Isolation rather than proper health measures seems to be the reality for refugees in Germany during the Coronavirus pandemic. Bijan has lived in three different camps in the past months. With Ava Matheis, he talked about cancelled bus connections, racism in the authorities’ Corona response and self-organized resistance.
Marx21: Hi Bijan, thanks for talking to us. Can you tell us a bit about you and where you live at the moment?
Bijan: I came to Germany in 2019 and I got asylum in February 2020. I was very lucky that I got asylum because almost no one gets immediate asylum in Germany these days. At first, I lived in Eisenhüttenstadt in Brandenburg state and then I was transferred to Doberlug-Kirchhain. Now, I’m living in a camp in Oberkrämer, between Oranienburg and Hennigsdorf.
What was the reaction of camp management when Corona started to spread?
Already in January, when I was still in my old camp, we raised the problem of Coronavirus. The camp manager said, there’s nothing much to worry about, 20.000 people die because of the flu every year, so that is not going to be a big thing. But then things changed, and they had to take measures.
What measures did they take?
I don’t know exactly what happened in Doberlug-Kirchhain, because I was transferred to Oberkramer but here they put flyers on the walls about the measures against contamination and they put soap in the bathrooms. Before, there’s been no soap. There is one hand sanitizer in the entrance. The working hours of the social workers have been reduced for one hour, they are very active and helpful. These days, they prefer giving help only on the phone. If there’s an emergency, you can go to their room, otherwise you have to talk on the phone with them. We know that if many people get tested positive, they will lock down the whole facility. The situation is normal, just like before Corona. Not much has changed.
Are people being tested when they show symptoms?
I don’t know if people are being tested. Finding out would require talking to everybody in the camp. This is not the situation where you talk to each other. Everyone is depressed, few people talk with each other.
Do you still keep contact with people in Doberlug-Kirchhain? How is the situation there?
It is more tense there as people have been tested positive. A couple of weeks ago, three people have been tested positive, then we heard there were five. No one knows the exact number of people being tested positive. They keep these people in a separate container in the yard in front of the cafeteria.
Is there sufficient information for everyone on the virus itself and the containment measures as well as rules and fines?
No one informs us on the new rules. They just tell us: »Wash your hands, wash your hands.« But this is not a rule. The rules are very limiting, and you really have to know them, since fines are very high. Maybe the German government puts the rules on some website. But they should be available to non-German speakers as well. I haven’t seen anything. I tried to talk to Flüchtlingsrat to push the management of the camps to force social workers to give people information at least. Some people don’t care about the virus at all. They carry on with their previous lifestyle, probably also because they don’t have enough information. I also talked to the social worker here and asked what they’re going to do if more than one person is tested positive. He said: »We’ll have to put the whole camp under lockdown.«
Is there proper access to the health system in case you have a non-Corona related health problem?
It is the same as before. You have to contact the social worker, but the problem is that so many people don’t want to do that. They don’t want to jeopardize the whole camp’s freedom. So, if anyone is sick, they don’t really mention that.
How are people belonging to the risk groups safeguarded?
In Doberlug-Kirchhain for example, There is a 5th floor in the family house where they keep people who are sick. I don’t understand this. This means that people who are on the 5th floor have to walk through the whole building to go wherever they want to go. That doesn’t make sense.
So, you still have to go to a common cafeteria, stand in a queue and wait for your food?
People only get paid 150 Euros a month. That means that they cannot afford and cook for themselves. So, they have to go to the restaurant to eat, at least two times a day. Now everyone who is going to the restaurant has to wash their hands before going there. Before Corona, you had to wait for like 30 minutes to get food. Now it is much more than that. People are asked to keep to their distance.
Can people still leave the camp?
Technically they can, yes. But: They shut down the bus service number 571 that was going from the camp to the city centre. We don’t know whether it was a decision by the Ausländerbehörde or the bus company. All the other buses are working – only the bus going from the camp going the city centre isn’t. Some people from »We’ll come united« decided to bring their cars and help people with their shopping. This was stopped by the police at some point due to new Coronavirus regulations. The police fined some of the drivers who took refugees to markets!
And how did they justify the cancelled bus route?
Management believes that – I heard that the manager told that to someone – people don’t need a bus to the city centre. They can walk or use bikes like other people in Germany. But it’s four km from the camp to the city centre. The camp is located in the middle of the forest. Some people could use bikes. But what about older people, pregnant women and sick people?
I think that the new rules regarding the Coronavirus are very blurry and a lot of freedom is given to the authorities of every Landkreis so that they can do whatever they want. The cancelled bus connection in Doberlug-Kirchhain is just one example. Who knows why they did that and is that even legal. I don’t think that some of them are fair. Also, people working in the camp come and go every day. I don’t think they are getting tested regularly. They are limiting the transportation of the refugees, nothing else is being limited. Maybe they think that only refugees are contaminated with the virus.
People in Doberlug-Kirchhain didn’t just accept that… Can you tell us more about how they resisted?
Sure. As I said, people from »We’ll come united« decided to bring their cars and help people with the shopping. It worked out fine the first time. The second time the drivers were stopped by the police – with reference to the new Corona regulations. The police imposed fines on some of the drivers who took refugees to supermarkets. Then, they asked everyone to leave the city and not to return for at least a week. As mentioned, the distance between the camp and the shopping centre is long. It was frustrating that some of the refugees had to walk back to the camp after the police stopped the cars.
Some time later we called for a protest in front of the town hall of Doberlug-Kirchhain and demanded the immediate resumption of bus traffic. Some refugees also joined the protest with speeches. They called for the resumption of the bus service. One of them also mentioned that he wants the workers in the camp to be tested as often as the residents. Because – quote: Do they believe that the virus is transmitted by dark-haired people only?«
Apart from these restrictions of your mobility – how did life in the camp change with the measures?
All the leisure activities in the camp in Doberlug-Kirchhain were cancelled. A café, concerts every week – everything was cancelled. That means, people have to be creative about their activities. Also, visitors are not allowed to come.
What happens to the people who are tested positive and their contact persons?
Contact persons were also tested, I believe. Whoever turns out to be positive is either kept under quarantine within the camp or is transferred to other places.
How does that work in a camp where you cannot keep your distance?
They give them food. But it is not the same quality as the food that’s usually distributed. They give them medication. But they are kept in full isolation. We are worried about their psychological health because they cannot go out in the quarantine.
What about the staff in the camp which is under quarantine?
Right now, talking about human rights is just nonsense. The government – many governments – are limiting movement, living conditions. But that doesn’t seem to apply to everyone equally. Everyone who is working in the camp should be tested regularly. Right now, they are not. If they put a camp under quarantine, it means that everyone in the camp should be quarantined. It can’t be that the refugees are kept prisoners and the workers come and go as usual. Because that is how a prison works. The virus can also be transferred by Germans. I mean, they call it a »democratic virus.« How does the government and authorities make sure that the virus is not being transferred to the refugees by the social workers and people working in the camps?
What would be necessary to ensure refugees’ safety?
Our main demand is safe, separate housing for refugees so they can actually do »social distancing« properly. If 400-500 people share kitchens and bathrooms it is not possible to do »social distancing«. I think this is just logical. There are so many empty hotels. According to Flüchtlingsrat Brandenburg, there are 1000 empty accomodations in Brandenburg state. But as we see clearly, refugees are the last thing, governments think about. We are just left here, to our own devises. They don’t care what will happen to us. They say that the current government is a reasonable one. Just imagine, what will happen if AfD will come to govern.