My Germany: Lampedusa refugee

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Berlin

  • Published
Media caption,

Nigerian refugee on living homeless in Germany

Ahead of Germany's federal elections, the BBC talks to people from different backgrounds about their lives in modern Germany. There is some concern among voters that the country may get dragged into Syria's war as a member of Nato. In the third part of our series, refugees from another recent war, in Libya, explain why they gravitate towards Berlin.

For Dickson Mobosi, 34, the reality of Germany is mostly the cold earth beneath his sleeping bag, inside a tent overlooked by solidly-built townhouses in Berlin.

The Nigerian is one of dozens of black African refugees living in a park on Oranienplatz, a square in the heart of the Kreuzberg district.

He and others had been living and working in Libya for years when they suddenly found themselves targets during the country's ferocious civil war in 2011 and were forced to flee to Italy.

It appears they were part of a human wave, generated by the late Muammar Gaddafi to crash upon the shores of Europe in revenge for Nato's intervention on the rebel side during the war. In all, 28,000 people reached Italy from Libya, only a few of them actual Libyans, the UN refugee agency says.

Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister at the time, said his country had proof that Gaddafi had given orders to turn the island of Lampedusa, where Mr Mobosi and others arrived in flimsy boats, into "hell".

Mr Mobosi and other "Lampedusas", as they call themselves, travelled to Germany this year, after despairing of their prospects in Italy. Some went to Hamburg, others to Munich, and those like Mr Mobosi joined the Oranienplatz camp, set up last October by other asylum seekers demanding the right to live and work freely in Germany.

"We come to Germany because Germany is part of the people who destroyed our homes," says Bashiru Zakaria, a fellow Nigerian from Kaduna who acts as spokesman for the Lampedusas of Kreuzberg.

Germany was not involved in Nato's military intervention in Libya, but that is not an argument these refugees are willing to hear.

'Everyone was running'

A banner reading "Lampedusa Village Berlin" marks out the Africans' tents, where men and women spend their days wondering if they will collect enough euros from sympathetic passers-by to afford the next communal meal.

Mr Mobosi, who says he spent nine years in Libya working as a welder, cannot understand why the German government will not allow him, and other skilled workers like him, the right to seek work on its territory.

Image caption,
Bashiru Zakaria says he would not be in Europe had he the chance to stay in Libya

Pushed out of Libya by Gaddafi's soldiers on a packed fishing-boat, they say they cannot go back there because of fear of retaliation by some former rebels, who suspect black Africans of having fought for Gaddafi.

"Everyone was running to save their life," recalls Mr Zakaria, who himself worked in Libya for 10 years, also as a welder. "Everywhere the Libyans saw a black man, they saw an enemy to kill. We still lost a lot of our brothers, our sisters, our children, all that we worked for."

Trembling with furious indignation, he begins shouting: "I want to be in Libya. It's part of my continent. I have the right to be in Libya. I don't wish to be in any part of Europe today."

Return to Nigeria is not an option these men, who spent the best years of their working lives in Libya, are willing to consider. Some left their home country in the first place to escape unrest.

Italy helped them initially, keeping them in camps, but eventually they were given a one-off payment of 500 euros (£421; $660) and effectively left to fend for themselves. Mr Dickson was sent to Siena, in Tuscany.

Having the right to seek work in Italy was of little use to Mr Dickson, who says racism in Italy is rife. What he wants is the right to work in Germany, which has no obligation to help people like him if they first seek asylum in a different EU state.

Lives in limbo

Meanwhile, he camps out on Oranienplatz, braving the weather, knife attacks by thugs from the city's older migrant communities, and pressure to break up the camp from the German police.

"We have young guys here, 18 years, 17 years," the Lampedusas' spokesman says.

"This is our time to enjoy our lives, this is our time to be useful for the government, this is our time to be useful for society, but they don't allow us to do it."

He and his fellow protesters are so desperate, he says, they have lost any fear of the German authorities: "Let them come with their weapons, with their police, with their soldiers, let them come to destroy us, we don't care. We do not enjoy our lives."

Contacted by BBC News, Germany's federal office for migration and refugees said it had "no detailed knowledge" about the people camped out on Oranienplatz and would generally not comment publicly on individual asylum cases.

It also pointed out that the original campers were there to protest about the accommodation provided them by local authorities in Germany.

Asylum destination

The problem is that Germany is under pressure from asylum seekers of its own, without taking in refugees accepted by other EU states. It recorded a big increase in the number of asylum seekers entering its territory last year - 65,000 people - though the number is still much lower than during the 1990s.

A recent report by Germany's Spiegel magazine found the country's shelters were overwhelmed by the numbers and opposition to new ones had turned ugly.

"The refugees are not criminals, they are people who need help," says Mr Zakaria. "The Europeans say they want to go and save civilians. Well, we are civilians, here in Europe, dying in Berlin."

As he speaks, other Africans in the large tent where we meet begin cooking the chicken that will be their one main meal of the day.

"In Libya everybody worked," says Mr Zakaria. "You lived normally, you ate normally."

Around us in the tent, in the dim light of dusk, sleeping bags rustle, as other campers try to kill their wasted time and their hunger by sleeping.

In this series, we have also looked at the student fencing fraternities out of which many of Germany's business elite emerge and the new generation of Spaniards heading to Germany for work.