Defend the refugees! Defend union members!

On the 12th of this month, Hamburg was rocked by a mass high school strike. Over 30 high schools were organised for the one-day strike; around 5,000 students stayed out of school and joined a march through the inner city. The call for the strike was translated into English and tweeted by the International Students Movement; another school strike taking place in Vienna expressed its solidarity with the protest and even in Spain news about this strike action was reported.

Locally in Hamburg, the refugee solidarity movement has in the recent period been centred on the campaign “Lampedusa in Hamburg”, a group of around 350 refugees who came from Italy this February. The Italian government had shipped them off to Germany with papers and €500 in their pockets. Here in Germany, they have been denied access to homeless shelters and have been forced to live on the streets. On top of this, from the first day they arrived in the city the local Social Democratic party (SPD) government attempted to deport them and pushed massive repression including racial profiling and document controls on anyone with black skin in the city.

Since then, the group led an active campaign to secure their right to stay, also supported by parts of the trade unions, especially by members of ver.di, the union for public service workers, which they were allowed to join. Even though weekly protests are still taking place, the mass support had begun to lose momentum after a peak of around 15,000 people demonstrating on 2 November at the “Lampedusa in Hamburg” protest. That’s why SAV (Socialist Alternative, CWI in Germany) in Hamburg saw the necessity to call for a school strike as a next possible step to strengthen, broaden and escalate the movement and so called for a first student’s assembly in a flyer distributed in schools in the area. Already at the first meeting, there were more than 70 students present and the number grew until finally over 100 students were involved in preparing the strike. Young members of the three biggest unions gave active support as well as the youth group of the Left Party, including SAV members, who played a very central role in the strike action.

Refugees and the capitalist crisis

The strike demanded fair and humane treatment of refugees entering Germany and Europe. It called for an end to deportations, the right to free education, training and the right to work regardless of legal status. At the same time, it also linked the movement to a struggle against the reasons people are forced to flee their own countries. With Germany being one of the main exporters of weapons as well as playing an ever-increasing role in international conflicts which destabilise neo-colonial countries, leading to massive migration of people, this is a crucial point.

The situation of the refugees involved in “Lampedusa in Hamburg” is typical of many who are coming to Germany today. As the world economic crisis hit, their home economies in Africa collapsed. Most of them originally came from countries like Mali, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. When these economies crashed they sought refuge in Libya, working and living there for years. But as the group vocally states they were forced to flee again when NATO began its campaign in Libya. In their words, because they were not on either side of the war, they were a target for both. This has become a typical story. Masses of migrant workers were forced to flee Libya when the war broke out. For many this meant a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

According to the "Dublin II agreement", refugees are forced to stay in the country where they first arrived. Theoretically, there are laws that should guarantee freedom of movement inside the EU. On the other side, that is practically meaningless because of the legal restrictions of the German government concerning the right to work, controlling tourist visas and so on. This means that the countries already deep in crisis and Troika-forced austerity are given the task of processing masses of refugees coming to Europe. But countries like Italy and Greece have virtually no support system in place. Refugees are forced to sleep on the street and rely on charities for food and support. For example the “Lampedusa in Hamburg” refugees were given permission by the Italian government to live and stay in refugee camps on the small island of Lampedusa. When the government then shut down these camps they had the choice of either living on the street in Italy or taking the trip to Germany.

Similar situations are faced by tens of thousands of refugees in Europe, as the crisis deepens often the first layer hit are migrants and refugees. Even when people have managed to build a life in the country they came to, the crisis has again left families torn apart. Migrant workers and refugees in Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain are now being forced to either chose a life on the streets with little or no support or flee to the more stable economies in Europe. As one result in countries like Germany the refugee issue is again being raised for workers and young people. It is not standing alone but goes hand in hand with a broader awareness of the social questions that deepened within the capitalist crisis and the miserable situation in southern Europe.

Defend the refugees! Defend union members!

Part of the reason such mass support exists amongst students and the population in Hamburg is because more recently the issue of refugee rights has been heating up in Germany. Protest camps of refugees have been springing up across the country. Refugee-led hunger strikes, occupations and mobilizations of refugees such as crossing state boarders in defiance of being forced to stay in one area for processing. Alongside this, older refugee led initiatives like “the Caravan” movement and different protests camps in major cities have been providing a centre of struggle for the movement.

Calling for a school strike added a new qualitative step for the movement. The school strike made clear that not just weekend demonstrations but stronger interruptions of everyday-life are needed to strengthen the awareness on the issue. Refusing to attend schools is one possibility to do so. Also, self-defence is not the only reason for refugee protests, as for example the demand of free access to schools and learning material for everyone does not just concern refugee rights but is linked to the interests of the whole population. This is also important discussion about the issue of housing protests, the right of free movement and other social issues. Besides that, we have to point out the responsibility of ver.di to defend their members under attack in these protests. Support exists amongst union members for the struggles of refugees in Germany. With the “Lampedusa in Hamburg” refugees now unionised, it can push the leadership of Verdi to defend them as trade union members from deportations and their right to legal work and housing. What is needed to sustain the movement and push the SPD city government to allow the right to stay is more than protests alone. A broader strike movement on the issue would be a massive step in both forcing the government to react and to helping to spread the issue to wider layers. A move like this could be an important step in building a larger refugee rights movement, not only in Hamburg but in Germany and Europe in general.

Besides the school strike there has also been a political radicalisation of the movement as seen in several demands and slogans used by the students. For one, when the demand of the resignation of the SPD senator (minister) of the interior in Hamburg, Michael Neumann, was brought into discussion on a students’ meeting the first reaction of many students was to ask whether it would be possible to also demand the retirement of the governing mayor or attacking the Social Democratic Party even more directly. This was also expressed on the 12 December march, where it was nearly impossible to bring in other chants after the pupils started chanting “the whole of Hamburg hates the SPD” and finally the whole demonstration ended up putting up their middle fingers towards the main building of the SPD in Hamburg, where the march officially ended. The school strike is an important factor to escalate the struggle of both “Lampedusa in Hamburg” and refugees nationally.

The school strike movement demands:

  • Right of residence for everyone – Stop all deportations!
  • Address the reasons for fleeing the home country, such as arms exports and military interventions
  • Free access to education, apprenticeships and work, independent of legal status
  • For a humanitarian residence permit for Lampedusa refugees in Hamburg
  • Abolish “Residenzpflicht“ restrictions on where asylum applicants can live
  • Stop the murderous policy of fortress Europe – abolish Frontex, the EU border agency
  • For the resignation of senator Michael Neumann

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