The ‘Fortress Within’: Restriction of Movement and Refugee Self-Organisation

Old woman protestingUndocumented migrants and refugees suffer from the repressive conditions they have to live under – and struggle against. Urheber: Takver. Creative Commons License LogoDieses Bild steht unter einer Creative Commons Lizenz.


by Sunny Omwenyeke

The concept of Fortress Europe entails in political and practical terms, the concerted will of the collective European Union (EU) to prevent unwanted migrants, refugees or asylum seekers from entering the territorial EU. And beyond preventing them from entering, it also describes the ‘weeding’ away of each and every one of the aforementioned groups who, by dint of courage or unyielding persistence already found themselves within the EU but have yet to secure a permanent legal residence. Underlying this concept is the idea that the EU must secure and protect itself from being swarmed by these unwanted elements; that could constitute a strain on the social system here. Therefore, the farther the territorial border is from mainland EU the higher the probability of actually preventing these groups of people from stepping into the EU. To this end, not only has the territorial EU border been broadened to Eastern Europe, coerced and dubious agreements have been reached with some of the countries that now border the EU aimed at preventing the ‘unwanted’ from reaching the EU.

These new border countries like Ukraine and across the See like Libya have been compelled to be recipient of EU camps (Lagers); where supposedly, asylum applicants are held and their application processed to prevent their presence in Europe. The audacious FRONTEX project of the EU is a step further in the intensification of border policing-both land and water, to achieve the aim of preventing the unwanted from entering and not the burnished humanitarian image that is sold to the public. Put differently, secured and externalised borders and externalised Lagers is the solution to the problem of the ‘unwanted’ in the EU, even at the expense of human freedom and dignity. This is because the EU turns a blind eye to its humanitarian commitment and obligations and the precarious condition of the ‘unwanted’ that is orchestrated by its own policies and actions like its lop-sided trade policies with the so-called third world countries.

The ‘Fortress Within’

The above is only one side of the coin. The other side is what obtains within the EU proper and this complements the former, hence the ‘Fortress Within’. To be specific, I use Germany and the ‘Residence Obligation Law’ (Residenzpflicht) for illustration. In Germany, refugees are restricted to the particular administrative Districts where they are registered and irrespective of the reasons and urgency, they can only leave there with a written permission issued by the foreigners’ office. Any refugee who violates this restriction is either fined or sent to prison or can be both fined and imprisoned. The fine could be as much as 2500euro and the jail term as much as a year. Refugees are denied the right to freedom of movement and are forced to live in miserable Lagers for the endless years that it takes to decide their asylum applications. Most of these Lagers are isolated from the mainstream society and sometimes located in abandoned military barracks in the jungle with little or no access. They are deliberately isolated from the main populace like outcasts and stigmatised.

Now can these refugees be regarded as inhabiting an ‘Area of Freedom’ or simply living-out life in a Fortress? No doubt it is the latter. The Residence Obligation is a clear violation of the right to individual freedom of movement and a violation of the right to human dignity. It is a blatant violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 2 Protocol No.4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UNHCR, human rights groups and refugee activists have long condemned this as inhuman and campaigners have rightly branded it as the ‘Pass Law’ in Germany, in direct comparison to the erstwhile Pass Law in apartheid South Africa. Its effects on refugees combined with their living conditions are broad and far reaching. As space will not permit these to be exhausted here, I will therefore briefly look at its history and the self-organisation of refugee groups in Germany.  

When most refugees leave their friends and loved ones behind, they do so in search for safety, security and the preservation of their human dignity. They carry the hope to live a good life if not a better one than they have had and to lend a helping hand to those they leave behind. They are often driven by war-which they are not responsible for, hunger-arising from the loss of the means of livelihood, persecution-political and cultural; some of which are neither properly nor legally codified internationally and thus not a “sufficient” reason for being granted international protection (asylum). Contrary to widely held opinion in the West, they do not simply want to ‘feed on the sweat of others’. They are being forced by the circumstances to seek a place more amenable to their desires and aspirations as human beings. They therefore also want to develop and live like other regular and normal human beings, study or work as the case may be even while they go through their travail. Much as no one expects a red-carpet reception, no one also expects to be restricted to a particular local District for years on end. The expectations and hopes always seem to be at odds with the reality. For some it is a shock and for others it is outright disbelief.

