Border Criminologies Blog Book Review: Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin

oxfordPost by Andriani Fili, Associate researcher at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford and Managing editor of the Border Criminologies Blog. Andriani is also working on her PhD thesis, at the Sociology department at Lancaster University. Her research is the first national study of immigration detention centres in Greece.

Review of Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin: Women’s Perspectives and Experiences by Dilger, H. and Dohrn, K. (eds.) (Weissensee Verlag, 2016).

refugee_dilger_350As states around the world have responded to growing numbers of people on the move by tightening their borders and creating camps to ‘host’ them, strategies of border policing have assumed significant policy and political weight. Through the creation of refugee camps, states exercise their sovereign power in order to ‘delineate membership and cast nonmembers out of the political community and eventually beyond the physical borders of the country’, often at the expense of their human rights. In so doing, they help to establish the identity of the state. Women and children now make up 60% of people on the move in Europe. However, we know little about the nature and ramifications of their experiences of crossing borders and seeking refuge in Europe. What little we do know suggests that women, particularly those who are seeking asylum, remain vulnerable to the hostile and violent environment that is currently endorsed by many European states.

Knowing and understanding more about refugee women’s experiences and struggles within the asylum system and camps in Germany is the core aim of the book edited by Hansjoerg Dilger and Kristina Dohrn; two anthropology lectureres from Freie University in Berlin, who teamed up with the activist organisation International Women’s Space (IWS), in a remarkable initiative of their undergraduate students. Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin, thus, adopts an explicit political stance that harmonises the invaluable observations of passionate activists with scholarly erudition. In fact, the encouragement of stronger partnerships between the academy and those involved in social and political activism in a big city that ‘welcomes’ refugees is the major highlight and inspiration of the book.

As part of this research, the lecturers, together with their students and IWS co-designed the project’s aims and research methodologies, as well as six key themes thatguided research collection and analysis (i.e. personal and cultural backgrounds, living conditions and daily life, social interactions and support, safety and privacy, health and care, and registration and administration). In five research teams, they visited and conducted research in five different accommodation facilities for refugees in Berlin over a period of several months. Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin offers a rare glimpse into the everyday lives and experiences of recently arrived refugee women in Berlin, as the authors unravel the collective struggles of those women to lead a stable, peaceful and self-determined life in Germany.

The key themes of the book are depicted through five chapters, each presenting findings from the facilities visited by the research team. The preface sets the stage by examining the terms, theoretical debates and political stance used to illustrate the book. The introduction provides an overview of the design and methodology employed, as well as summarizes the main findings of the study.

The core chapters’ findings resonate with research conducted in other confinement institutions around the world. Women felt in limbo without access to adequate information on their status. The feeling of uncertainty severely affected their daily lives in those camps, with many women stating that the camp felt like a prison to them. In fact, the research group found that most buildings visited were ‘unsuitable to accommodate human beings’ (p. 43), while they enforced a sense of control over their residents. Women’s experiences of safety and the fear of being sexually assaulted was closely related to the lack of privacy in most refugee camps. As has been documented elsewhere, women were often scared to go to the toilet or bathroom at night and did not feel they could move freely. Another major concern among women was health care as most of them experienced barriers to accessing adequate care, especially when it came to treating psychological issues produced by the lengthy bureaucratic nature of the asylum system.

‘Waiting is a central element of daily life for the women: waiting for official decisions, waiting for a forced return, waiting for the permission to work, waiting for one’s turn at the washing machine or in the food line, and waiting in from of the LaGeSo (the state office for health and social affairs)’(p.58)      

The conclusion of the book is a call to action by offering recommendations to improve the situation of women in refugee camps in Berlin. In doing so, it reflexively expands the contemporary conundrums both academia and activism are compelled to address, which is the struggle to raise awareness of the living conditions of people in emergency accommodation in order to ‘change the power structures that discriminate against people in the asylum process, especially women’ (p. 60).

Two points of criticism however remain. The first is the structure of the core of the book, which is organised by research group, rather than by theme. While information on each facility and the group’s positionality in each setting is very useful in comprehending the research process, this could have well been part of an introductory chapter. The book would have benefited from a different structure that would prioritise deeper analysis over description. Compounding matters, the choice of lay terms, instead of more technical ones, fails, at times, to engage with and discuss complex ideas. Therefore, at times it reads more as a report rather than a solid piece of academic writing.

Despite these issues, Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin is an engaging contribution to an emerging literature that focuses on people’s lived experiences. Written in a very accessible style, it does not only constitute a useful resource for students and researchers with an interest in border control and refugee matters but could also appeal to a general audience, practitioners and activists alike. One can hope that this book could be a commendable precursor of many more studies to come, as the European humanitarian crisis is a phenomenon that is far from being subdued, affecting the lives of men and women, whose survival fade in spaces of border control.

Fili, A. (2018) Book Review: Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/02/book-review-0 (Accessed [date]).

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