In Germany, Asylum Seekers Demand Same Rights as new Syrian Arrivals

Syrian refugees descended from a chartered plane, looking relieved and smiling at the waiting government officials. Among them was Germany’s Foreign Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich.

“You have had to experience a lot in the last weeks and months,” he says. “And now you are safe here in Germany. Of course it is a dramatic thing, when you are so far from your own home, in country that is foreign to you. But you will see that very quickly you will be doing well in Germany. And you will get used to everything that you did not previously know.”

One Syrian refugee, who didn’t want to give his name, expressed his thanks.

“It’s good. We are leaving our country and this is very hard for my wife and I,” he says. “But you know, our circumstances in Lebanon were hard. We lived in one room and life is very costly back there so we think this is a good opportunity for a better life.”

Under the German program, 5,000 refugees from Syria will be given immediate legal residency until it is safe for them to go home. Whether that’s months or years. To make the transition easier they’ll get free German language and culture courses.

Germany exhorted the rest of Europe to follow Germany’s example.

It is a pretty good deal for the Syrian, especially compared to refugees fleeing other conflicts, says Turbai Ulu. He’s from Turkey.

Ulu is at a makeshift refugee camp in downtown Berlin. He’s among 200 asylum seekers from all over the world living under tarps, and in tents. Ulu says he fled political persecution back home. But after three years in Germany he says still hasn’t gotten residency papers. His life, he says, is on hold.

“There is no freedom here. You’re not allowed to leave the area where your detention center is located.”

This is a protest camp, set up over a year ago and tolerated–for now–by the Berlin city government. Refugees here want to call attention to what they say are the prison like conditions in hundreds of official refugee detention centers in the country. Bad food. Cramped quarters. Restricted movements. Their list of complaints is long.

Another refugee here, who doesn’t want to give his name, says he doesn’t begrudge the Syrians their good fortune, but wants equal treatment.

“Germany accepted a group of Syria into their country because of the war,” he says. “But they have forgotten that every nation has war. Most especially the country I am coming from, Nigeria. And we have war by Boko Harem. This is the reason why I am here, for protection. And they have forgotten about my situation and they leave me suffering.”

The German government argues that the Syrian case is different. That they’re coming under a humanitarian program reserved for the “most dire” of circumstances. But Amnesty International’s Franziska Vilmar says Germany and the West as a whole could do more.

“Five thousand Syrian refugees that Germany is receiving these days is actually already a first step. But of course, there are 2 million people in the region who have left Syria right now.”

He adds that Lebanon, a county with a population of only 4.4 million people, now has to deal with 700,000 Syrian refugees.

In Europe, only Sweden is out front of Germany, having already accepted some 15,000 Syrians and removing limits on new arrivals. The US has taken in some 4,000 Syrian refugees and has agreed to accept 2,000 more.

But with the number of refugees from the Syrian conflict at 2 million and rising, pressure on the West to accept more people is likely to grow.

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