The history of and perspectives on resistance against Residenzpflicht

by Anke Schwarzer

Asylum seekers affected by Residenzpflicht have been trying to defend themselves against restrictions on their freedom of movement ever since the measure was introduced in 1982. For a long time, their efforts were limited to individual actions: some simply didn’t ask for permission; others took the legal approach and fought for their permit in court. Many others, however, acquired criminal records after being caught in police checks and charged with committing an offense. Only very few judges refused to punish a person only because he or she had crossed invisible borders within Germany. Individual judges have questioned the legality of the regulation and have instituted proceedings in the Federal Constitutional Court.

The Federal Constitutional Court took up the issue of Residenzpflicht after the district court of Kirchhain/Hessen decided that a case they were trying possibly involved offenses against the basic law of the constitution. A verdict was reached in 1997. The German Supreme Court decided that neither the obligation to remain in one’s allocated district, nor the fact that a violation of this is punishable by law, contravenes the basic law of the constitution.

The change from individual protest into a political campaign can be traced back at the very latest to the Caravan Refugee Congress, which took place in Jena in the spring of 2000 under the motto, »Together against deportation and social ostracism«. Even in the run-up to the congress, it was clear how strong the interest of certain governmental offices was in not letting asylum seekers go to this political meeting. Cornelius Yufanyi, of the refugee organization, The Voice, and one of the congress organizers, estimated at the time that half of the asylum seekers who wanted to go to Jena were prevented from doing so. The Ministry of the Interior in Brandenburg had demanded of the »Ausländerbehörde« (immigration authorities) that they not issue travel permits. They claimed that »participation is not a matter of urgent public interest, nor does the rejection of permission constitute undue hardship.« Participation was denied to asylum seekers in other states as well. The refusal to grant permission was based on Residenzpflicht.

After the congress, refugees already engaged in the issue intensified their efforts to inform other asylum seekers and to organize themselves. Signatures were collected, petitions were started and demonstrations, like the one on October 3, 2000, in Hanover, were organized.

The refugee organizations have changed their strategy to one of civil disobedience, with the following demands: no one should have to beg for a permit; no one should have to pay even a penny’s fine. The trial against Cornelius Yufanyi contributed greatly to the campaign’s success in making Residenzpflicht a public issue. The asylum seeker from Cameroon had repeatedly refused to pay money for his freedom of movement. The plan was to take his case to the European Court and to have the German practice of Residenzpflicht tested in court, in the well-founded hope of causing its downfall there.

His lawyers, however, do not feel that Yufanyi’s case is suited to that purpose. In order to be taken to the European Court, a case has to have gone through the courts in lower jurisdictions. However, when refugees go to court over the administration’s refusal to grant them a travel permit, they are usually granted the permit. In this context, Michael Meier-Borst, the asylum rights expert of the Federal Commission for Foreigner Relations, pointed out that the bureaucracy’s implementation of the law is »unnecessarily restrictive«.

But even if refugees always have the possibility of legal recourse should their application for travel permits be refused, it is still true that this humiliating practice makes day-to-day life nerve-racking. The campaign therefore continues to call for less harassment and less expensive procedures, so that refugees can visit a friend in another town or participate in a political meeting. They should refuse to apply for travel permits and to pay fines. Refugees should go on the offensive and bring their violations of the law to public attention – for example by giving themselves up to the police voluntarily.

In the meantime, Cornelius Yufanyi has received mail from the district court of Worbis. The judge wants to abandon proceedings against him because of extenuating circumstances. In this case, he would have to pay for the costs of the trial himself. Yufanyi would have to agree to abandoning the case, but he refuses to, as his goal is not his own acquittal, but rather the abolition of Residenzpflicht. If the proceedings are continued, the asylum seeker from Cameroon could face a prison sentence of up to one year.

There are other refugees in addition to Cornelius Yufanyi who are prepared to take their protest against Residenzpflicht to court. On February 6, Sunny Omwenyke from Nigeria, one of the organizers of the refugee congress in Jena and an activist in »The Voice«, stood trial for having violated Residenzpflicht. He too refused to accept a penalty or fine for the right to freedom of movement. The same also applies to an asylum seeker from Cameroon who is currently living in Edewecht near Oldenburg.

Bringing the issue to public attention is not the only reason the people standing trial are going on the offensive. They also hope to encourage other refugees to defend themselves against this discriminatory law.

