No shelter here

Driven by persecution in their home country and rumours of sanctuary in Germany, Chechen refugees are flooding into Berlin, making them the number one national group seeking asylum in the country. Yet barely any will be allowed to stay...

Driven by persecution in their home country and rumours of sanctuary in Germany, Chechen refugees are flooding into Berlin, making them the number one national group seeking asylum in the country. Yet barely any will be allowed to stay.

At the end of August, Barbara Gladysch, a 73-year-old peace activist from Düsseldorf, uploaded a video onto Youtube. During the 26-minute long homemade film, she and a Chechen woman acting as her translator speak somberly to the camera. Behind them on the wall hangs a map of the Caucasian Russian republic of Chechnya and a montage of pictures of the city of Grozny before and after the two brutal Chechen wars between 1994 and 2000. She implores her “liebe Freunde” not to listen to the rumours, not to flee Chechnya for Germany. “There is no humanitarian corridor,” she says. “The German government has NOT invited Chechens here with the promise that they will receive money or a piece of land. This is a lie. Don’t believe the criminals who spread it.”

The problem is that many Chechens have already believed it.

Chechens’ fate in Germany is set to be a disappointing one. Just 2.4 percent of asylum requests from the Russian Federation were granted last year.

Since last winter, Germany has been met with a sudden and unprecedented surge of asylum requests from Chechen nationals. Following a parliamentary inquest, the German government acknowledged that from January to August 2013, 11,522 Chechens requested asylum, almost 10 times as many as in the preceding five months and nearly double the number for all of 2012.

In fact, Chechens made up one-seventh of the 74,194 asylum claims recorded by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) from January to September of this year, making them the number one national group seeking asylum in Germany. Economic instability in the north Caucasian region and the state of corruption, persecution and terror under Vladimir Putin’s Chechen strongman, President Razman Kadyrov, account for part of this influx. Rumours have done the rest.

Leaving behind family and homes, Chechens board a train for a two-and-a-half-day journey through Russia and Belarus all the way to the city of Brest, where they can cross the border into Poland, an EU member state. Here, in Polish Terespol, they can file a claim for refugee status and hire one of many ‘private’ taxis to take them to the German, Swiss or Austrian city of their choice in exchange for a minimum of €1000.

For those who make the eight- to-nine-hour drive to Berlin, the first stop is the central office for refugees LAGeSo (state office of health and social affairs) on Turmstraße in Moabit. Here they’ll be allocated a place in a Heim (refugee shelter)… until, sooner or later, most of them are turned down and sent back to Poland. As pointed out by Gladysch, Chechens’ fate in Germany is set to be a disappointing one. Just 2.4 percent of the total number of processed asylum requests from the Russian Federation were granted last year. “This happens all the time,” she says. “This tragedy has to come to an end.”

The doorbell keeps ringing and groups of people, mostly families and single men, stream in and out of the living room of Ekkehard Maaß’s flat in Prenzlauer Berg, the same one where Allen Ginsberg once hosted lectures during the GDR – now the official headquarters of the German Caucasian Society (DKG). “This happens 24 hours a day,” says the German poet and musician. He founded the DKG in 1996 to fight human rights abuse by Russian troops during the first Chechen war, and has been supporting Chechen refugees since. “I help them with a bit of everything.”

According to Maaß the recent influx of asylum seekers comprises mostly young people, 20 to 30 years old, who come to Germany in hope of a better life. “Many women with children are part of this stream of refugees, because they are not protected at home,” he says. Among Maaß’ current visitors is one such young family: a woman, husband and child. The Federal Electronic System (EASY) in charge of distributing asylum seekers around Germany initially sent the woman and child to Bavaria, which meant she had to request a permit to travel to see her husband who had been sent to Berlin. Once her 40-day Berlin residence permit expires, she will have to go back. Maaß has helped to postpone the date of her return by a week and has written a letter to authorities to try to relocate her. However, he says, “She can’t break the rules by staying more days than she is allowed, because then I can’t help anymore.”

Sitting decorously next to her brother, another woman scolds her niece for playing the piano. She has recently arrived to support her brother, who has four children and whose wife died of tuberculosis. Neither of them speak a word of German. In his office Maaß writes a letter to the central registration office for asylum seekers (ZAA) in Wedding to register the woman as an asylum seeker. He’s not optimistic, though – the lack of a specific example of persecution means that she’ll likely be refused refugee protection.

The criteria for asylum are strictly confined to severe human rights abuses or violations of personal dignity, perpetrated by the state either for political reasons or as persecution of an ethnic, national, social or religious group. In some cases a disease proven to not be treatable in the country of origin or a medical condition that could deteriorate in case of deportation might do, but lawlessness or economic discrimination are invalid reasons. “There is no open war there like 10 years ago, so now it is much more difficult to be recognised as an asylum seeker from Chechnya,” says Maaß. “Kadyrov’s dictatorship is six years old and well established, and BAMF says there’s no reason why they should come now.” This means that while Chechens account for Germany’s largest number of refugees from a single country, their requests are met with a conversely low rate of success.

