SHARE
COPY LINK
EXBERLINER MAGAZINE

IMMIGRATION

Looking for the Kreuzberg Romani

When a group of Roma and Sinti started camping out in Görlitzer Park in Kreuzberg at the end of May, media chaos broke out. Leftists took them in, then turned them over to a church; the church turned them out and the authorities dithered helplessly before finally putting them in temporary accommodation in Spandau.

Looking for the Kreuzberg Romani
Photo:DPA

All the while newspapers published semi-racist stories about “beggar Romanians” and “children with little dirty hands asking Berliners for money”. Ben Knight for Exberliner finds out how the story developed – and what issues lay behind it.

“The men are particularly massively built,” says Reverend Olaf Polossek of the St.Marien-Liebfrauen church a little nervously. “And when they’re in the room, the women and children don’t say anything. Can’t say anything.”

The portrait he paints of the 50 Romani who stayed in his church for a night at the end of May is not particularly kind. “They were full of demands and they were good at applying moral pressure. They complained about the food. If we denied them something, they abused us; if we brought them what they wanted, suddenly we were the greatest.”

Polossek is still a little exasperated at the situation that developed so dramatically around him a few weeks ago. It culminated with his church appearing on TV amid paranoid media debates about immigration and EU expansion. Polossek is suspicious about how it happened, too.

“I’ll tell you one thing: the Roma would never have got the idea of coming to us for help on their own. The whole thing was staged by those leftists from Bethanien. They knew we wouldn’t call the police,” he said.

St. Marien-Liebfrauen is a deceptively large Catholic church packed incongruously in the middle of one of Kreuzberg’s most colourful streets, Wrangelstraße, on whose sidewalks Germans mix vigorously with tourists and multi-ethnic communities. The church also houses a well-known soup kitchen serving up to 200 guests a day.

Bethanien, meanwhile, is a colony of left wingers just down the road on Mariannenplatz. The residents here engage in various protest campaigns and their squatter status was made legal at the beginning of this year with a rental contract. Polossek gives a withering evaluation of Bethanien’s involvement in the Roma story.

“The situation just grew over their heads,” he said.

But their initial intervention, unlike that of his church, was clearly vital and humanitarian. It began when the police threatened to take away the children from a small camp of around 20 Roma in Görlitzer Park unless they could name a fixed address where they lived. According to Bethanien, sympathetic passers-by then organised emergency homes for them in the commune. But in the following days, the group swelled from 20 to more than 90 and the plan of moving them to the popular church, where homeless Romanian families had been taken in before, was conceived.

One thing soon became clear: these people were in a desperate situation. Few could speak German; many, Polossek says, were “chronically ill.” According to Miman, a Roma from the Bethanien house who translated for them, most of the 50 who first arrived had Hepatitis B, and there was a three-month-old baby with bronchitis “coughing like a 40-year-old smoker.” He was able to bring some of them to doctors who treated them for free. They were all hungry. They had come to Berlin from Romania out of desperation, fleeing the unofficial but open persecution that Roma and Sinti suffer there.

This, indeed, has been the focus of the response of the German National Association of Roma and Sinti to the Kreuzberg crisis. Its chairwoman Petra Rosenberg has refrained from criticising their treatment in Germany and instead called on Angela Merkel to put pressure on the Romanian government to improve the living conditions of Roma. She says: “The debate about the Roma in Berlin throws a spotlight on the flawed minority politics of the Romanian government, which has caused the exodus of the Roma.”

But this arrival en masse in Berlin also highlighted a second awkward fact about the Roma: they had stepped into a bureaucratic blind spot that some had predicted, but no one could easily solve.

The Roma had travelled to Berlin as EU tourists, thanks to the second phase of the eastern expansion of the EU, which took in Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. But the expansion is phased over a long period and citizens of these countries will only have a right to work in Germany from 2011. At the same time, being EU citizens meant the Roma automatically had no right to consideration as asylum-seekers.

“We have to make clear – they are not refugees,” said a spokeswoman for the Berlin Senate Office for Integration, Work and Society, under whose remit the case fell. “The oppression of the Roma community in Romania is not considered to be an official xenophobic policy in a dictatorship.”

So when the exasperated Polossek asked them (in the middle of a rainstorm) to leave, his church having sprung its capacity for helping the homeless, the newly-arrived Kreuzberg Romani were left neither with the right to find work, nor the entitlement to apply for asylum.

“We found that many of them were not aware of this,” the Senate Office spokeswoman said. “They came here expecting shelter and rights. There were a lot of misunderstandings.” She went on to point out that the Berlin government was always against the long phasing-in of the EU expansion and that the Roma should have been given the right to find work.

A few tense days of crisis meetings between public officials, church leaders and the Bethanien campaigners followed, until the Senate finally allowed the Roma two weeks’ stay in an asylum-seekers home in Spandau. Here they were given individual rooms, doctors, three meals a day and legal advice. Though not exactly comfortable, these homes did not warrant the comparisons with Nazi concentration camps (where half a million Roma and Sinti were murdered) that many of the leftists made. The Roma were free to leave at any time and many did. But, as the Senate spokeswoman admitted, “the legal advice consisted of being told they had no legal entitlements in Germany.”

After their two weeks in Spandau elapsed, the Roma were again turned out. No one seems to know where they have gone. They neither returned to the church on Wrangelstraße or the Bethanien house. It seems that the group, which eventually numbered over a hundred, has dispersed to blend into Europe’s uncounted Gypsy community.

A culture forced to be Nomadic

Roma and Sinti (offshoots of the Romani people) are not by nature a nomadic people. In fact, they are a people that history has condemned to a perennial diaspora. Historians believe that the Roma culture formed among slaves brought from India between 500 and 1000AD. They have been exiled and persecuted in every country they have settled in since. With unemployment in the Roma community in Romania at over 50 percent, begging – preferably in wealthier countries – is for many the only option.

Keeping track

Statistics vary wildly on the number of Roma and Sinti in Europe – partly because many do not acknowledge their heritage – but it is thought that between two and 10 million live in Europe, mostly in the southeastern countries. The Berlin government estimates that some 20,000 live in the city.

Click here for more from Berlin’s leading monthly magazine in English.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

IMMIGRATION

What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

SHOW COMMENTS