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Interned in German camp and punished for traveling

Residenzpflicht: I cannot find it normal. from The VOICE Refugee Forum Network on Vimeo.

Next date: Tuesday, 12 February 2013, 10 AM, Landgericht Potsdam, Jägerallee 12

We enter the courtroom slightly late. The judge is arguing with a spectator in the front row, an African man. She wants to forbid him to take notes during the hearing. Some girls who came to watch say they also want to take notes. The judge orders a break and orders that everyone who intends to take notes during the meeting should give their personal details to the court usher so they can be fined for disrespecting the court. All viewers go outside. The defendant’s lawyer says the more the better, so 6 or 7 people register; we spend 10 minutes waiting for the guard to copy the passport information.

Back in the courtroom, the judge now announces that “students and reporters may take notes, all others will be fined.” She asserts her authority without exercising it. Occasionally the mid-aged woman interrupts the hearing to snarl at audience members for drinking water, whistling and scribbling.

The first witness is a grey-haired woman. She managed the cleaning staff for a fire station. She does not know the defendant personally, but heard that some staff members were arrested for working without valid work permits; apparently customs officers found that some workers had forged documents.

The judge questions her to build a stronger case against the defendant. He is not accused of working without a permit, but of breaking the Residenzpflicht, a unique German law which requires that asylum seekers and “undeportable” foreigners need a permit to travel. The prosecutor is trying to prove that the defendant worked in a different city illegally and therefore broke his Residenzpflicht for “economic” purposes.

The “presumable citizen” of Cameroon has been fighting against this accusation since 2009. He first applied for asylum in Germany in 2002 and still lives in a state-run Lager. He cannot travel without a permit and is not allowed to work. He was never recognized as a refugee, but cannot be deported because his original nationality is not known, and he would be a fool to reveal it. Hence, he is one of the many immigrants who are permitted to stay because of a “system bug.” The law still expects him to go back to Africa – after spending 11 years in a German internment camp.

Right now, the Landesgericht is still trying to establish whether or not the defendant broke the law. The defense attorney, however, is trying to move up to either the Federal Court of Justice or the European Court of Justice in order to build a precedent. Each openly hostile action by the present judge is therefore helpful – if she confirms the previous verdict, the defense lawyer can claim that the she was prejudiced and apply for a revision.

The next witness is a lower public servant (Verwaltungsfachwirt) who works for the immigration office; during the initial interruption, I saw the cholerically red man pacing around nervously at a safe distance from the supporting crowd. Looking at him is just as frustrating as listening to him. Like a law book, he is bigger than necessary and oozes deceptive phrases which aim to pretend objectiveness but reflect only attitudes of the ruling powers, formulated by people smarter than him.

He speaks of the defendant as a Dauerdulder in the tone of a zookeeper characterizing his monkeys. “Dauerdulder” sounds like “freeloader” or “welfare scammer.” It means that the man spent 11 years in detention because the police cannot legally deport him and the authorities refuse to give him a proper residence title.

Like a first grader ratting on his bench neighbor for eating boogers, the bureaucrat tells the judge about the defendants’ crimes: “failure to meet his duty to leave the country,” “unwillingness to cooperate [in his deportation],” “he does not have to pay rent,” “he had no work permit,” “he was seen performing wage labor on a construction site.”

He concedes that the refugee’s German is rather good. Reporting about common practice at the camp, he says that “travel permits to Berlin are granted for 3 to 4 days, at our discretion” so people can go there to buy “special African food and such things.”

Asked whether immigrants are allowed to take German classes, the administrator replies: “That is not prohibited. It might conflict with their Residenzpflicht, if they go to school in another town, but we are usually very lenient. If someone shows us a registration for a Volkshochschule or similar, we usually let them go. However, this does not apply for tolerated immigrants [Geduldete]; they are required to leave the country.”

The judge is almost ignorant of current immigration laws and asks the witness for details about the Residenzpflicht, about welfare benefits, accommodation regulations, etc. To the extent of his limited capacity for joy, he relishes the opportunity to boast his knowledge and complain about the numerous sins of his sheep.

Next the judge asks about instances between 2006 and 2008 where the defendant applied for a temporary travel permit. The witness pulls a list from his briefcase. The camp managers keep track of every single verbal request. The judge wants to find out whether there was a regular pattern in the refugee’s applications, which would indicate that he left the camp to work.

Germans sometimes show pity for immigrants who come as victims, but if they come to take jobs, maybe even to acquire property, even socialists quickly reveal a “Germany for Germans” mentality.

The defendant’s attorney is next to question the witness:

“Can you say what damage he caused by traveling to Berlin?”

“I’m not a lawyer…”

“Did my client ever not show up at the office when officially prompted?”

“Can’t remember.”

He answers similarly evasive when the lawyer asks about the conditions at the camp and complaints about the former camp manager. When the lawyer asks, whether the witness knows about any Neo-Nazi problems in the town, he replies: “I saw reports on the local news sometimes, but nothing ever happened at our camp.” At the mention of Nazis, the public prosecutor makes his first and only comment. He seems to find Nazis irrelevant.

