Refugees Welcome: Local Interventions for an EU Dilemma

Saturday, the 18th of April, a small fishing vessel capsized off the coast of Libya on its way to one of the European Union’s coastal states. On its way, it passed through waters patrolled by the European Union’s security agency, Frontex. Its demise was quick, only 28 passengers were rescued; an estimated 900 are said to have perished. Of the dead, roughly 200 had had little chance of escape, locked securely in the ship’s hull by the smugglers commissioned with their passage. A similar event had made headlines just the Sunday before: 400 dead in the water. Yet even more sobering is the UN’s projected number of migrant deaths by the end of 2015: approximately 30,000.


Source: Pro Asyl

Although this tally of the dead got its start long ago, both the number and its surrounding political situation seem to be escalating at an alarming rate. It is possible that this escalation is, in part, due to the quick reporting the digital-age affords a global readership. But, given the current death toll and its greater context of inter-regional instability, one thing seems fairly certain: If safer pathways for migration to the European Union continue to remain restricted or inaccessible to many, the intersecting lines of risk and desperation will continue to make safety subordinate to a chance at what is (presented as) a better life.

Yet the most immediate and real consequence of these reports of danger leading to disaster may not be deterrence but desensitization: The drowned and discarded may begin to shock a little less with each headline, and, worse yet, public support for the displaced – in our communities, off our shores, and even in those far-off lands to which our governments sell arms in exchange for cheap manufactured goods (an oversimplification of the global balance of trade, of course, but the point remains a valid one) – may wane.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. This article is intended to inform, as well as to encourage advocacy and action. As any seasoned volunteer or activist knows, engagement relies heavily on context, identifying not only how to get involved but why and in which capacity, based on the complex landscape of need one encounters. And so, I will first offer a summary of information I find important in creating this context, beginning with an understanding of Germany’s position in the asylum system of the European Union and followed by an unpacking of certain terms and categories. The latter is not meant to distinguish between and thus arrange various grades of human value based on one’s reasons for migration; rather, examining these categories is an attempt to identify and elucidate the different contours and sites of vulnerability to be found in refugee and immigrant advocacy, with navigating such categories being crucial to successful support. The most important bit follows these term-laden sections – namely, a list of ways to get involved in Berlin housing facilities and neighborhood support centers for asylum-applicants. Some options for digital activism and direct actions around Germany will also be included for our readers further afield.

In the end, my hope is to transform this article into a helpful resource page for the Collidoscope webpage. Thus feedback on ways to improve its information and add to or amend its list of opportunities for involvement is greatly appreciated!

Asylum in the EU and refugee status in Germany: an overview

It is helpful to continue with numbers as a means of illustrating the magnitude of the situation (despite my preference for qualitative vs. purely quantitative data – for which this blog tends to be a perfect example). In 2014, Germany housed approximately 173,000 applicants for asylum, an increase of 192% from the previous year. By the end of 2015, upwards of 300,000 applicants for asylum are projected to enter and remain temporarily in the country [source: BAMF]. Despite its shock-value, this remains a small number in the grand scheme of immigration flows. Relative to the asylum policies of the other G-20 countries, however, this is a significant number. The United States, for example, processed 121,000 asylum claims in 2014, a country with four times the population of Germany [source: Washington Post].

This does not mean that all claims and their applicants are granted residency in Germany. In fact, most are rejected, resulting in deportation either once a decision has been reached or in a temporary stay of inevitable deportation. Only 24% were granted refugee status in 2014, which excludes a guarantee of permanent status, i.e. returning “status-refugees” to their countries of origin once conflicts can be said to be resolved. Last year, only 1.8% received the coveted gift of permanent asylum [source: BAMF].

Nevertheless, 2014’s final tally of approximately 34,000 accepted refugees indicates a lag in the participation of other EU member states, such as the Netherlands, Poland, or Ireland, not to mention the strange and ineffective logic behind the so-called Dublin III convention*. As the commissioner for the German federal agency for migration and refugees, Aydan Özoguz, commented just last week: “The European asylum system doesn’t work. Some countries are doing very little. We are one of the richest countries and we want to help, but it’s not okay that Germany, Sweden and France are taking 50 percent of the refugees, while other countries do nothing” [source: Washington Post].

