The illegal "Wanderkirchenasyl" (an asylum granted by churches) has become the last chance for many refugees in Germany, to whom asylum is denied. It is the only means against the efficient system of deportation, which has been developed in Germany. The support provided by local churches in Cologne from 1998 to 2000 is an impressive example of a very specific civil rights movement.
The attention paid to the area of human rights in post-war Germany has risen immensely. Germany signed the ?European convention on Human Rights? as early as in 1951. Today the country claims, that ?respect for and development of human rights are one of the priorities of the German Government’s policies? (German office for Foreign Affairs). Germans are proud of being as liberal as accurate, orderly, and efficient in economy. Efficiency, however, obviously should not be the utmost priority in the field of human rights. A good illustration is the case of the asylum-seekers treatment.
The German system of refugee deportation
The once so liberal German asylum law has become more complicated, rigid and short-sighted in the past years. In case their applications are denied, asylum seekers are considered to be ?illegal? inhabitants and can then be deported faster than ever before.
Each year Germany deports more than 35.000 people back to the countries they fled from due to blatant reasons: hunger and war, persecution and murder. According to the Deportation Class Campaign international airlines such as ?Lufthansa? or the Romanian ?Tarom? make a lot of money carrying out weekly forceful and violent mass deportations from the Düsseldorf airport. The system of deportation ?made in Germany? is efficient, deathly efficient, as the fates of many deported asylum-seekers have shown.
The antidote of the deportation system
Nevertheless, even in Germany there seems to be an antidote to the deportation system. With the laws becoming ever stricter, the ?illegal? church asylum has become the last chance for asylum seekers whose applications were rejected as well as a test for democracy itself. The ?Wanderkirchenasyl? (WKA = ?wandering? church asylum) from 1998 to 2000 is one of the most successful examples of this very specific civil rights movement: Refugees could stay in local churches in Cologne for a fixed period. The refugee ?wanders? thus from church to church.
Germany as an refuge for Kurds
Since 1984 armed conflicts between Turkish security forces and the PKK have been going on in the southeast of Turkey, the part of the country inhabited mainly by the Kurds. Amnesty International claims that both sides were responsible for the human rights abuses during the conflict. A fight, in which an estimated 4.500 civilians were killed, around 3.000 settlements evacuated or burned down and up to three million people internally displaced. About ten million Kurds, who do not have a minority status, have gotten trapped between the fronts and have been forced to flee from Turkey. Some of them got asylum in European countries, also in Germany. But most of the Kurds have been deported back to Turkey or pushed into illegality. If their applications are rejected, church asylum becomes the last hope for many of them.
The Antoniter Church in Cologne is the most popular church granting church asylums. Named after Antonius, the eremit, healer and fighter of the ill, the church was a good address for refugees. It granted the longest church asylum in the West-German history (1992-1996). It is the place where Kurdish refugees found their haven for some time to be later hosted by other churches, which allowed them to apply for a fair asylum-procedure in Germany and have their applications checked again. It is the place where the Wanderkirchenasyl was started.
The origin of Wanderkirchenasyl (WKA) in the Antoniter Church in 1998
The WKA originated in 1998 on January 21, when the Antoniter Church granted asylum to three Kurdish families after their applications for political asylum had been legally rejected and their ?Duldungen? (status of toleration) were no longer valid. The parish of the Antoniter Church decided to give them protection till there would be evidence of positive changes of the human rights situation in Turkey.
Thanks to these activities local people learned about the situation of the Kurdish refugees in Cologne, and the ?illegal aliens? got new hope. Hasan Calhan, the spokesman of the sheltered group, expressed their desperation but also their hope:
?If it is necessary, we are also ready to start a hunger-strike. I would rather die in the church asylum than be deported to Turkey. If I die here, I get at least a grave, the place of which is known, a stone with my name on it, before which my mother could perhaps drop flowers one day. Back in Turkey, however, we will be arrested, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and finally buried in a plastic bag in a unknown mass grave.?
In the course of the following weeks another 80 refugees were granted asylum in the church and were supported by the parish and Cologne citizens. In addition to this, cooperation between the parish and the campaign ?Kein Mensch ist illegal" (?no human being is illegal?) was initiated. The Kurds demanded a new evaluation of the human rights situation in Turkey, as well as putting an end to the deportation of Turkish Kurds and the re-legalization of the refugees currently living in illegality.
Ambivalent results of the WKA-campaign in Cologne
As more and more people asked for asylum, the Antoniter Church asked other churches in Cologne and parishes in the whole region for support: The WKA came into being. According to Jürin Fitzlar, one of the coordinators of the WKA at the time, the WKA gave the Kurdish ?illegal? refugees ?the opportunity to express themselves as human beings – representing not only their fellow Kurdish refugees but also all other refugees living illegally in Germany.?
The WKA action ended when in January 1999 the North Rhine-Westphalia Federal Land parliamentary group of Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen intervened and forced the North Rhine-Westphalia Minister of the Interior to re-examine individual cases. From now on the refugees did not have to move any longer from church to church. They were taken up by the individual church municipalities and accompanied by so-called "godfathers".
Nevertheless, despite the huge public attention and the participation of almost 100 church municipalities in North Rhine-Westphalia the WKA did not stop deportation. About 400 people received church asylum, but one should be aware of the fact, that, especially for the ?illegal? refugees, church asylum means becoming visible ? which is even larger endangerment than living in illegality. Constantly having to face the threat of being arrested by the police is anything but a peaceful rest.
During the time of the WKAs there were many positive decisions about the refugees? status taken on the basis of both the German Constitutional Law (art. 16 a) and the Aliens Act (? 51). In the summer of 2000 three quarters of the refugees were again in the possession of residence statuses. Some others have received residence permits in our country due to marriage or health reasons. After the WKA 25 people were still or again "illegal", as well as six people have been deported.
What is more, politization of the municipalities could be observed: although political actions do not belong to ?the classical repertoire of parishes in West-Germany? (Jürin Fitzlar), many parishioners helped in spite of a high personal risk to be criminalized.
The church asylum as a test for the German state?s human right protection
By granting the WKA to refugees, churches do not try to question the state authority. But at the same time, they reveal how serious the German state is about human rights protection. The fact that the state has almost never executed its power in order to clear churches of asylum seekers leads to the rather optimistic assumption, that the state accepts this moral superiority and will change its future policies concerning those to whom asylum is denied.
New paths have been trodden in the Federal Lands Saarland and Brandenburg in order to give the church asylum seekers protection against being persecuted as illegals at the beginning of this year. The Saarland Interior Ministery and regional churches have reached a decision according to which the people to whom church asylum is granted are no longer criminalized ?underground people?. (Saarbrücker Zeitung, 31st August, 2002)
Brandenburg and the Saarland officially declared that authority representatives should not enter church areas where asylum-seekers find protection. The churches have to inform the authorities before giving asylum seekers church asylum, though.
However, the huge number of people seeking church asylum signals that the application for state asylum in Germany is becoming more and more difficult. The churches do not have and do not seek the right to grant asylum (asylum can be granted only by the state). The WKA is nothing more than a form of direct support, a good old tradition: It is the last chance for the refugees, an appeal to the responsible authorities, and an attempt to make bureaucratic acts more human.