In addition to the trials’ success in gaining publicity for the issue, the campaign in Berlin, from May 17-19, also contributed to greater public awareness, even if resonance in the media was negligible. On this weekend, the attending refugees hadn’t asked for travel permits. Around 300 refugees met in Berlin in order to participate in a »nationwide campaign against Residenzpflicht«. 1000 supporters attended the demonstration on May 19, and were joined by a further 1,200 asylum seekers, who came by bus from cities all over Germany, including Suhl, München, Meiningen, Mühlhausen, Rathenow, Hamburg, Karlsruhe und Magdeburg. Most of the 1,200 came originally from African countries.

Many refugees saw their refusal to apply and pay for the »vacation permits« that would allow them to attend the campaign as »an act of civil disobedience«. They camped in tents (insofar as the police allowed this) on the Schlossplatz, a public square located in the center of Berlin, and drew attention to their situation with exhibitions and flyers.

On the first day of the campaign, a six-person delegation presented a »Memorandum on Refugees in Germany« to Annelie Buntenbach, a Member of Parliament for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the Green Party). The memorandum was signed by 250 organizations, including Pro Asyl and several refugee councils, and declared that »the German government cannot claim to fight racism while simultaneously allowing racist laws to fan of the flames of hate.«

The initiators of the campaign, The Voice and the Brandenburger Flüchtlingsinitiative, declared it a success. In spite of intimidation tactics used by the Ausländerbehörden (immigration authorities) before the campaign started and police repression, a great number of refugees succeeded in coming together at this meeting. (In Jena, among other places, a bus was stopped because the police wanted to have the names of the asylum seekers.) The organizers were, however, disappointed at the low level of media interest. According to Cornelius Yufanyi of The Voice, the permanent presence of the police (whose harassment tactics included body searches, attempted arrests, and a ban on sleeping on the public square) also created a threatening atmosphere and hindered discussion among the refugees.

He also criticized parts of the German antiracist movement, saying, »a lot of them wait for us, just because they don’t know what they can do themselves.« It’s necessary, he says, that those people who are not directly affected also develop their own positions on and forms of resistance to the issue of Residenzpflicht. Cornelius Yufanyi is afraid that the refugees’ ability to mobilize is overestimated. For them, it still requires enormous effort to resist intimidation attempts and to take on the risk of being caught violating Residenzpflicht.

Many activists are exhausted but definitely want to continue. The next moves are still being discussed, but most of the activists are certain that no further progress can be made with petitions and memorandums. »We won’t change anything if we don’t get more radical,« says one refugee. The Association against Residenzpflicht – made up of The Voice, the Brandenburger Flüchtlingsinitiative, the Berlin Antiracist Initiative, the Hamburg African Refugee Association, the Caravans and other initiatives and individuals – envisages another central campaign in Berlin for next year. Some activists would like to take the offensive further this year, in order to be taken more seriously and to be able to realize at least some of their smaller goals.

Becoming resigned is sometimes a great problem among politically engaged refugees, says one of the activists. He explains, »since we’ve begun, the situation has gotten worse and worse.« Aside from chronic money problems, the (potential) deportation of fellow activists makes life difficult for the refugee organizations. Some of them are assigned to other residences; some are taken into custody pending deportation; some have to go underground and become illegal. »We make one step forwards,« says a member of The Voice, »and the state pulls us 20 steps back.« Residenzpflicht is certainly not the only or the greatest problem, but in all campaigns, meetings and demonstrations, asylum seekers are severely hampered by the problem of movement restrictions and associated repression.

»If we abolish Residenzpflicht, then we can fight better against deportations,« says the activist of The Voice. Although they do not want to mobilize only refugees, the primary task for refugee organizations continues to be making contact with and establishing networks of asylum seekers, as well as visits to »Asylheime« (allocated refugee residences). It is their goal to develop as close a network of regional groups as possible. Decentralized activities related to the issue of Residenzpflicht take place in various cities and regions. And the Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants is supposed to tour through Germany again in 2002. Their activities will address, among other problems, that of Residenzpflicht.

Next article: Residenzpflicht -- no change in sight

Dossier #1: Debates, events and projects that deal with the so-called "Residenzpflicht", while exploring methods of media communication and networking.

  1. Freedom of Movement
  2. What is Residenzpflicht?
    (Anke Schwarzer)
  3. Resistance against Residenzpflicht
    (Anke Schwarzer)
  4. Residenzpflicht – no change in sight
    (Anke Schwarzer)
  5. Freedom of movement – an essential human right
  6. <type=radio~border=0>
  7. The Flüchtlings-Voice
  8. »We need to become more active …« (Indymedia-Interview)
  9. Relevant links
  10. Dates