Hohenleipisch refugee accommodation center is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a dense forest. The bus to the next town leaves only once every two hours from five o’clock in the afternoon. There are none on weekends. 

Rita lived here for seven years. A place with no contact to people on the outside, except the camp’s employees. People from all over the world who speak many different languages are interned here as if in a prison, with great uncertainty about their future. Without any social relations in a country to which they have come to build a life for themselves and their families. 

Research has shown that such conditions have many adverse effects on people: despair, depression, suicide, self-harm, aggression. Especially now, after Rita’s murder, we sense a lot of fear among residents. Women no longer dare to go out in the evening or travel back to the camp alone after dark because they have to walk long distances on the street or through the woods, with no protection. This applies to all the camps in remote areas. The women who live in these complexes cannot come to Berlin to meet us, and it is incredibly difficult for them to get into contact with us or other structures outside the camp. Similarly, it is made very difficult for activists to get into the camps. They are sealed off like prisons, and we are often refused entry. On the few occasions on which we are allowed to enter, the management or security will come and interrogate us – asking us what we’re saying, who we are, what we want – in order to intimidate us. Under such conditions it is almost impossible for the refugees to say what they really think, what they feel, what happens in these camps. They fear that anything they say will have consequences for their asylum procedure and could be used as grounds for a rejection.

What Rita’s friends told us about her

Rita was shy. And she suffered from having to live for seven years in the camp in Hohenleipisch waiting for a decision regarding her asylum claim to be made. Some of us met Rita in the refugee processing center in Eisenhüttenstadt when she first arrived in Germany. She had no idea what the future would look like for herself and her two small children (aged two and four years old). And she had no way to prepare for it. But she was determined to fight for it. 

What we learned about the investigation into Rita’s disappearance

The police clearly didn’t take Rita’s disappearance or missing person report seriously. According to our sources, they didn’t start looking for her until after two months. They claim otherwise, but how is it possible to find her remains after such a long time, only 200 meters from the camp?

Our experience speaks to two structural problems: racism and misogyny. Both concern violence and power relations. If a white German woman and mother of two small children had disappeared, the police would have started looking for her immediately after she was reported missing, not after two months. The media would have reported the case and there would have been a compassionate public outcry. A mother has disappeared with no explanation, leaving her two small children alone. What could be more urgent than solving this terrible situation? Rita’s children are still living alone, in the same room, to this day. Nobody felt responsible for them at first except other refugee women. 

In our experience, the police and judiciary often don’t take the truth too seriously when it comes to the treatment of refugees. We are reminded here of Oury Jalloh, who burned in his cell in Dessau. Another central problem is that the camps are lawless spaces in which protective rights do not apply to people. This applies in particular to those who are made most vulnerable by these structures, namely women and children. In Germany, the women’s movement has fought for women to be given special protections against male violence, for example the spatial separation of violent men from their victims, women’s shelters, and counselling services for women. In the camps, which by their very nature are designed to produce and reproduce violence, none of this applies. Men, women and children, who are often traumatised and have experienced and continue to experience violence, live side by side, without privacy, without protection. The accommodation management and police simply do not want to acknowledge violence within the camps – which they create for the most part themselves – for as long as it is not directed against them. Camps are thus lawless spaces. Rita had already told the Hohenleipisch’s management some time ago that she felt threatened by a man who lived in the room opposite hers. But they simply shrugged it off. It is so often the case that violence against women is not believed or taken seriously because it is considered irrelevant. This also extends to the violence perpetrated by police officers, security guards who work in the camps, camp management or others who wield power over the camp’s inhabitants because of their position.

In Germany, the “Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention and Suppression of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence” (Istanbul Convention), came into force on 1 February 2018. The Convention is applicable law, a law that in theory applies to all women in Germany. The state has thus committed itself to combating and preventing violence against women. But as we see on a daily basis, this right does not apply to refugee women whose living situations – considering that they are essentially locked away in camps – are violent per se.

This is what we mean when we say that these isolated camps are lawless spaces and that these rights do not apply to refugees.

Other Aspects of the Case

We must always question the images presented to us by the public media and their (intended) function. Media reporting paints a very one-sided picture of refugees. This becomes especially clear in the way that both so-called “anchor centres” (mass refugee accommodation and deportation centers) and violence against women have been reported. Non-white people (especially men) are portrayed as “aggressive” and thus as a threat from which people must be protected. Behind this we see the political interest in our dehumanization (to the extent that others do not show solidarity with us) in order to be able to deport us more easily, to justify attacks on us, to keep us in isolated camps. For such conditions are only further aggravated by tightening of the laws, e.g. the federal government’s so-called “Law of Orderly Return” (Geordnete Rückkehrgesetz).

We must not fall into the trap of seeing violence against women as a social problem brought to Germany from outside. As we know from the BKA statistics of 2018, a woman is killed by her (ex-)partner every three days in Germany and most of the perpetrators are German men. Violence against women is a global problem, and misogyny a global system that cannot be scapegoated to particular non-white groups. 

There are no comparable findings from statistics or investigations on attacks on refugee women, be it by the security personnel, the camp management, social workers, other residents or police. Apparently such data is not worth collecting. How can that be?