Socialist Worker

Wave of solidarity for refugees in Hamburg

There are racist pogroms against refugees in parts of Europe but Hamburg, in Germany, is currently experiencing the opposite. Florian Wilde reports on how a broad movement for residency rights for refugees has combined with a fight for housing and public space in the city – and how a violent state crackdown led to rioting in parts of the city last month.

Issue No. 2387

Around 300 West African refugees arrived in Hamburg from Libya in early 2013. After a dangerous passage across the Mediterranean their voyage took them to the Italian island of Lampedusa, and eventually to Germany.

Local authorities here refused to provide the refugees with permanent accommodation and tried to drive them out of the city. They provoked a spontaneous wave of public sympathy and solidarity.

Churches opened their doors, as did mosques (albeit less publicly), housing projects and left-wing centres. Around 80 people found sanctuary in the St Pauli church, next to Hafenstraße house and the local park, which is organised by residents against the interests of property speculators. In the park, residents organised welcome grill-parties for the refugees, while groceries and blankets were taken to the church.

The FC St Pauli football club donated drinks, team kits and free match tickets, while the Ver.di public sector union and the teachers’ GEW union organised a welcome party.

After some racist abuse directed against the refugees, a well-known local bouncer volunteered to stand guard in front of the church every night. He stayed for weeks.

While the refugees received much solidarity from the public, from left groups, and from trade unions, Hamburg council maintained its hard line. The council, which is led by the labour-type SPD party, said the refugees must leave the city. It gave them an ultimatum – they must register with the authorities by 11 October 2013.

After this ultimatum ran out, massive police surveillance began with the aim of capturing the refugees and preparing their deportation. A spontaneous wave of protest emerged in opposition. More than 1,000 people took the streets. The same happened the next day, and the day after that.

At the same time, year eleven pupils at a school in St Pauli announced that they would make their gymnasium available to refugees. The council reacted to the appeal, saying the students would make themselves liable to prosecution. So the parents’ association made its own appeal. They declared,  “We stand fully and without restrictions behind our school students. We are proud that our children are confronting the council … We call on the citizens of this city to mount civil disobedience against racism!”

On 25 October nearly 10,000 people answered a call from FC St Pauli fans to march in solidarity to St Pauli church. A week later, around 15,000 joined the largest demonstration in support of the refugees yet. Since then there have been weekly demonstrations.

Under pressure from the protests, the council voted to send heated containers in which the refugees can sleep to the church grounds. However, it still rejects the demand for residency rights for all the refugees.

In December 2013, the situation in Hamburg escalated further. Around 10,000 people attended a national demonstration which was brutally stopped by the police, attacked with truncheons, water cannon and tear gas, and finally dissolved.

The police used this as an excuse to declare parts of the city a “danger zone”, in which people could be randomly controlled at any time. The Left Party protested against the repression and stood against the media witch hunt that followed, causing the party to be fiercely attacked in the right-wing media.

It seems that Hamburg has found another battle to add to the fight for the refugees, and the future of the city – the defence of civil liberties.

This example shows how anti-racist protests can be tied to social struggles, such as those against rising rents and city development. To compel the council to abandon its course, the movement must increase the pressure, and bring together wider forces – including those in the Social Democratic and Green milieu.

Florian Wilde is a member of the national leadership of the German Left Party. This is an edited version of a much longer article available in German at

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Tue 21 Jan 2014, 17:01 GMT
Issue No. 2387
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