From Lampedusa to Hamburg: time to open the gates!

  • July 10, 2014

Borders & Beyond

As European countries throw up their walls and clamp down on refugees and migrants, the latter are increasingly responding with peaceful resistance.

Ideals of liberty and freedom are prominent features in Hamburg’s institutional rhetoric. Carved out in golden letters in a nineteenth century inscription displayed above the main entrance to the Rathaus, the city’s Town Hall, the words in Latin proclaim: ‘Libertatem, quam peperere maiores, digne studeat servare posteritas‘ — may posterity strive worthily to preserve the liberty which our ancestors achieved.

However, the liberty cherished by our ancestors and highly praised by our politicians today does not apply in equal measure to all. There are groups in our societies still largely excluded from what the majority considers basic civil rights. In particular, liberty and freedom often do not hold up for asylum seekers, refugees, ‘irregular’ migrants and other disenfranchised groups who today are denied the right to move freely, to work and to live a decent life.

Like many other European cities experiencing rapid socioeconomic growth, the history of Hamburg documents a fast-developing trade, flourishing business and financial industries, and a dynamic industrial sector. Hamburg’s development dates back to the period of the Hansestadt, when the city was part of the Hanseatic League which granted almost undisturbed expansion to trading activities and autonomy from central government. As a Hamburg maxim goes: ‘Wherever there’s trade, there tread Hamburgers’.

The city lying on the banks of the river Elbe was for more than 800 years one of the major centers of maritime power and today it is still renowned for its industriousness, wealth and prosperity. Over the past centuries Hamburg was ravaged by epidemics (the cholera years), by famine, by fires and flooding, by wars and economic recession; but every time it managed to rise up again. Important economic activities and trade were brought to the city of Hamburg by ‘strangers’, including the Dutch, the French and the English.

As a result, the city has a historical record for teaming up with outsiders. The open and industrious Hanseatic spirit attracted foreigners who were drawn to Hamburg in search of a better life and job opportunities — and occasionally also to find refuge, as with the Sephardi Jews coming from Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century, or the Dutch Calvinists who sought shelter from the persecution of Philip II’s Catholic armies.

Hamburg today remains one of the major industrial transport hubs in Europe and the second wealthiest city in Germany. Every year at the beginning of May, Hamburgers gather at the Landungsbrücken for the anniversary of their harbor. This event not only celebrates the city’s huge port as the main source of employment and economic activity in the region, but also as a place lending Hamburg its identity as a city of trade.

Again, last May, locals and visitors flocked at the weekend port festival under the official city slogan: ‘Hamburg — gateway to the world’. Welcoming words reiterated by SPD major Olaf Schulz in a public speech, praising Hamburg for being an ‘international’, ‘cosmopolitan’ metropolis, where ‘everyone who decides to stay contributes with their own ideas, personal history, individual talents and skills to the city’.

Unfortunately, the city’s main characteristics of freedom, openness and cosmopolitanism refer exclusively to free trade, business and the movement of goods and raw materials — not the free movement of people. Amidst all the activity and industriousness there are people in Hamburg who continue to live in destitution and whose claims for basic rights and recognition are systematically ignored by the Hamburg Senate and the German state.

Destitution as a weapon

Poverty, marginalization and exclusionary policies are also part of Hamburg’s history, even if they seldom feature in official rhetoric. In the past, as well, authorities used urban planning to displace and disperse the city’s poor, trying to make poverty and destitution ‘invisible’ to the eye of the well-off Hamburgers by moving them into remote districts, further away from the heart of trade, business and finance in the center of town. Business and growth simply required a suitable environment: social peace, work, order and discipline for perpetual growth. Nowadays, the accelerating gentrification process in the city continues to fulfill the same function: a process of displacement and dispossession, which allows for capital investment, surplus value absorption, and accumulation through urban redevelopment and cycles of ‘creative destruction’.

Like in other major municipalities, the way to achieve this in Hamburg has often implied a strengthening of state authority and the enforcement of new practices of discipline, control and surveillance over groups of people considered to be contentious and potentially threatening to the status-quo. Historically, target groups included the working poor, the unemployed and the city indigents. Laws, regulations and control contributed to discipline the poor, to prevent dissent and uprising, and to physically remove unwelcome social groups from the city quarters.

Take, for instance, the so-called Poor Laws developed in the nineteenth century, which exerted forms of physical and moral control and punishment over the deprived and indigent. The enforcement of the Poor Laws penalized the unsettled and those considered not to belong to the community, as well as the “paupers” who did not to comply with the prevalent social values of obedience. These methods of law enforcement also spread the opinion among the population poverty was a condition for which the individual was mainly responsible, as a result of his or her lack of a healthy working moral and personal integrity.

At the same time, these laws reaffirmed state authority, emphasizing the borderline of social acceptability between the ‘worthy’, ‘deserving’ working citizens versus the ‘deviants’, the ‘unsettled’ and non-working. Entitlement to poverty relief was subject to the joint control of state authorities, the church and dominant economic elites, who could prevent the subalterns from initiating autonomous resistance and attaining a political consciousness, which could eventually succeed in unifying their claims and instigating rebellion.

Direct parallels can be traced between these practices of the past and present-day conditions, showing similar mechanisms of control, exclusion, displacement and punishment of the subaltern in society. Destitution is still used as a weapon today: for example in the form of a ban on working and mobility rights (the so-called Residenzpflicht) that often follow the status of asylum seekers and refugees in Germany, thus creating an artificial social dependency that fuels forms of stigmatization and practices of exclusion well portrayed by opinions that asylum seekers and refugees are social and economic parasites living at the expenses of the state and German society.