Peculiarity of Restriction

Several studies by different independent organisations across Europe reveal that the restriction on the refugee right to freedom of movement in Germany is unique. In other words, there is no other country in Europe where such a blanket restriction is placed on every refugee. What is also particularly troubling here is the arbitrariness of those in a position to issue any permission. They are not obliged to give any reason for their refusal and in most cases, you only hear that refugees are expected to eat and sleep in the Lagers and not travelling all over the country. And many refugees have been told that if they are tired of eating and sleeping, they can return to their countries. Moreover, there is no provision for appealing such refusal except by going to the court, which makes a mockery of any attempt to get permission in the first place. And in some Districts, refugees who only get 40euro a month have to pay 10euro for any permission. If the applicant is politically active, the chances of refusal are doubled and so are the attempts to intimidate and persecute him/her for being active against the miserable condition they are forced to live in. And when permissions are refused and refugees are then compelled to violate the restriction, they are treated and classified as criminals-a natural boost for statistics with the underlying message that most refugees are criminals and not fit to live here. For refugees, this criminalisation by default is a traumatic experience. 

The so-called Residence Obligation was established with the introduction of the Asylum Procedure Law of 1982. The argument was that it would make it possible or easier for the authorities to contact refugees for their asylum cases. An argument that flies in the face since allowing refugees to move freely is not a hindrance to contacting them. Moreover, the registered address of the refugee is already enough for contact. In reality, the law was about intensified control-like the EU borders, making life uncomfortable as much as possible for refugees here and then sending them out if they can’t bear it anymore. It was also to prevent other potential refugee from coming-since they will not like it here as it won’t be comfortable. This recent history is ebbed on a ‘control mentality’ and it dates back much longer. Combined this with the Lager system, you arrive at a lager and control mentality which basically underlies the asylum system here in Germany with no respect for freedom and human dignity.

And even earlier…

It should be remembered that in former German colonial territory like Togo, villagers and local inhabitants were prevented from attending meetings outside their immediate localities without permission from their German colonial masters. This was specifically to ensure that the locals were prevented from meeting and fomenting any sort of unrest against their colonial masters. And even more chilling is the recollection that on 22nd August 1938, the National Socialists through the Foreigners’ Police Order placed a very similar restriction of movement on foreigners in Germany. The consequence of a violation then like now was both a monetary fine and a possible one year jail term. And this law existed and remained valid until 1965 when a new foreigner law was enacted. Judging from the similarities in language, fine and consequences of the 1938 restriction and the Residence Obligation Law, it can hardly be doubted that the restriction placed on refugees today in Germany has not simply been paraphrased from the racist law enacted by the dreaded Nazi regime. That for a refugee in Germany in 2009 to leave his/her immediate District he/she needs a written permission from the foreigner’s office-else a fine or possible jail term awaits upon police control is a startling and sad reminder of that 1938 restriction.


So far the focus has been on the Residence Obligation and the restriction of movement as a major problem to show that many of us are really living it out in a Fortress, contrary to what others would want us believe. But it should be said that it is not the only problem. There are the problems of refugees being denied private accommodation and privacy, leaving adults to be crammed together in single rooms, denied access to doctors and proper medication, being forced to use food coupons with its consequent public humiliation and of course the incessant police brutality; which sometimes results in the death of refugees at the hands of the police. These, combined, leave the refugees with hardly any better option than to organise and confront them, which brings us to refugee self-organisation. Normally, a few courageous individuals take the initial lead. They articulate the main problems before various audiences and in no time, they are speaking on behalf of the others while at the same time soliciting solidarity and support. It should be mentioned that although refugee self-organisations are also engaged with other fundamental issues like the exploitation of their home countries, neo-colonialism and the damning effects of globalisation amongst others, the focus here remains the experiences of these groups within the Fortress with particular attention to restriction of movement. 