The judge calls for a lunch break. When I enter, the defense lawyer is reading out reasons which cause him to think the judge is prejudiced.  Although the judge really is horrid, this is also a tactical move by the lawyer, because he is trying to move the case to a higher instance.

The lawyer recounts that, before the trial, the judge made him a verbal offer to close the case if his client pleaded guilty. He rejected, however, because he wanted to prove the innocence of his client. He continues to cite that the judge has an aggressive attitude against the defendant and obstructed the public by forbidding them to take notes. A court already established in 1982 that people are allowed to take notes during trials. Therefore, if the judge is not to be accused of “incompetency,” it must be assumed that she “intentionally violated the law.” Furthermore, the witnesses were questioned about the defendant’s “illegal” employment, whereas this is not even part of the accusation.

His arguments are good. He and his client are motivated to push their case to the highest court. They spent three years fighting the Residenzpflicht. However, the public prosecutor rejects the request. Now the defense attorney has to leave for an appointment, so the trial is interrupted at this point and postponed. The next date is set for a week later.

After the trial we interview the man. In the courtroom, he sat almost immovably with arms crossed between his lawyer and translator. It takes unbelievable strength push a court case for 3 years, to live in a camp for 11, to work illegally in junk jobs – risking non-payment, injury, persecution, deportation. But these hardships are meaningless compared to the cruelty of having to justify yourself for living, of being denied not just your right to lead a “legal” life, but also your right to recognition of your personhood. After spending 11 years in Germany, he is undeniably an inhabitant of this country, but not a citizen. Again he is persecuted by his own government.

More info:

The old soldier

One cold April night, I took my friend Doctor A to one of Berlin’s depressing filling stations for the exhausted proletariat. My friend and I had talked earlier about doing an experiment: if I gave a random stranger 50 euros in good faith and asked him to follow his conscience, what would happen?

I swaggered into the place like a freshly greased frat boy and addressed the barmaid and her one shoddy customer in a pretentious tone: “What would you do, if I gave you 50 euros right now?” The lady was about to shout at me, but I repeated my question and explained my motives. It worked.

Although we had only planned to spend 10 minutes in this miserable watering hole, the ensuing conversation kept me and my friend stuck to our stools for the next three hours.

At first, the bar lady just regurgitated boring justifications for her dependency on transfer payments, but by and by the quiet man at the bar started opening up. He told us the story of his adulthood, highlighting the things he was proud of, but with no delusions about the way his life had turned out.

After high school, he had started as an apprentice with the Berlin police. However, his conscience got the better of him in the last year of his training.

A robber had taken the customers of a drug store hostage.  Our new friend and his colleague had been the first officers at the scene and kept the criminal in check while they waited for the special forces to arrive.

As the two regular officers stood gun in hand, the young apprentice saw an opportunity to shoot the robber’s leg and end the situation, but his senior officer rebuked him and reminded him of the rules, which required that they wait for the special forces.

When the elite team arrived, the robber panicked. Things escalated and a sniper shot him dead. The twenty-one year old junior officer had just witnessed his first killing.

I suppose it was temporary insanity which made our new friend join the German army and volunteer for the NATO mission in Kosovo after this shock.  Apparently he spent the greatest part of his 20s getting shot at and bombarded during this historical “reconstruction effort”, which was also the first combat mission of German troops since 1945.

His story was beginning to sound inconsistent. KFOR had started in the late 1990s. He looked at least 50. I asked him for his age. He replied that he had just turned 40. I took a closer look. It was true. He was emaciated and ashy, his hair was falling out, but he was not even a full generation older than me.

In Kosovo, he had been an officer in charge of 200 men. He had seen a comrade ripped apart by a grenade just a few meters away. When he came back home, he had bullets in his belly and his leg and a debilitating cocaine habit.

He told us that many officers of the “peacekeeping” forces had picked up the drug in Kosovo. High-quality cocaine had been easily available – in a country without real road or air traffic, separated from South America by a continent and an Ocean.

German soldiers smuggled the drug. Whether orchestrated, tolerated or promoted by the Bundeswehr, he could not say, but it was enough to keep him and his comrades docile.

Coming back as a war casualty with a cocaine addiction is tough. Going back to your wife and son after spending several years in a war is even tougher. He didn’t make it.

A traumatized, recovering junkie is pretty useless to most employers, even if he is a former army officer. Still, our friend did everything to stay active within his personal ecosystem.

Nowadays, the old soldier enjoys an occasional drink and cheap intimacy. He also works as a paramedic and volunteers at an animal shelter. He sees his son occasionally and is on speaking terms with his wife.

There was no self-pity or even melancholy in the way he spoke. I rarely listen to people, particularly in smoky corner pubs. I am prejudiced that they might be prejudiced.

This guy was never a boy scout. He still used booze and prostitutes to numb his senses and had only been off cocaine for about a year.

But he had also been a young man who tried to do what was expected of him. Even though his current life is miserable by most standards, he does not ask for favors, but tries to help others to battle his own issues.

This random acquaintance has taught me a lot about judging others. Some people face very difficult decisions. Not just is it hard to tell right from wrong sometimes, the consequences of making any decision, right or wrong, can be too much for any person to bear. The old cop/soldier never became the hero he hoped to be, but he’s an example, I guess.