Migrant Squatters in Berlin Fighting for the Right to the City

Gerhart Hauptmann Schule, Berlin. Photo by Millie Wong.

The Gerhart-Hauptmann Schule was already empty when police arrived to clear the building on the morning of January 11, 2018. A small crowd of around 100 protesters gathered in the dreary cold and marched solemnly to commemorate the end of Refugee Strike House. The ten remaining refugees and migrants who had been occupying the building had left voluntarily the night before after securing a deal with the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district council.

The abandoned school, located in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, was first occupied in December of 2012 following widespread protest of Germany’s Residenzpflicht system, which allocates asylum-seekers to specific localities that they are required to remain in until their applications are processed. The squat’s history has been a contested one. In 2014 a newly-arrived migrant stabbed another squatter over use of the building’s single functioning shower. That summer, the Berlin Senat underwent its first major attempt to clear the school, employing over 500 policemen in a standoff that lasted nine days as refugees stood on the roof, threatening to jump. Since then, the building has been heavily guarded by police in an attempt to deter new squatters from taking up residence.

The end of Refugee Strike House at the former Gerhart-Hauptmann Schule marks a turning point in Berlin’s treatment of refugee and migrant populations, as well as the city’s legacy of squatting. Yet this phenomenon is far from isolated to Berlin—the lack of sustainable, habitable housing for migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers in many European cities has encouraged these populations to seize underutilized or empty buildings for such purposes.

In Rome, the violent clearing of Palazzo Curtatone in the summer of 2017 marked the end of a home for 800 refugees who had been living in unused office buildings for four years. Most were Eritrean refugees who had already been granted asylum, yet many such persons still find themselves homeless and without resources to begin a life in Italy. As Italy’s xenophobic political party Five Star Movement gains local and state power, the government has pushed more refugees out of temporary housing and into the periphery, out of sight.

In Athens, the City Plaza Hotel has perhaps been heralded as the most sustainable example of refugee and migrant squatting; the project is now almost two years old and houses around 400 refugees and migrants in a former five-star hotel. City Plaza has a clinic, cafeteria, language classes, and a cafe. The building is managed and maintained collectively by its residents. The squat has even won support in its surrounding neighborhood by physically repairing the building and cleaning up the street. Yet it remains under threat of eviction—also attempted by the Athens city government in the summer of 2017.

In all cases, the migrants and refugees who squat assert the right to their cities. In keeping with Henri Lefebvre’s original conception of this right as outlined in “The Right to the City,”, “the right to the city is like a cry and a demand.” In Rebel Cities, geographer David Harvey has proposed that, “to reclaim the right to the city … is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way.” This can not only extend to those who already have the power to shape their cities; it must be granted to those who are the most disenfranchised and alienated in a given urban area. Furthermore, the right to the city is not a single right. As Peter Marcuse writes in “From critical urban theory to the right to the city,” it is a set of incorporated rights: “the right to a totality, a complexity, in which each of the parts is part of a single whole to which the right is demanded.” In short, the right to the city can be thought of a collectivity of rights for the most disenfranchised in society that demand shaping power over cities.

Refugee and migrant squatting is perhaps one of the most emblematic examples of this right to the city; it calls into question the power structures that allow people fleeing from war and famine to go without one of the most basic human needs—housing—while simultaneously claiming that right to housing by squatting buildings and taking it for themselves. It also claims a multiplicity of rights beyond housing: the right to centrality, the right to services, the right to be seen and heard. Yet in too many cities this act is considered not the assertion of a human right but a violent action against the state, thus provoking intense retaliation from police and local government.

For the squatters now displaced from the former Gerhart-Hauptmann schule, this retaliation has resulted in a dire loss of housing, as well as the fall of a project that had been subverted by and caught up in political infighting since its first eviction in 2014. In this struggle, Refugee Strike House became a question of district resources, police surveillance, and local agitation instead of the dire need for housing in a city that still places two-thirds of its refugee population in temporary shelters. The problem remains, as does the empty Gerhart-Hauptmann Schule which has yet to be converted into a refugee center as the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district promised.

The right to the city is currently manifested in a political and necessary action to attain housing where there is none. It is a cry of people whose voices are too often not heard, and it demands action. If the right to the city is a human right, then we must stand in solidarity with refugee squatters and advocate for progressive changes on the part of local governments to create sustainable, non-ghettoized housing that is the first step to forming spatial communities.