Starting from the scratch, refugee self-organisation is a hard and strenuous affair for a multiplicity of reasons. First, many refugees faced with the plethora of problems that is the asylum process and the constant threats of deportation simply withdraw onto themselves and begin to suffer depression with little or no attention. In some cases, the result is an attempted suicide or actual suicide.

Second, because the formation of a refugee self-organised group is usually predicated upon the immediate problems that confronts the refugees, the primary aim of these groups is therefore to solve those problems. While it is true that some of these problems like closing down a camp or abolishing food coupon require long term planning and strong commitment to solve, such long term plans are usually not part of the original bargain at the beginning. One of the reasons for this is that you can never be sure of who will be around and for how long, to continue any such plans. This is because the authorities always devise and employ the strategy of relocating most of the leading figures in such situations. Such activists are usually sent to far more remote places to isolate them, limit their possible support and solidarity to break any refugee resistance. Added to this is that they could be deported anytime.

Third, even though many refugees live and experience the same horrible conditions in the Lagers, bonding together to confront these problems is not always an easy or straightforward project. Sometimes, differences in cultural background can be a problem. But more importantly are both the issues of mistrust between refugees (in some cases due to previous experiences in their home countries) and the politics of ‘divide and rule’ by the authorities. For many who faced persecution and torture in their home countries, it takes time to trust strangers. Then there are those that are regarded as the “good refugees”-who are not complaining about their ordeals here and therefore not giving the authorities any problems and those seen as the “trouble makers”-who would never keep quiet about the problems they experience in the system. So, the authorities play them against each other and this affects how well they organise themselves against their common problems.

Besides the continuous relocation and isolation of refugee activists by the authorities, some of the leading figures in any such resistance also cease to be active soon after their papers are regularised, move out of the Lagers and no longer face movement restrictions. In many cases, the void left is difficult to fill. Therefore, long term commitment to common purpose from the self-organisation perspective is a huge problem. Another problem is sustaining the structure of engagement or improving on what has been developed for a start. Because these structures are usually feeble and unstable, it is not uncommon to see them crumbling under pressure-both from refugees’ expectations of immediate solutions to his or her problems and from the authorities. By far one of the biggest problems to refugee self-organisation and networking remains the restriction of movement. When refugees go out of their Districts to attend meetings and network with other refugees, the threat of being arrested possibly brutalised and the certainty of a fine hangs over his/her head. It takes a lot of courage and some preparedness to pay a heavy price to continuously violate the restriction. Moreover, the intimidation and punishment that comes with such action serves as a lesson to discourage other refugees from being politically active.

Effects and Results

Nonetheless, refugee agitation leads to solutions of other problems like improving the living conditions in the camps or sometimes securing private apartments in some cases. And what is undeniable is the motivation, encouragement and re-awakening of hope that such little practical and tangible successes can inspire in some refugees. They are then imbued with the self belief that they can fight and win even against the all-powerful state. This is also particularly true in deportation cases. When refugees are active, the authorities adopt a hostile and aggressive attitude towards him/her and usually attempt to deport such refugees with haste. For a known activist, it is easier to mobilise support and solidarity to stop such deportation attempts.

The fact that other refugees can see and feel the support and solidarity that hinder such a deportation; which can be traced back to the personal engagement of the refugee usually offers a huge motivation. At the same time, the so-called “good refugees” are made to realise that irrespective of how “gentle” they may be, it would not endear them to the authorities to stop their deportation. On the contrary, they see that their deportations are usually easier because, it is more difficult to mobilise support for them when it is needed because they are relatively unknown. 

Resolve and Defiance

Given the enormity of the problems refugees face here coupled with the institutional and societal racism, it is not surprising that many refugees feel too intimidated and therefore afraid to confront the situation and fight for their rights. There is a mental and psychological block that needs be broken for many of these refugees. This is precisely where self-organised and courageous refugee activists and groups like The VOICE Forum ( and networks like the Caravan-for the rights of refugees and migrants ( come in. These groups consist of refugees and migrants of diverse background from different nationalities and continents. Formed over 15 and 10 years ago respectively, they have the experience of motivating and mobilising refugees in isolated Lagers to fight for their rights and not accept the deplorable conditions that are forced upon them here. They have been at the forefront in highlighting the isolation and social exclusion of refugees and the realities of the ‘Fortress Within’.