EU leaders met just last week in an emergency summit to discuss changes to this increasingly dysfunctional system. Given Germany’s position as home to the greatest number of asylum-applicants, decisions made here set both the moral and practical tone for the other states in the European Union’s common asylum system – an infrastructure guided less by comprehensive agreements and more by a few select rules. At the summit’s conclusion, leaders agreed to invest more money in rescue efforts: more boats and life-vests for the Mediterranean. But what of more legal, safe pathways into the European Union?

Over the last few days, arguments have been made for a reform to the immigration policies that prevent potential workers from entering the country by legal means, unrelated to the conditions for asylum but also free from the ardor of submitting a claim and waiting years for a decision. According to the Institut für deutsche Wirtschaft (IW), one in five asylum-applicants has a college degree and one in three are skilled in some trade or another. With German industry’s sustained calls for increased immigration (to compensate for an aging or less technically-skilled population), providing a more accelerated pathway to a safe life in Germany for those migrants who qualify, while meeting the utilitarian imperative of the political establishment, seems like a win-win. Traditional asylum and provisions for refugees would not be eliminated, by any means, but the number of migrants from poor or conflict-ridden countries would be allowed to increase, saving many the eventual rejection most asylum-applicants face once they arrive in Europe, if they are lucky enough to survive the journey (see the recent appeal from social scientist Hein de Haas for more on this argument).

However, as is often the case in coordinated responses to humanitarian need, calculations of domestic burden vs. benefit will dominate. And an end to these calculations is nowhere in sight. That is to say, if we wait for political change, we may be waiting at a high opportunity cost – that of everyday advocacy for and support of the displaced. But first, categories…

“Refugee” or “asylum-seeker”?

The distinction between those with refugee status and those who have submitted an application for asylum (referred to as “asylum-applicant” thus far) is an important one, as it helps to explain the origins and role of the Flüchtlingsheim (state-sponsored but privately-run housing facility for asylum-applicants) in the everyday landscape of German towns and cities, including Berlin. Of course, the implementation of national asylum law can vary state by state, given Germany’s federal balance of power; Saxony, Bavaria, and Berlin may differ in the scope and quantity of services provided to asylum-applicants residing in each state’s respected Flüchtlingsheime, for example, as this study demonstrates. But, in all cases, the foundation of German asylum law is built on a differentation between those whose claims have been adjudicated (decided by a judge in German administrative court) and those who have filed claims but are awaiting a decision, assigning different rights and restrictions to these different groups, accordingly. The most important rights and restrictions are those affecting the freedom of movement and activity for those migrants to fall in the “asylum-applicant” category. They are as follows:

– Asylum-applicants are generally not allowed to work until they receive formal status: either as a “refugee” (a temporary status, in most cases), as an “asylee” (long-term or permanent status), or as a “tolerated person” (Geduldete). There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule; for example, asylum-applicants in Berlin and Brandenburg are allowed to pursue employment one year after their application has been submitted, though this work allowance remains heavily restricted and qualified. This means that, in general, asylum-applicants are not able to provide for themselves, thereby becoming fully dependent on the services financed by the federal government, the respective state, and third-parties responsible for service provision. The housing facility system of the Flüchtlingsheim was established both to meet the need for accommodation and to enforce this ban on employment.

– Up until January of this year, all asylum-applicants were to remain in the state and district either in which they had applied for asylum or to which they had been assigned. They were not able to determine this geographical location or the particular facility in which they would live, even in the case of friends or relatives already in the country. These rules for residency and domicile make up the German system of Residenzpflicht. According to the organization Pro Asyl, these restrictions have been partially lifted. It is unclear, however, to what extent the residency requirement will be relaxed. And as with any policy reform, there will certainly be a lag in public officials and bureaucrats implementing changes. In other words, asylum-applicants may still be prohibited (by staff and local enforcement personnel) from leaving their assigned district, and limits to mobility may still be decided on a state-by-state and case-by-case basis.

– Residents of Flüchtlingsheime are frequently re-distributed to prevent over-crowding and to maintain an equitable distribution of the financial burden, relative to each state’s population and economic situation. The freedom of movement, which the abolition of Residenzpflicht may have provided, is overruled and/or overshadowed by this re-distribution mandate.

