At the Diakonie archive in Berlin.

Greetings from Berlin, Germany, where I’ve just wrapped up my first full week with a Duke Human Rights research grant. The work that I’m doing here is for a history dissertation on humanitarianism and human rights in West Germany between the 1960s and 1980s. I’m particularly interested in West Germany’s changing relationship to newly independent, postcolonial nation-states of the so-called “Third World.”  

My project is divided into two parts. The first half is a more “global” story about German humanitarianism overseas, and my research is focused on a collection of case studies set in African contexts of war, famine, and disaster. Starting in the 1960s, as countries across the African continent gained independence from Europe, a number of post-colonial wars and crises led West German NGOs to join other Western states, international agencies, and African partners to stage large-scale humanitarian interventions. Previously, this kind of involvement in the internal affairs of African societies would mostly have fallen under the mandate of colonial states and European imperial powers. But in the postcolonial era, and especially in times of crisis or zones of conflict, governance was increasingly practiced by international agencies (like the United Nations) and foreign NGOs. In this new context, the West German state and civil society organizations became increasingly involved, and it was often West German political, economic, and security interests—and not an impartial humanitarian solidarity or commitment to human rights—that determined which peoples and societies mattered.

The second half of my study, by contrast, is a more “local” story about the politics of humanitarianism in West Germany, where, starting in the 1970s, a growing influx of migrants and refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East began coming to West Germany to seek asylum. Prior to the 1970s, there had been two streams of migrants arriving in West Germany: first a large number of laborers and their families came from Turkey, Greece, and other parts of southern Europe as part of a “guest worker” program aimed at rebooting the German economy after the Second World War; a second stream of migrants arrived as refugees or German “expellees” from the Soviet bloc countries in eastern Europe, and they were generally allowed to settle in West Germany with little difficulty. In the 1970s, this started to change. Amid the global oil crisis and growing anti-Muslim sentiment, the government ended the guest worker program in 1973. Over the next two decades, the annual number of asylum seekers entering West Germany rose dramatically: from just around 7,000 in 1970 to over 200,000 in 1990.

It is this second half of my project that I have been focusing on with support from Duke’s Human Rights Center. This month, I have spent most of my time to date working in the archives of the West German organization called Diakonie, a Protestant organization partly funded by the state, and one of the largest social welfare agencies in Europe.

One of the reasons that I am drawn to the archives of Diakonie is that they have a collection of archival materials that will allow me to tell a different story about migration and asylum than scholars have previously. In the past, most research on the topic has focused on policy-making and legal rulings used to govern refugees. We know how, starting in the 1970s, politicians, bureaucrats, and the government responded with policies that made it difficult for refugees to enter the country and receive protection. However, much less is known about how asylum played out on the ground in practice, the care and activism of NGOs, or the experiences of individuals and groups of refugees. Most of the files I have consulted at Diakonie have only just become available for historical research, and archivists there have even given me first access to a number of previously unclassified resources. With these, I hope to begin telling a story about asylum from the perspective of refugees themselves, and to give them a measure of individual and collective agency that has yet to be given full attention in historical scholarship.

So far, I have begun to piece together an interesting finding about the limits of humanitarian and human rights ideology in practice. The German Constitution, established in 1949, made human rights and asylum part of German law. But in practice, refugees were grouped into three different categories of “humanity.” First, refugees from eastern Europe were generally welcomed as part of West Germany’s broader anti-communist agenda, and as case files illustrate, these refugees had very little difficulty being granted asylum and even taking steps to become naturalized as citizens. Second, “quota” refugees were able to receive protection because West Germany had made special agreements to offer a certain number of people asylum, the most famous example being the Vietnamese “boat people” who began to arrive in 1979. Yet third, a large number of refugees, mostly from parts of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, did not fulfill either of these criteria, and the vast majority of them were denied asylum. However, as a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Conventions, the state was prohibited by international law from deporting asylum seekers whose lives were endangered in their home countries. These “de-facto” refugees were given “exceptional leave” to remain in West Germany for “humanitarian reasons.” But they were barred from working, given vouchers for food, and ordered to live in camps and shelters that were condemned by the U.N. and likened to prisons by activists and refugees. In the political space opened up by refugee migrations and asylum, the same principle of humanitarianism created hierarchies of humanity.

In the early 1970s, Diakonie established a human rights desk, and in collaboration with local West German branches of amnesty international and other human rights organizations, lawyers there began to advocate for these “de-facto” refugees who found themselves in legal limbo: their asylum applications having been rejected, they were permitted to remain in the country but denied basic rights. In their individual testimonies, refugees often used the language of human rights to appeal for aid or assistance. Many related having arrived with pre-existing trauma due to the circumstances of their flight, while others reported experiencing mental illness and social exclusion. And as we know from media accounts at the time, racial and religious discrimination were on the rise, and there were numerous incidents of targeted violence carried out against refugee shelters and local government agencies for foreign residents. Yet while appeals to human rights were met with compassion and solidarity by groups like Diakonie, they were less effective in asylum applications and courts.

While researching at Diakonie, my findings brought to mind a phrase penned in 1949 by the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. Writing just a year after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Arendt argued that human rights were not inalienable or universal, but that people in fact needed to have a “right to have rights.” That first “right,” she argued, was tied to one’s status as a citizen and not one’s being human. Arendt experienced this herself, having lived for more than fifteen years in the twilight of asylum before being naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1951. A similar situation characterized the status of refugees in West Germany during the 1970s and 1980s. While some were granted asylum, rights were offered on a downward sliding scale depending, among other factors, on one’s country of origin. Moreover, the same principle of humanitarianism could be used to offer protection to some people but deny asylum and basic rights to others.

A second research finding that is beginning to emerge from my time at Diakonie is that many of the migrants from Africa and Asia who came to West Germany actually arrived via East Berlin. While the communist East German government militantly regulated the country’s borders and even killed East Germans who attempted to cross into the West, asylum-seekers from the “Third World” were allowed to pass freely into West Berlin. Later this month, I will investigate that story by looking at unpublished sources in the German national archives as well as newspaper and magazine collections at the Berlin state library. But before that, this coming week I’ll be traveling to Geneva, Switzerland to do research at the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). I know that the UNHCR dispatched several teams to West German refugee holding centers and camps, and I will access their reports and other legal documents at their archive. At the UNHCR, I also plan to research a chapter of West Germany’s “global” humanitarian involvement—including documents pertaining to a covert emergency medical relief program during the Nigerian-Biafran War (1967-1970). More to come soon…