Peace, violence and security (ii): reflections on a refugee shelter

Let’s take another example of the links between peace, violence and security which I began discussing in my previous post. Recently I’ve been spending some time with women and girls in a refugee camp in Berlin (this is not an academic project, but perhaps it might inspire one). I am part of a group of female volunteers who visit this shelter on a weekly basis bringing materials for art and needlecraft. We organise a weekly ‘creative circle’ where women from inside and outside the shelter come together on an equal footing to engage in hobbies and try to overcome language barriers. We help teach the younger girls how to do things like sew and knit, and some of our volunteers look after small children so that their mothers can be absorbed in their own tasks. The core idea? To create peace in an otherwise stressful environment; to help sustain individual efforts to preserve mental peace and stability; to provide a space where worries can be shared and solidarity sought. To take the empty concept of ‘shelter’ and give it a practical meaning.

The project is in its early stages, and now is not the time to write a full review of it. But one thing that has struck me from this and other initiatives is that security offers a useful lens for seeing how the refugee ‘crisis’ has played out in Berlin. Around 70,000 refugees arrived in the city in the last year. The vast majority are scattered throughout the 120 or more shelters that have sprung up in old sports halls and hospitals, disused office blocks, and of course Tempelhof, the former airport for west Berlin. Visiting just a handful of these shelters, it is clear that ‘security’ is a primary concern for those in charge. To gain access to Tempelhof, for example, one passes through an external security check, followed by a second check inside the building, followed by a third (and fourth, and fifth) check every time you move between the hangars. Usually these checkpoints are manned by groups of three or four security guards, all dressed in black. So it is not unusual to encounter 10 or 12 security guards on a single visit. Residents are also checked whenever they re-enter or move around within the building. In ten weeks, I have only ever seen one female security guard. I have only met one social worker (who wasn’t particularly friendly). I have never looked around and thought “this seems like a really safe place.”

Of course, if you have fled war or persecution in your home country, and had to survive awful things on the journey here, then it probably does feel relatively free from violence. On the other hand, what if you are worried that your asylum claim will be rejected and you and your children will be deported? What if all you want to do is make progress in your German class, but you can’t sleep at night because the noise is so loud? What if you are eight months pregnant and wondering if you will have to bring a baby into this place? What if you can’t help but feel threatened by the presence of so many men, both refugees and security guards, who for all you know could be violent and intimidating? How would you feel if you were living indefinitely in a place where taking a shower was a complicated, semi-public event and you weren’t able to cook or shop for yourself, and you didn’t know when the situation was going to change, and if it was going to change for the worse or the better?

You’d feel pretty insecure, right?

So if security guards are there to maintain security, then whose security are they maintaining? The building? The equipment? The bunk beds and portaloos that some company paid money to have installed?

We worry (not entirely without reason) about right-wing attacks on refugee shelters, but in the meantime we turn a blind eye to the subtle violence impacting the everyday lives of refugees. But the beauty of structural violence – the reason it is so hard to combat – is that it seems that nobody is to blame. Across the world, refugees are treated like prisoners and refugee camps are run like prisons. That might be an exaggeration, but it is closer to the truth than to say that refugees are being given every possible assistance in building a secure life for themselves. Why is the security of things so highly valued (and remunerated) while peace for the people is pushed to the margins, squeezed into whatever corners and hours volunteers can manage to arrange?

I already suspect that things are changing, and that the energy and determination of Berlin’s Wilkommenskultur is making a large dent in the system – welcomed by many on the inside. But what I cannot shake is the feeling that there is some flaw in our thinking which allowed the system to develop this way in the first place – which apparently designed a humanitarian response without a sustained psychosocial component. And for all the good work being done by volunteers (many of whom are themselves refugees), we are still left with the problem of unpaid emotional labour. Which is also, naturally, a feminist issue…

And that is where I have got to in my thinking. Stay tuned for more updates.


P.S. If you would like to make a donation to the project I mentioned, you can do so through Give Something Back To Berlin (specify that it is for Open Art Shelter). Merci!


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