This article is by Ida Flik and is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
In April, a group of refugees sued Germany's federal state of Saxony for putting them at risk of Covid-19 infection by requiring them to stay in mass accommodations. And won.
The initiative to do so was started by the Sächsicher Flüchtlingsrat (the Saxonian refugee council) which is part of the network of PRO ASYL, a human rights organisation advocating for refugees' rights.
“Of course the residents from the mass accommodations knew that the mandatory infection prevention measures were not kept,” Wiebke Judith, legal policy advisor for PRO ASYL, explains. “But legal counselling was important so they realised: 'I can file a lawsuit about this!'”
They are not the only ones who have stood up for their legal rights during the pandemic.
Jolyn Fiedikou, a 26-year old former student from Venezuela who is currently applying for asylum, also got in touch with the Sächsischer Flüchtlingsrat through her lawyer, when she was the first person from the accommodation centre where she lives to get infected with Covid-19.
“On the first day, they put my breakfast on the floor, nobody came to check on me, I never saw a doctor,” she recalls the beginning of her quarantine in Dresden.
Fiedikou's case never had to go to court, but she was asked if she would like to give an interview on public television about the living conditions at her camp during the pandemic.
“At the beginning I was afraid,” she recalls, but after her lawyer assured her that speaking up about this issue couldn't be used against her in her asylum process, she decided: “I'm doing it because this is my right. If I fight for my rights in Venezuela, I can fight for my right here.”
After the interview, how she was treated changed significantly – for the better.
Breakfast serving at the quarantining accommodation in Dresden. Photo: Jolyn Fiedikou
Life in mass accommodations and access to legal information and support
German law requires asylum-seekers to first stay in a so-called Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung for up to three months and after that, in specific group accommodations for up to two years or until their application process is decided. The accommodations are run by different organisations or companies and overseen by local authorities, so standards can vary accordingly.
Many of the so-called Heime (German for home; also used for asylum, orphanage, etc), also referred to as Lager (German for encampment, also: storage/warehouse) or 'camps', have been repeatedly criticised for their living conditions even before Corona. Some staff at some centres have been accused of unfair treatment or even rape, but Fiedikou said she mostly had no issues with staff at the two homes in Dresden she lived at prior to the one she was sent to for quarantining.
As a student, Fiedikou was active in an organisation fighting against corruption in Venezuela, but only saw “everything going from worse to worse” in the country. She has now spent nine months in the short-term refugee accommodation in Dresden. “At first, it was OK – I knew I would face this situation when I left my country,” she comments, but adds: “To be honest, at this moment, after having been in a camp for so long, it is so frustrating. So frustrating.”
She explains the effects of practically having nowhere else to go but your room and camp, not being allowed to spend more than three nights away from the camp, having to follow the routine of food serving times and eating food which she cannot digest well due to a lactose intolerance. She mentions being surrounded by men as one of very few women in a camp, and constantly seeing other people being transferred to the longer-term group accommodation (Gemeinschaftsunterkünfte) while waiting for her own transfer.
Jolyn Fiedikou. Photo: Private
When measures to curb the pandemic were passed in Germany earlier this year, refugees still found themselves in accommodations with hundreds of people, sharing rooms and sanitary facilities. In some cases, soap, toilet paper, masks, or even food was missing. PRO ASYL has been one organisation among many criticising the very concept of mass accommodations.
Mostly, these large facilities are situated away from cities. “Often these accommodations are also not especially well connected by public transport,” Wiebke Judith adds, “which of course makes it more difficult for the inhabitants to find support, for example from lawyers or volunteers”.
Activist groups, initiatives and charity organisations are aiming to fill that gap by giving inhabitants information about their rights and offering (legal) consultation. “We know, also from other people working with people in these accommodations, that virtually everywhere, their rights are being breached or violated,” explains Ingmar Pech, who works as a consultant and head of the anti-discrimination department at the NGO Opferperspektive (German for “the victims' perspective”) in the federal state of Brandenburg.
Different strategies for enforcing people's fundamental rights
Their organisation gathered a legal expert's opinion in a brochure they published about fundamental rights of people living in group accommodations. The project was a reaction to frequent reports from the Heime about letters being opened by staff, personnel entering private rooms without prior notice or consent, and visitors being denied, checked, or registered – all of which is a breach of the resident's basic rights and therefore unlawful.
Sometimes the problem is a sheer lack of knowledge on the side of the house management, Ingmar Pech says. “Most don't know that they are cutting back or violating people's fundamental rights considerably,” she says, adding that “some do start to reflect and change things” when confronted with the illicitness of some of their practice.
Jolyn Fiedikou is one of those who could see immediate changes after speaking up. A social worker from the accommodation came to her and said: “Jolyn, I'm so sorry you had to go through all of this”. She remembers: “I was wondering if the workers would be mad at me or anything. But no, they were like: 'You did something good. You make the company realise this situation, what was going on. Because no one was speaking up.'”
Counsellors from Opferperspektive's team don't have go-to processes, but always act depending on the needs and wishes of those who contact them – for example people living in the mass accommodations. If the issue concerns a specific staff member's behaviour, they might ask for a meeting with the supervisor; if it concerns the management of one or multiple houses, they will sometimes contact the officials in charge in either administration or local politics, which is where most matters on refugee accommodation are decided.
Legal disputes, however, are comparably rare in Pech's experience. “Of course we also need decisions from the highest courts, but those take multiple years.” For those who seek advice from her or other organisations, more immediate improvements are crucial, which can sometimes be achieved on a more local level.
