Students Doing Engaged Anthropology - Women Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin

In the summer and autumn of 2015, 1.1 million people arrived in Germany with the aim of seeking asylum. The majority of these were refugees from the war in Syria, many others came from Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Western Balkan.

The German asylum system forces newly arrived refugees to live in camps, officially referred to as reception centres (‘Erstaufnahmeeinrichtungen’; also known as ‘Notunterkünfte’) for a period of up to three months, although many stay in the camps for much longer. The living conditions in these temporary institutions have an enormous impact on the lives of those staying there, but – as a group of students and their lecturers from the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Free University of Berlin noted, “there is no social scientific data on the specific living conditions in these camps, which have proliferated since 2015. This lack of knowledge is even more pressing for the situation of women, who often represent a minority within these camps.” (p. 23)

In a remarkable initiative a number of undergraduates from the Free University of Berlin (FU) supported by two of the FU’s anthropology lecturers teamed up with an activist organisation (International Women’s Space, IWS), which had grown from the earlier rather spectacular occupation of a former school building by refugees. Over a whole academic year together they conducted a research seminar to better understand the situation of women in Berlin refugee camps, especially during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 and 2016. In five research teams the twenty-four students designed the project’s aims and research methodologies in collaboration with the activist organisation. The student researchers expressly emphasise that political and social engagement was at the core of this project, which aimed to achieve a better understanding of the living conditions of women in camps, and that first and foremost they wanted to “use this understanding for the political purpose of changing the power structures that discriminate against people in the asylum process, especially women. “ (p 60)

The students, mostly young women, conducted research in different camps in Berlin over a period of several months, and have now published their findings. The six focal subjects of the research were the personal and cultural background of the women refugees, their social interaction and support, as well as issues of administration within the camps and the wider bureaucratic structures in the city. Their special concerns were the living conditions and daily life of women refugees, and issues related to safety, privacy, health and care.

The findings are succinctly summarised where the researchers write that, “the results of our research show that most of the challenges that the women living in refugee camps in Berlin faced resulted from not being able to live a self-determined life. … In this system, the refugee camps serve the purpose of registering, controlling and monitoring a person in a way that takes away his/her possibility to lead an autonomous life over a period of many months or even years.” (p 298).

This statement may not be entirely surprising for researchers and activists who have worked with refugees and exiles in different political and historical contexts. From a different perspective however this has been an extraordinary project. Not only did young students in their second and third year of undergraduate study design and lead a complex research project, and with the assistance of their lecturers produce a solid research-based publication. Not even, although this too is quite remarkable did they produce a volume written in English, which is not the everyday language of teaching and learning at a German university.

Most significantly, however, is the fact that the students combined forces with an activist organisation, thereby building new partnerships between the academy and those involved in social and political activism in the city that all of them share: the students, the activists, and the refugees, ie., the ‘subjects’ of the research.

This project presents an excellent example of engaged Anthropology. The book addresses profound questions of social and political inequality, and of the local consequences of the global flows of war and violence. The researchers do this in a way that admirably demonstrates their awareness of social inequality and of the complex issues of field work. They reflect that as university students they are themselves a part of the intrinsic power structures in the context of Germany and Berlin, and that even those among them who hail from countries of the Global South are secure in their academic status and thus find themselves in an enormously privileged position compared to refugees in the city’s camps. In this sense the editors and authors of ‘Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin’ aim at speaking (truth) to and with the powers that be rather than write about or for the ‘subjects’ of their research.

Quotations from: Dilger, Hansjörg, Kristina Dohm. Eds. In Collaboration with International Women’s Space. 2016. Living in Refugee Camps in Berlin: Women’s Perspectives and Experiences. Berlin: Weissensee Verlag (Berliner Beiträge zur Ethnologie, Bd. 40).