Particularly in times of crisis, conventional discourses describe asylum seekers and refugees as ‘scroungers’, stealing welfare resources, housing and eventually native people’s jobs. Their existence is made invisible by authorities, which usually confine them in remote and prison-like environments, where people cease to have a normal life and their existence does not disturb the rest of society. Asylum seekers’ and refugees’ claims for rights have been systematically ignored and purposely obstructed by institutional powers and dominant elites, whose involvement facilitates non-coercive forms of consent and silent submission to rules and regulations, when state authorities have difficulties to act directly on subjects.

When the subaltern raises her voice

It is when subalterns react and rebel against the rules of hegemonic groups that the system responds more powerfully. It happened recently with the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ movement, which was formed in March 2013 as a direct response of a group of refugees from the Libyan war to a number of German and European laws. About 300 refugees coming from Italy openly challenged the limits to free movement imposed by the Dublin Regulations that prevent them to move to, stay and work in another European country than the one they first arrived in.

In Hamburg, the group came together and began to organize a protest movement. The group has since engaged into a fundamental and vital struggle for their own right to stay and, indeed, for the rights of all asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to freely decide where to move, live and work. Their slogan — ‘We are here to stay!’ — directly challenges the still widespread idea that asylum seekers and refugees are only here on a temporary basis. ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ became the principal driving force behind numerous public demonstrations, solidarity initiatives and social and political events organized with the support of local movements and advocacy groups and sustained by broad segments of civil society.

Opposing procedures and laws limiting their right to dissent and make their voice heard, the group organized a sit-in in front of the Town Hall last June 5, pleading local authorities — and in particular Mayor Olaf Scholz — to accept their demands for a working permit and for the right to stay in Germany. Their peaceful demonstration was met with police violence; several of the refugees and supporters were beaten and pepper-sprayed, while some were arrested, detained for a day and deprived of their Italian refugee documents. After that, some of the mainstream media and established political parties reconstructed the facts by framing the protest as a clear sign of ‘radicalization’ within the Lampedusa group, supposedly instigated by Hamburg’s ‘extremist’ left-wing milieu.

Meanwhile, local politicians forged dubious explanations maintaining that Hamburg’s refugee system has reached dramatic economic and social conditions and that the municipality ‘no longer has room’ to accommodate all refugees, nor the resources to find or create further space. This explanation was difficult to understand considering the countless empty state-owned buildings and the pace of gentrification in the city.

But local authorities in Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany have chosen to be hardliners; as the recent case of the police crackdown on the occupied “refugee school” in Berlin exemplifies, whenever asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants refuse to comply with individual pseudo-solutions, they are systematically threatened with ultimatums, evictions, detention and deportation.

For many, the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ protest epitomizes recent developments in the mobilization, self-organization and social struggle of refugees and asylum seekers in Germany and Europe more generally. What we are witnessing is a phenomenon of rising self-empowerment and self-organization among subaltern groups that are acutely aware of their common experience of racial discrimination and social exclusion, and that want to achieve political recognition and concrete collective agency at the local, national and European levels.

Besides Hamburg, new asylum seekers’ and refugees’ movements have established in several major cities in the past year, including Berlin, Hannover, Frankfurt/Hanau, Nürnberg and Munich. The composition, practices and strategies of these struggles vary, differently influenced as they are by opportunity structures at local level and by the nature of political support from local advocacy groups, activist networks and civil society organizations. However, besides the obvious local differences, what is common among these mobilizations is the attempts to work together, to learn from each others’ actions and practices, from misplaced alliances and mistakes in order to further entrench solidarity and understanding from European society. This effort needs to be further strengthened and supported in the future in order to avoid fragmentation of the movements.

The March 4 Freedom

The March 4 Freedom action that ended with an Action Week in Brussels, coinciding with the European Council Summit that took place on June 26 and 27, aptly illustrates how transnational linkages and cooperation can be put to work in this way. The March 4 Freedom originated in different European countries and was underway for a full month.

Those involved camped at Parc Maximilien in Brussels, where debates, demonstrations, hearings and movie screenings were organized. Over 450 people occupied the park. The decision-making processes were organized collectively by various groups including the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ collective, as well as activists and organizers from Berlin, Hanau, the national coalition of Sans-Papiers (CISPM), and collectives from Italy, France and Belgium.

As ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ pointed out and exposed the paradoxes between Hamburg’s liberal history and its contemporary asylum and immigration policies, March 4 Freedom did the same at the European level. Europe’s history is a history of colonialism — and today’s problems cannot be understood without acknowledging this past.

The Action Week, which culminated on June 26 in a main demonstration against Europe’s inhumane laws and policies on asylum and migration, also shows how the struggles have expanded. The slogans in Brussels emphasized the struggle as being one of increasing precarity, not only in terms of the right to stay and move freely, but also of the right to work and decent living conditions for all. Viewed from this angle, there is a possibility — a necessity even — to place the struggle of migrants and refugees in the broader context of the struggle of the “precariat”; of all those, migrants and locals alike, whose life is marked by constant insecurity and unpredictability.

This common perspective stresses the need to unite different, individual struggles across sectional divides. After all, as was shouted from a rooftop in Berlin last week: ‘you can’t evict a movement’ — and this movement might just grow bigger than any of us could have predicted.

Susi Meret

Susi Meret is assistant and associate professor at the department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University. She is affiliated with the COMID (Centre for the Studies of Migration and Diversity) research group.

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Martin Bak Jørgensen

Martin Bak Jørgensen is associate professor at the department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University. He is affiliated with the COMID (Centre for the Studies of Migration and Diversity) research group.

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Magazine — Issue 11