For example, in one case, where the housing management prohibited even family members from visiting, they fought their way through, from the accommodation's operator to the social welfare office, to a social services officer, and then straight to the mayor.
“The great thing with that case was, that not only was a solution for the individual case and their family found, but they also checked more generally whether their ways of doing things and house rules were in accordance with basic rights. After that, we haven't received any more reports or complaints from within that municipality,” Pech recalls.
Opferperspektive does not follow up with developments beyond individual cases, but Pech generally interprets a lack of reports as a sign of things going all right.
Legal processes not feasible for everyone
Some of the reasons people choose not to engage with lawsuits have to do with their other ongoing struggles, like the asylum procedures, families who are still in countries that the applicant fled from, or continued stress from incidents both before and after arrival in Germany. But there is also fear of negative effects on their asylum process. “We know of more than just a few stories where the staff from accommodations told people that they could make sure they would be deported in case they don't do as they are told,” Pech explains.
“I know everyone thinks that. Even I thought it,” Fiedikou comments when asked about this. She herself only went public after being reassured by her lawyer that it wouldn't have negative consequences for her. “Because we never know. I guess everyone has the same fear.”
Sometimes the only way to get a case forward is to start a legal process, but that usually requires time and money and in many cases, isn't feasible.
But although protecting your rights is a desirable goal, according to Pech, knowing one's rights can be empowering in and of itself. “Even if – for whatever reasons – I decide to not take any further steps, it already has an impact to know that something is not lawful,” she explains. “It is connected to self-worth: when it seems like I don't have the same rights as others and like the legal system declassifies and degrades me, then understanding that actually I do have those rights already helps.”
What informing people about their rights can do – and what it can't
There are different factors that limit the work and potential impact of these kinds of legal counselling services. The Infobus, a project supported by PRO ASYL, is one initiative giving legal information and advice around the asylum process in big accommodation centres close to Munich. They have seen their work increasingly hindered, for example, by having only restricted access to the accommodation centres, or by not being allowed to use the centres' parking spaces.
According to Judith, whose work is focused on individual asylum processes, timing is also a crucial factor: “It is a very important aspect that people get legal advice before the first Anhörung (the first hearing), because after this it's sometimes already too late to add important information.”
Wiebke Judith. Photo: Private
Sometimes when it comes to social issues like living conditions, housing management and/or political decision-makers continue to ignore existing laws even after being confronted with them. Pech adds that organisations with a recognised name and reputation may have an advantage in these situations, as local politicians may try to avoid being publicly criticised by a recognised anti-discrimination organisation. But apart from this implicit threat, having a legal expert opinion in black and white also “helps when making demands”, Pech explains, laughing. “It is more impressive when you have a brochure.”
After having published their own brochure, which gives an overview over the legal aspects of widespread practices such as video surveillance, opening mail, entering rooms without prior notice or restricting visitors, Opferperspektive started to get more requests from people living in Heime, asking for legal advice around these topics.
The brochure is mainly of interest to other consultants, according to Pech, but it is also handed out to people living in the refugee homes, and some of the residents have used the booklet as a basis for confronting the accommodation's management themselves. Unfortunately, no one has information about the impact and extent of this self-organised advocacy, as the organisation, by design, is only contacted and therefore informed about cases where its intervention is additionally needed.
There are also plans to print summaries of the brochure's legal information as posters and hang them in different languages in the accommodations. “But actually, I think it is a requirement for the housing operators to make this information transparent for the residents,” Pech points out. In theory, all of the accommodations are also required to have processes for complaint management; in practice, according to her, often residents are not informed about their options, or they would have to complain to the very managers they want to complain about.
“This means that actually, an external quality management, external complaints office should be set up. Because I can only insist on my rights if I know of them, and if I know where to go.” Pech adds: “It is the job of local authorities to make sure that basic rights are not violated, whether for practical or racist reasons. They need to guarantee this not only verbally, but by putting structures into place.”
“The authorities could also try to avoid lawsuits and simply act in accordance with the laws from the beginning,” Wiebke Judith suggests. But as long as that is not the case, “I do think that counselling is a very important point. And that it is done by organisations that are independent from the state, and that their funding is also independent in a way that no one can exert political influence through funding.”
Can constant dripping wear the rock away?
In April, when multiple people put forward emergency appeals in Saxony, courts decided that the claimants were exempt from the obligation to live in centralised refugee accommodations. In a written decision, the judge cited the state's own coronavirus regulations and pointed to the impossibility to adhere to the minimum distance and reducing of contacts in those homes.
While the claimants and other critics of the mass accommodation system celebrated, the legal decision only concerned those who filed the individual lawsuits. Others had to stay in the same accommodations, where according to the court documents they share two-by-two metre rooms with strangers and toilets with 50 people, with the second wave of coronavirus already well on its way.
Fiedikou estimates that she may have infected more than 30 people at the camp within a few days when she had Covid-19 herself – pointing out that the local administration's claim of people in the camps being safe during the pandemic is simply “not true”.
Meanwhile, Fiedikou left the accommodation she was sent to for quarantining and returned to another camp where she shares a room with her brother. In comparison to her fights against corruption in Venezuela, which they were “not getting anywhere” with according to Fiedikou, having stood up for her rights in this case was an encourging experience in the end: “Things got better. And I feel that's the point.”
Ida Flik is a journalist from Germany, who works across the fields of design, data and journalism.