Grünowski Grünowski

Migrant self-organisation in Jena

The Grünes Haus (Green House) is home to a number of associations that are committed to the rights of migrants and working against racism and right-wing violence: The district association Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) is one of the tenants, as is the Jugend-, Aktions- und Projektwerkstatt Jena (Youth, Action and Project Workshop Jena) - JAPS for short - which has been active against radical right-wing violence since the late nineties and draws attention to radical right-wing networks in Jena and the surrounding area through public relations work.

But not only German activists have been active against racism and right-wing violence in Jena since the nineties. Migrants - one of the main groups affected - have also organised themselves to draw attention to these social problems from their perspective.

The range of migrant self-organisation in Jena is as diverse and multi-layered as the migrant life experiences themselves. In addition to cultural associations, such as Viet-Jena e.V., in which former foreign contract workers who worked at Jenapharm, Schott and Zeiss factories in the GDR are active, there are also political lobby groups. Associations dedicated to integration, counselling and education work are also part of the network. For example, Iberoamérica e.V. was founded in 1998 by people who migrated from Latin American countries to Jena.

As early as the seventies and eighties, numerous migrants from South American countries lived in Jena. They included left-wing activists from Chile and students from Nicaragua who had fled the Pinochet regime. Today, numerous migrant initiatives and associations in Jena are part of the regional umbrella organisation Migranetz Thüringen.

The two self-organised groups, whose history of development will be presented below, see themselves as political interest groups that have repeatedly drawn attention to racism and right-wing violence over the last 25 years and have taken action against it. One of these is The Voice e.V., whose history is known far beyond Jena as a migrant self-organised group. Since 1994, the association has been drawing attention to racism in Jena and throughout Germany from the perspective of those directly affected and has been campaigning for human rights. 


The Voice – A Voice for Refugees

One of the initiators of The Voice is Osaren Igbinoba, who fled from Nigeria to Germany in the early 1990s. Initially, he was housed in a reception centre in Mühlhausen, formerly Russian barracks. As a former political human rights activist, the social isolation and inability to take political action affected him so much that he began to campaign for the rights of refugees in East Germany.

In October 1994, he founded The Voice Africa Forum with three other men from Nigeria and Liberia. Together, they tried to make people in refugee shelters in Thuringia aware of their situation and to motivate them to join forces to enact change. Their commitment did not come out of the blue - after all, they themselves had been persecuted in their countries for campaigning for human rights and democratic participation there.

Osaren Igbinoba's commitment repeatedly aroused social and media interest.


Temporary Jenaer

Contrary to what the Thüringische Landeszeitung reported on 1 May 1997, Igbinoba did not remain a „guest Jenaer“ or „temporary Jenaer“, but became a long-time local political activist. He continuously drew attention to the rights of migrants and the connection between displacement and (post-)colonial relations of exploitation.

Local newspaper coverage in the early 1990s makes it clear that Osaren Igbinoba was an active and politically active person. He also criticised the fact that many Germans were more interested in the culture of his country of origin than in the country‘s political situation.

Nigeria was subject to a military dictatorship until the end of the 1990s, which could mean imprisonment, torture and death for human rights activists. To protect people who had fled to Germany from the political regime there, he and other migrant activists campaigned against deportations and a restrictive asylum law: 


[...] in the face of „abuses in the hostel in the forest“ [...]

The Voice's multifaceted commitment was repeatedly supported by other initiatives, associations and organisations. In the 1990s, the Junge Gemeinde Stadtmitte (Young Community), members of the trade unions, the Foreigners' Advisory Council (as it was called at the time), the Foreigners' Commissioner and the Refugee Council, among others, actively campaigned for the rights of migrants and took a stand against racism and right-wing violence. But also people who were involved in the welfare associations or in social work tried to improve the concrete living conditions of migrants.

One of the issues that The Voice, together with other activists, brought to the media in order to generate social pressure and thus contribute to changing the situation, which was seen as problematic, was the accommodation in the reception centre in the forest, which had been the subject of fierce struggle in Jena since 1992.

The activists criticised the living conditions and the social and political isolation of the people housed there. The Voice also supported and participated in a boycott and strike actions. For example, in August 1997, some asylum seekers in the forest went on hunger strike and drew up a list of demands. In a resolution they published during the hunger strike, the activists expressed their desperation. Some had already been driven to madness and suicide by the hopelessness.

