This piece is an interconnection of two authors, who both had been involved in working with refugees in the year of 2015 – the year of Germany’s Willkommenskultur and resulting acceptance of 1.1 Million asylum seekers. Particularly, piece one deals with one specific German NGO and offers an individual assessment of the situation before the medial realization of a ‘crisis’. The second piece analyses the arising issues on a nationwide level and thereby invites for a critical assessment of the phenomenon accompanying the apparent migrant crisis: volunteer work.
Currently living in Cambodia, I am aware that I cannot properly judge the migrant situation from afar. It is simultaneously interesting to merely be able to retrieve information from the media and base an opinion hereon. The image given is frightening; Europe is being taken over by refugees, the migrant crisis is worsening by the minute, refugees are arriving in an unprepared and majorly overwhelmed Europe. It also seems as if merely two positions on the ‘crisis’ exist: you are either for or against the acceptance of refugees, which in my eyes does not make any sense whatsoever. Due to this, I thought it might be useful to share my personal experience working with refugees from November 2014 onwards. Already then the situation was precarious, funding insufficient, regulations unfair – which is why I made up my mind being FOR welcoming refugees, however believe that an entrance selection is crucial and should be applied on a case-by-case basis.
I volunteered with an NGO located in the South of Germany, in a city right by the border to Switzerland and Austria. The NGO specialized itself in offering legal advice to refugees, as well as giving traumatic therapy to those in need. The first day I arrived, I was handed my toughest case, namely having to “support” a client accused of sexual harassment of a handicapped girl. I was asked to pick him up at a monastery located in the Alps and translate a session with his lawyer. His case turned into one of the most emotional and difficult ones I had to handle during my time there. My dislike for him made me less professional in my dealing with him, which was simply not correct.
I additionally had been urged to defend one of my clients in court (the actual lawyer decided not to show up), translate in court and herein first-handedly observed the scenery of German court trials. Here, I encountered the (to me) unfair German criminal system: some are punished harshly for small crimes, others get away with grave felonies.
Apart from the legal side I witnessed, I sensed the flawed support system for refugees making the life of every asylum seeker increasingly difficult. The ones wanting to arrive, seeking to learn German quickly and adapt to our rules are ruled out and sent back to the country they first arrived at (Thank you, Dublin procedure!). However our system does not send those back which actively work against what is expected from them, criminals for example – underlining the unfair system. It is basically impossible to work (so they are forced to live off the system) and are dumped within the least populated areas. I had to organize for aimless, just-arrived refugees to get to the bureau, to collect their money, as well as clothes and food slips. I decided to take women and children first, all were hungry, spoke no English – and did not comprehend the situation. In the end, their needs collided with the opening times of the town bureau, meaning I had to drive them back in shifts, empty-handed. In all this, I have to admit I did not have a clue. All the formulas we had to fill out, just for them to leave the district – all things I first had to learn. But I was not qualified and was devastated I could not offer the support these people actually needed. I seriously should not have been given the responsibility to defend a family of eight in court – since their home was at stake.
At the end of my internship, I was allowed to represent our NGO in the state chancellery of Bavaria. A minister was present and the topic was to decide how to handle the refugee situation in Syria and Iraq. I however addressed the issue currently taking place with exactly these Syrian and Iraqee refugees arriving right here in front of us. And I hope my admittedly quite emotional speech came across. My point was to speed up the process of acceptance of refugees and integrate them into society as quickly and smooth as possible. This is a point I still long for, since I myself am the daughter of a refugee which had back then arrived in an accepting Germany.
In the past year I had the chance to give the current situation of migrants and refugees in Germany and Europe a closer look, influenced of course by the media, political talks with friends and colleagues as well as the close contact to people I met through my occupation as a social worker – specifically, people who have just approached Germany to claim asylum. From what I can tell, no doubt, there is a group of people actively supporting refugees, preventing deportation and reporting deficits in housing, providing access to education, jobs and legal support. On the other hand there are rightwing hardliners and conservative groups who wish for Germany to build another fence within Europe or criminals who find no better way to deal with their doubts than setting fire to an accommodation for refugees. Besides them there is a majority who are walking in line with Merkel. What happens is that people choose to come to Germany because they believe that there is a chance for them here. It also may happen that young men who travelled alone want to reunite with their wife and newborn children here in Germany. From my point of view people are happy to express their understanding of humanity as long as their own privileged situation is not endangered. My experience at the previously mentioned small NGO almost one year ago foreshadowed the catastrophic events now happening in Europe. Then and today the governments have not managed to take responsibility for those who are coming in need, trusting in stable democracies. It can never be an adequate solution to have organizations based on few semi-qualified interns being responsible for people’s legal consultation during their asylum process. Neither should it be volunteers preventing people in the Mediterranean or the Aegean Sea from drowning. Voluntary work is one of the most important landmarks within society to cope with what is so casually referred to as a crisis. But these powers are going to burn out or even turn into damage as long as they have to keep fighting windmills on their own.
TZH & Marlene Auer