The doorbell rings and yet another Chechen family comes in, consisting of a robust middle-aged man, his young wife and a 10-year-old daughter, who clings to her mother. The small woman with chestnut-brown hair follows her husband closely while he smiles jovially, showing a row of metal teeth. Apti Bisultanov, a poet and a former deputy minister in Chechnya during the Presidency of Aslan Maskhadov, is a refugee from the second Chechen war, when he lost 75 percent of his sight to Russian chemical weapons. Now living in Berlin, he’s a friend of Maaß. “Chechnya today is a concentration camp and Kadyrov is the boss,” he says, adding: “Chechens have three options: being silent, fighting or coming to Europe.”

While Germany is a popular country for more and more refugees the world over (see above), Berlin is a favourite destination, and a disproportionally high number of first requests are made in the German capital. “Twenty percent of all the refugees in Germany first come to Berlin,” says Silvia Kostner of LAGeSo. “But we can take only five percent!”

Because of Berlin’s limited resources and capacity, the burden is redistributed throughout the country. Out of the 12,579 asylum seekers registered in Berlin between January and August, 9105 have been relocated to other German states. Only one quarter were allowed to stay. “Since March 2013 the BAMF has stopped accepting asylum requests from Chechens in Berlin,” says Kostner, “and directs them to other Bundesländer, mostly to North-Rhine-Westphalia.”

Some 525 Russian nationals, mostly Chechens, were allowed to apply in Berlin between January and August this year (there were 737 in 2012). It will take anywhere from two months to two years for their files to be processed. The usual procedure: as new arrivals, they’re hosted in one of the two reception centres or Erstaufnahmeeinrichtungen in Spandau or Lichtenberg, where they are provided with basic health checks, economic and social support and three meals a day. After three months, they’re housed in one of 15 refugee homes or Gemeinschaftsunterkünfte where they’re supposed to enjoy more homely conditions for the time their files are being processed. Some will get a flat. If there’s no space available, they’ll be sent on to one of Berlin’s 10 emergency shelters or Notunterkünfte.

That is, if they are allowed to stay at all. The recently reformed European Dublin III regulation insists that refugees appeal for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. Most Chechens here are unaware of this regulation and ignore that they’re at risk to be deported back to Poland. According to the organization Pro Asyl, Germany asked Poland to take back 1385 refugees last year. The government in Warsaw accepted 1297 requests. Yet eventually, only 410 returned across the border, which means a vast majority manage to remain in Germany.

Abdhul* is one of them. The young Chechen man arrived in Berlin in January, and still lives here although he’s received a deportation order back to Poland, where he first filed for asylum. A farmer from the Achoi Martan region, he took the Grozny-Moscow-Brest route. His first stop in Germany was Eisenhüttenstadt on the German- Polish border, where the refugee and detention centre has a rather grim reputation. “When they close the door, you cannot go out. But the conditions are very good and people are nice. There I could rest and feel safe. When I arrived I weighed 74kg and when I left the Heim I was 80kg,” smiles the gaunt young man.

From there, he went on to Berlin, but after a number of months his asylum request was denied. Since then he’s been laying low, sleeping at friends’ apartments and trying to avoid the authorities. He has no social benefits and is not allowed to work – yet he’s determined to stay. He’s currently learning German. “I can’t go back,” he says. He sold his land and left behind seven brothers and two sisters, one of whom begged him to go before she died. He says he’s scared of Kadyrov’s anti-Islamist operations. “People keep disappearing and you don’t know where or how. Last November three men of my village disappeared while praying in a mosque and I haven’t heard of them since. People have lost their trust in each other. Everyone is scared of everything all the time.”

Berlin’s Xenion Center knows well of such stories. At this small centre, five psychologists and a social worker treat Chechens with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can involve flashbacks, nightmares or recurring obsessions. A network of lawyers reviews the asylum seekers’ cases. “We stabilise the refugees mentally, trying to understand the help they need,” says Dorothee Buch, who has been social pedagogue at Xenion for 10 years. Every day during her 20- to 30-minute sessions with patients, Buch listens to different stories of torture and suffering in Chechnya. “Asylum seekers tell me, ‘Oh the police forced and beat me, but this wasn’t torture.’ Sometimes they are beaten in a peculiar way, with a plastic bottle of water so the haematoma won’t be visible, or electroshocked, or kept in cold water for few days and so on…”

Twenty percent of all the refugees in Germany first come to Berlin… But we can take only five percent!

The trauma suffered by these individuals could spare them from being deported. Lawyers help Xenion Center clients prepare for their 25-question interview with BAMF officials. “We have a clear picture of each case, including the symptoms, and send all to the Federal Office.” Appeals to the administrative court can delay the total time of the asylum process. “When Germany decides that it is not responsible for the case, the lawyer can appeal to the court and write a report saying this person isn’t able to go back to Poland,” Buch explains, “but appeals like this are always unsuccessful.” A further manoeuvre to win time is a petition to the Bundestag. The parliament can ask the BAMF to take a case back in Germany.

In normal circumstances, if after six months the transfer isn’t completed, Germany becomes responsible for the case. Also, if asylum seekers manage to hide undetected in Germany for 18 months after being rejected, their request to the German authorities can be renewed. Although Abdhul won’t say it, he hopes to profit from this last rule. Here in Berlin, he can grow a beard again. He won’t be molested or convicted for being an Islamic terrorist. “Many people were told that Berlin accepts people and that it is easy to live here. Chechens don’t come here just to get money off the state. They come here for a safer life.”

Originally published in issue #121, November 2013