Contribution by Dr. Dominik Matuschek SJ, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Germany

The European Union can no doubt be called a success. It has been maintaining peace and security for decades. Of course, we can easiliy name the difficulties which occur when 28 states try to come to a common opinion. Last month, the general elections for the European Parliament showed once again how many different views, expectations, disappointments and hopes are found among the electorate of about 380 million EU citizens (with a total population of more than half a billion people living in the EU). ‘Europe’ has a lot of connotations to many people.

It is not surprising that there has been much stress of late on the problems, crises and issues of contention in the EU. During election times, both national parties and their pan-European coalitions try to point out all the bad sides of the Union they will reform right after they would have been voted for. Apparently, there are a whole lot of issues—and so it should be. The European Union is not an unchangeable, ever-so-perfect ideology, but an experiment based on a shared belief in democracy and individuals’ rights. Established for economical reasons at first, the EU is now far more than a complex agreement on tariffs and trades. The European Union has become a political and cultural bond of its member states. And its institutions, especially its courts, advocate human rights and dignity, e.g. the right to freely express one’s opinion (in, about and against the EU, even).

It has been a long journey to arrive where we are today, and there is work still to be done. But the past decades have seen an unprecedentedly long period of peace in most parts of the continent and a steady development towards more humane conditions of living which I regard as a major success. Many people have given their time and efforts to make such a progress possible. The hopes of centuries have become European reality.

The European Union is not paradise, of course. But it may easily appear so in the eyes of an outsider, especially if their homes are devastated by famines and war, plagued by religious and moral fundamentalists, or exploited by dictators and businessmen (often serving our ‘needs’). It is a sad fact that many people face circumstances which leave them no choice but to leave their homes. In some cases, they try to seek refuge in Europe—often leaving friends and family behind and paying everything they have for a small chance of a better living, free from persecution and danger.

Every week, Brother Dieter Müller S:J. of the Jesuit Refugee Service visits some of the people who made it to Germany. But he will not see them in their homes, in a café or at work. They meet in prison. Refugees are locked up there to ensure that they can be deported from Germany. There are several special prisons in the Federal Republic of Germany to detain refugees, since law enforcement (which prison management belongs to) is not a federal responsibility, but is vested in the authority of the sixteen Bundesländer which the German Federation is made up of.

In Bavaria, where Brother Müller works, it’s only recently that a special prison for refugee detention was established: an existing prison was adapted for that purpose in November 2013. Prior to that, Brother Müller had had to visit regular prisons in Munich and Nuremberg where the refugees were housed next to the verdicted inmates. This situation had been obviously unbearable—seeking refuge is not a crime. The Jesuit Refugee Service and other NGO’s successfully lobbied against the Bavarian policy and helped to improve the refugees’ situation. However, the prison in the small city of Mühldorf which is now reserved for refugees only is still—a prison.

For about two months, I have been allowed to join Brother Müller. Once a week, we go into the prison to meet the inmates, both women and men. Many of them are less than thirty years old, some even younger. They come from different countries, speak different languages. That does not make life easier. Their legal situation is explained to the refugees in a collection of official documents several pages long. The language used in those documents is challenging for me as a native German speaker—in the eyes of an eighteen-year-old Somali whose only European language is French, it must be incomprehensible.

That is why the first and basic aid Brother Müller provides is legal advice. He invites the refugees to show him their documents. With his experience and the occasional help from a lawyer, Brother Müller can explain the meaning of the offical language and tell the refugees what is written and decided about them. We talk in German, English, French, Croatian, with gestures and sounds. Sometimes other detainees can help with interpretation, so that German court verdicts may be explained to an Arab-speaking Syrian via French.

In some cases, the only help we can offer is listening to the stories and taking an interest in the refugees’ lives. Sometimes however, there is an opportunity to challenge the verdict of detention if there are no plausible grounds. Another issue is the overall duration of the detention. People cannot be imprisoned for weeks or months while the authorities try to find a possible country the detainee may be deported to.

One might think that the case of a refugee is quite clear: they will be deported back to their home countries. However, this does not happen very often in Bavaria. In most cases, the refugees are not sent back home but to the EU state in which they were first registered, normally with their fingerprints taken. Within the EU, this first state is responsible for the further proceedings, such as the question of asylum. As Germany is not near the outer borders of the European Union, most refugees have passed through one or more states on their way. Having once been registered in Hungary, for example, a refugee has to be deported there to deal with his case.

This provides another opportunity for legal action. The conditions asylum-seekers and migrants face in respective states are regularly reported on by several international organisations. Special attention is given by German courts to the reports of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In the past, he named several states that could not guarantee tolerable conditions for the refugees and fair treatment by the authorities. So German courts decided not to send people back to Bulgaria, for example, and to accept their asylum application in Germany in spite of ‘normal’ EU regulations. But the courts do not decide unless they are appealed to—and once more legal help is required.

The Jesuit Refugee Service collaborates with a number of dedicated lawyers who have specialized in migration law. Their committed work has helped to remove many legal obstacles and give people the chance of a new life free from persecution and terror. This is made possible by generous donations. Whoever is prepared to help people who have lost their homes can contribute to the success of the European Union—a union worth living in.

13 June 2014