded the limits of protest, because it makes any further dialogue to improve their situation impossible.”

“Open your mouths again,” Tolle urged the Iranian refugees. “Raise your voices against the Iranian regime, and against the inhuman German asylum policy.”

Tolle recalled that since the beginning of the protest, German courts have ruled in favour of several refugees. “I am sure the other (judicial) procedures will be closed by the end of the year,” she added.

However, Tolle regretted that the local authorities continue to ignore the protests, and maintain an “asylum policy based on discrimination, humiliation and paternalism vis-à-vis the refugees.”

Protestors are demanding the closure of all common lodges, which, as the Iranian refugees put it in their blog, “segregate refugees from society and cause psychical diseases and even suicides”.

Additionally, refugees are demanding an end to mass deportations, and the right to work while waiting for their cases to be processed.

The AsylbLG, passed in 1993, and amended several times since, posits that asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants only have the right to food stamps or packages, but not money or work. Additionally, the AsylbLG sets the monetary limit on government assistance well below the social welfare minimum, as allocated to unemployed German citizens.

Even this ‘minimum’ rate is highly criticised, for it utilises extremely low standards to assign a monetary value to basic human needs, such as clothing, heating, and access to educational services.

Numerous human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Pro Asylum, and law counsellors of the Catholic Church, argue that such provisions are discriminatory, and violate the German constitution’s basic covenant that human dignity is inalienable.

As law professor Georg Classen, author of a constitutional analysis of the AsylbLG, and member of the German refugee council, put it, “The act is unconstitutional and must be abolished.”


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