Refuge in Europe? Church Asylum as Human Rights Work in Fortress Europe

By Mittermaier, Verena | Refuge, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Refuge in Europe? Church Asylum as Human Rights Work in Fortress Europe


Mittermaier, Verena, Refuge


More Than Twenty-five Years of Church Asylum in Germany

On August 30, 1983, Cemal Altun, a twenty-three-year-old Turkish asylum seeker, jumped out of a window of a Berlin court building, ending his life. His imminent deportation to a state where he feared political persecution led him to this drastic step. For the Protestant parish of Heiligkreuz (Holy Cross) in Berlin this was a decisive moment. The parish had supported Cemal Altun in his asylum application, and his death had a dramatic effect. Within months, the parish took in three Palestinian families facing deportation to Lebanon. This was the first church asylum incident to occur in Germany. (1)

It is now over twenty-five years later and a great deal has changed, including the general context of asylum policy in Europe, the number of asylum seekers in Germany, and the mechanisms both to get rid of them and to prevent others from arriving.

Despite these changes, parishes still often face difficult decisions, like those confronting Heiligkreuz when it decided to accord church asylum. When making such a decision, offering immediate and tangible protection--a room, a flat in the parish--is still often the first and most pressing step in protecting people from wrongful deportation and exposure to a dangerous situation. The next steps involve legal assistance, dealing with authorities, and organizing daily life, including shopping, school attendance, and medical care. Later, public relations and networking need to be managed, information must be provided, fundraising must be engaged in, and religious services and silent vigils must be orchestrated. Ali of this requires the enthusiasm of many--mostly volunteer--supporters. (2)

In 1994, the German Ecumenical Committee on Church Asylum was founded. Since that time, regular evaluations conclude that church asylum remains a crucial means of ensuring refugee protection. Over 80 per cent of the thirty to sixty cases of church asylum that take place annually in Germany achieve a positive result. (3) The year 2007 saw forty-three cases of church asylum. Of these, twenty-one were ongoing cases, three began that year, eighteen were resolved positively, and one was resolved negatively. Church asylum was offered in 2007 by at least twenty-seven Protestant churches, four Catholic parishes, one monastery, and four ecumenical networks. Protection was provided to at least 133 persons, with 74 children among them. Apart from these public cases of church asylum many parishes housed undocumented persons in guest apartments. In addition, there are cases of unpublicized church asylum that are hard to document. (4) What these figures show is that again and again various parishes, sometimes in an ecumenical network, offer church asylum in Germany.

"Fortress Europe": Shielding Policies against Refugees

To give refugees who turn to parishes or monasteries a new perspective became for the most part more difficult and requires persistence. Frequently it is unavoidable to go through several official channels. In many federal states the right to stay is attached with unrealizable conditions. Moreover, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees often cancels asylum status which it has already granted (the so-called "recall proceedings" or "cancellation proceedings").

These examples illustrate the tendency towards rejecting and expelling refugees. In this respect, Germany shares the asylum policies of neighbouring countries. "Fortress Europe" tries with all its might to seal its borders against migrants (except for highly qualified professionals). Asylum policy participates in this more general exclusionary policy of preventing migration.

To give effect to its exclusionary asylum policies, the proponents of "Fortress Europe" adopt three strategies: (5)

1. The living conditions faced by refugees already residing in Europe are made as difficult as possible in order to deter further asylum seeking. …

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