In 2000, The VOICE Forum hosted the Caravan-organised International Refugee and Migrant Congress in Jena. As preparation got underway refugees were threatened with imprisonment if they attend the Congress without a written permission from the foreigners’ offices. Many refugees defied the threat and attended the congress without permission. They rose from the congress and launched a civil disobedience and the campaign to abolish the residence obligation law. They vowed never to respect this law anymore and never to ask for any permission to leave their Districts. At the same time, they risked and were prepared to go to jail rather than pay any fine for exercising their right to freedom of movement. Since then, there have been lots of public events, discussions, rallies, demonstrations and other forms of protest against the residence law throughout the country. At the same time, litigations have gone through all the instances in the German judicial system with the cases ending up at the European court of human rights. As expected, many refugees have been fined and punished for violating the restriction. And while some have been threatened and remain threatened with imprisonment, others have actually been sent to prison for weeks or months depending on how angry the presiding judge was at the time. Nevertheless, these groups are determined to not only expose the nature of the Fortress but break its tentacles ‘Within’.

A Harder and Operational Fortress

Finally, we can review how the Fortress has developed and operated in its fortification, both externally and ‘Within’ since the last several years and we can only come to one conclusion: it is that the Fortress has become harder and more ruthless in trying to achieve its aim of keeping out the unwanted. Just a few years ago, some people who sought asylum in this country away from dictatorship and other forms of oppression in their home countries still managed to secure that internationally guaranteed protection. But since the last couple of years, particularly with the reckless abandon with which the so-called war on terror has been prosecuted and its consequent anti-terror laws, the very reasons for which a lot of those people got asylum and international protection has become the very reasons to now withdraw that protection. Many are being forced to live and endure life in ‘illegality’ or face the ominous process of being returned to the tormentors they fled from years ago.      

And as if to show how ruthless the Fortress can be, the horrors and the harrowing experience of the Boat people are further spiced with such cruelty and inhumanity that is only matched by the inconsiderate and selfish aim to keep away the unwanted. And even so at the expense of disregarding and discarding the much vaunted European value of human freedom and human dignity not to mention humanitarian obligation. If anyone ever needed to be reminded of where we are, the sight of Spanish police and soldiers shooting and killing innocent migrants and potential refugees at their borders in 2005 should do. If not, then the more recent deadly collaboration with Libyan authorities will help. We should note that the Fortress is operational and its functionality has been taken to a higher level in the just ended week by the horrendous example of Italy.

Having watched hundreds of hapless Boat people braved the odds and risks to arrive on its border, it wasted no time and immediately repatriated them to Libya without even allowing them to make asylum claims. Libya of all places-where there is neither any form of asylum policies nor is it a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Germany, if accident occurred and a victim needed help, a passer-by who refuses to help when it is within his/her capability is normally charged and prosecuted for not helping-to save life. Now, those who have taken the risk to rescue and save drowning people on the high See have become villains and criminals. They are being prosecuted with jail terms awaiting them-for supposedly helping drowning people who ‘ought to be left to drown’. And for the Fortress Within, it is the same-it is more brutal and more ruthless. As we speak a refugee is currently in jail to languish there for eights months for violating the restriction law and no other offence. Imagine a crime that would warrant eight months in jail for a German! The list goes on…the Fortress is here.



  • 2. StGB § 323c
  • Michael Stoffels, Die «Residenzpflicht» – eine rassistische Auflage für Ausländer
  • Grundrechte-Report (2002), S. 159-163
  • The research by European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) on the restriction of movement for asylum seekers in Germany/Europe (2002).
  • The ‘Residenzpflicht’-History and Current Developments in: “Widerstands Bewegungen: Antirassismus zwischen Alltag und Aktion. (2005), Assoziation A, Berlin/Hamburg.


Sunny Omwenyeke is member of The VOICE and the Caravan-for the rights of refugees and migrants. A human rights campaigner, he was one of the activists who launched the anti-Residenzpflicht campaign in 2000 and for his protest was imprisoned for 15 days.

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