– Once asylum-applicants have received a decision from the judge – the time between the initial filing of the application, the hearing, and the eventual decision often proving to be a year-long ordeal -, those without status granted are either returned to their country of origin (often within a few months of the decision) or are given a Duldung, becoming a “tolerated person” for as long as the state deems their return difficult (e.g. in the case of illness, psychological distress, age, family relations, financial situation in the country of origin). Geduldete are free to seek employment and live among the general population, securing their own housing, albeit within the town/city of their asylum-application. But, in most cases, they are not entitled to the same social services as those with refugee status and can be deported at any time, particularly in the case of a minor infraction.

These terms serve to complicate the issue of refugees and the work of refugee advocacy, as various levels of status and treatment before the law are at play. In my opinion, when the media and public discourse fail to make these distinctions, the complexity of the issue and its effect on the experience of real human beings is side-lined to a language that prefers the simplicity of pure humanitarianism – a moral outlook recognized neither by German law-makers nor by the structures of the European Union. In simple terms, those crossing the Mediterranean and those living in close quarters in Berlin’s many Flüchtlingsheime are not all “refugees”. If they were, they would receive the humane treatment popular opinion affords them.


German pop group Deichkind; Source: Instagram

Yet, when we acknowledge that it is precisely because of the precarity of their status that they need our help, the situation looks much different. And local interventions in the experience of this precarity become most important, beyond #refugeeswelcome.

How to help

A few weeks ago I visited a new housing facility for asylum-applicants in Reinickendorf, one of the northernmost districts of Berlin. In an idyllic setting, surrounded by pine and quiet residential streets, a former High School has been converted into a 300 bed hostel for migrants awaiting status. The space is rudimentary but well-organized, staff making do with donated toys and German courses, among other diverse activities, as a means to entertain the many children – many of whom have been waiting for more than two months to enroll in the local school. The staff – about 10 in number – communicate with residents in what seems to be a mix of German, English, French, and enthusiastic signage. There is an artist working on the aesthetic revitalization of the place – literally making the dark halls of a High School a place that feels like home for its residents. There are social workers and psychologists who visit on occasion. Basic meals are catered three times a day on a set schedule. “House Rules” are posted in various languages in the foyer. And security guards patrol the grounds, which are clearly the remains of a once vibrant schoolyard, complete with a basketball court (nets partially intact) and a covered concrete playground for jumping rope and hopscotch. We chat about setting up in-house cooking activities, to bring residents and staff closer together, and about using the open space to start a garden, giving the families an opportunity to build and realize a strenuous but rewarding project, even harvest its fruits. The plans are piece-meal and heavily reliant on donations and organizational finesse. In many ways, it is simply about showing up (a familiar mantra), trying to be of help, and deferring to the staff who are there throughout the week trying to make the facility a better place for all who live there.

There are more than 40 facilities just like this one across Berlin, housing upwards of 11,000 asylum-applicants. 36 more facilities just like them are planned for the end of 2015. The need is great, but so is this city. Here is a list of established groups across Berlin who work directly with Flüchtlingsheime like the one mentioned above; all of these organizations are certainly eager for new volunteers:

Flüchtlingsinitiative Klausener Platz [evagoemuesay(at)]

Hellersdorf hilft e.V.

Initiative Grenzen weg Hellersdorf [grenzenweg(at)]

Willkommen in Reinickendorf

Willkommensbündnis für Flüchtlinge Steglitz-Zehlendorf

Lichtenberger Bündnis für Demokratie und Toleranz

Bunter Wind für Lichtenberg

Willkommen im Westend – Refugees Welcome

Netzwerk für Flüchtlinge in Treptow-Köpenick

Multitude Gruppe Köpenick (for German speakers only – German language instruction)

Arbeitsgruppe Flucht und Menschenrechte Treptow-Köpenick

Initiative “Uffmucken Schöneweide”

Bündnis Neukölln

Aktionsbündnis Flüchtlingshilfe Britz

Initiative Multitude e.V. (for German speakers only – German language instruction in Spandau, Westend, Lichtenberg, Marzahn, Prenzlauer Berg)

Willkommensnetzwerk “Pankow Hilft!” (Pankow, Prenzlauer Berg, Weissensee, Buch)

Flüchtlinge willkommen in Buch und Karow

Unterstützer_innenkreis Flüchtlingsunterkunft Prenzlauer Berg

Initiative “Wedding Hilft” [wedding.hilft(at)]

Initiative “Moabit Hilft”

Initiative “Neue Nachbarschaft Moabit”

Willkommensbündnis für Flüchtlinge in Steglitz-Zehlendorf

Bündnis gegen Lager Berlin-Brandenburg


For those without immediate time to spare but keen on staying informed on actions and opportunities as they develop, track the activities of  the Flüchtlingsrat-Berlin (the local office of the nation-wide “refugee council” model) and GiveSomethingBacktoBerlin (a community platform for volunteer engagement, including frequent posts from groups seeking participants in visits to and on-going projects within Flüchtlingsheime).

Of course, this type of on-site involvement is not for everyone. The type of validation that often comes with structured community engagement projects is not likely to be found here. And, although I am a fan of “showing up” and getting one’s hands dirty, applying pressure on policy-makers and raising awareness to the need for asylum and immigration reform remain incredibly important contributions. Here are a few resources on direct actions and politics-oriented digital activism; these options are great for those further afield who would like to participate in some way, even if just with a click:

Amnesty International Germany’s campaign against Massensterben im Mittelmeer (flash-mobs and rallies around the offices of Parliament and Executive Government)

#SOSEurope Amnesty International petition (calling upon Merkel’s government to reform immigration and asylum policy)

ProAsyl petition (for more EU member-state support of rescue efforts in the Mediterranean)

Donate to the organization Pro Asyl: perhaps the best way to assist the many asylum-applicants residing in Germany and other EU member states by way of a great and highly-effective organization. Pro Asyl coordinates volunteer activities, contributes to accurate reporting and research on asylum in the EU, and offers legal counsel to asylum-applicants, among many other great services.

Why local interventions matter

A study was just released by the new Berlin Institute for Empirical Migration and Integration Research* (BIM) on Berlin-based volunteer engagement  in support of asylum-applicants and resettled refugees. It points to severe deficits in state services for which the unpaid contributions of volunteers strive to remedy. In particular, without the engagement of what the study deems predominately secular, middle-class females, many asylum-applicants would have great difficulty communicating with those agencies charged with the processing and, ultimately, the acceptance or rejection of their claim to refugee status. Additionally, despite the Trägerschaft structure, in which third-party organizations assume partial financial responsibility and full operational responsibility for these housing facilities, many goods and services would otherwise be sorely lacking without the donation-drives and supply deliveries of volunteers. The study describes the especially integral role of volunteers in assisting in the navigation of Germany’s complex bureaucratic structures: something necessary for immigrants of any sort to successfully remain in the country.

Source: Pro Asyl

Source: Pro Asyl

And even the simple opportunity for social interaction, which comes with visits from the outside, can have a great effect on an asylum-applicant’s success, encouraging language and intercultural skills through everyday relationships that will serve them well in the future. From building the capacity to make one’s case successfully to a judge to preparing for integration into the local job-market once status, whether temporary or permanent, has been granted, seeing to the wellness of a Flüchtlingsheim’s residents is a powerful intervention in an often bleak process. In the end, it is the state that decides who may be called a “refugee” and who might have a chance at a better life, but volunteers may prove to be one of the deciding factors in who will be welcomed.

– By Kelly Miller

As already mentioned, please submit your comments or write us an email with suggestions or changes, so that this can become a helpful and accurate resource for months to come. And please share with your various networks. The more informed our communities, the better activists we can be!

*Technically, certain conventions of the European Union (such as the oft-cited Dublin III agreement) requires that migrants seeking asylum, i.e. refugee status, apply for and receive asylum for the first EU country on which they are said to have set foot. In practice, however, Dublin III is inconsistently enforced, thus allowing asylum-applicants to submit a claim in an economically prosperous country like Germany.


  1. hallo kelly, am very proud to know you.this is a wonderful comprehensive article and very well written haymo,(sophias opa

  2. Hallo Kelly!

    I recently arrived in Berlin, two weeks ago to shoot a documentary on the Refugee Crisis from Australia. I found this article really helpful in detailing the plans of volunteers, links to their websites and the overview of the whole situation. Thank you for writing this!


  3. Hi Kelly,

    Great article. I’m moving to NRW soon and I’m wondering if you have any contacts in the Detmold area who work with asylum seekers/refugees? Can you pls email details if you have some?
    Thank you for this.

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