In addition to criticising the asylum system, which criminalised people who had to flee, they made basic demands. Among other things, they demanded a bus connection between the forest and the city centre as well as improvements in hygienic conditions. The desire to cook for themselves - and thus live out existential human needs - was also part of their demands.


Resolution of the refugees in the initial reception centre, Jena Forest, 20 August 1997.

In 1998, The Voice also participated in the Refugee Caravan, which was organised by a nationwide network of activists and subsequently travelled through 44 German cities to draw attention to the rights of migrants and refugees.

A major supra-regional campaign by The Voice took place in 2000: As part of another caravan, The Voice invited refugees and activists from all over the world to a congress at Jena University. It was the first meeting of its kind in Germany.

For those asylum seekers who wanted to travel from other places in Germany, this was associated with the risk of imprisonment due to the so-called Residenzpflicht (residential obligation), which was politically extremely controversial. This prohibited asylum seekers from moving beyond a predefined radius from the place where they were accommodated.

Not only The Voice, but also other associations, initiatives and individuals show that migrants in Jena were actively engaged against racism and right-wing violence in the early 1990s. Right-wing violence is - as interviews with those affected and politically active people show - the intensification of everyday racism in society as a whole.

Migrants experience discrimination and disadvantages in many areas of everyday life. Sana Al-Mudhaffar, who fled Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and came to the GDR in 1980, lived in Jena from 1983 and worked with refugees in the city during her role as a social worker for the German Red Cross (DRK) from 1992. She describes an everyday situation on the train :

We had to stand up. 'That is not your seat.'

Interview with Sana Al-Mudhaffar, 24.06.2021

Original soundbite Sana Al-Mudhaffar

Politically engaged people like Sana Al-Mudhaffar and Osaren Igbinoba have repeatedly drawn attention to the issues of racism and human rights from the perspective of those affected by it over the last twenty years.

The reconstruction of their political activism illustrates a social tension. Their efforts to represent their own political interests were met with scepticism and opposition from a part of Jena's city society, while numerous people, initiatives and associations in the city were also committed to the interests of migrants and against racism. 


The Integration Advisory Council

A municipal fig leaf against racism?

Like The Voice, the Integration Advisory Council - led by founding member and later chairperson Rea Mauersberger - was a city actor that brought the migrant perspective into city politics. While The Voice tried to build up social pressure and undertook political lobbying mainly through campaigning and public relations work, the aim of the integration advisory board was and is to help shape city politics in Jena.

The history of the integration advisory board is therefore a second example of the self-organisation of migrant interests in the early 1990s in Jena. Its history illustrates the social challenges migrants have been confronted with in the last thirty years, the reservations against which they tried to organise themselves politically and who supported them.

The establishment of a municipal foreigners' advisory council - the contemporary term - was initiated by several actors from 1991 at the latest. First, a working group „Foreigners in Jena“ was set up. Initially, it was not possible to establish a separate municipal advisory board within the city administration.

Margot Eulenstein, the Commissioner for Foreigners at the time, explained this in an interview as follows :

foreigners' advisory councils in the old federal states were generally made up of large nationality groups, which we didn’t have in Jena. We had 60 nationalities; with 1000 foreigners it was of course difficult. And so people were more in favour of it initially being a working group, 'Arbeitskreis Ausländer in Jena' (Working Group for Foreigners in Jena).

Interview with Margot Eulenstein, 16.12.2020

Original soundbite Margot Eulenstein

On 17 November 1992, the Commissioner for Foreigners was able to invite all „foreigners“ living in Jena to a founding meeting of a joint working group. It took place in the trade union building on Johannisplatz.

Invitation to the founding meeting of the working group "Foreigners in Jena", 8 September 1992, Jena City Archives, collection: Margot Eulenstein

Working documents for the working group "Foreigners in Jena", Jena City Archives, collection: Margot Eulenstein

Margot Eulenstein enclosed a draft of possible tasks and structures of the working group with the invitation to the founding meeting. She also pointed out that „nobody had to go home in the dark“ – a sign that migrants had to pass through places they perceived as fear zones when crossing the city in the early nineties.

On 20 November 1992, the Thüringische Landeszeitung reported that 37 women and men had elected a seven-member executive committee for the working group at the founding event. The working group was supported, amongst others, by representatives of welfare organisations, the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) and the Commissioner for Foreigners.

Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ), 20 November 1992

When the working group was founded in November 1992, Mayor Dietmar Haroske signalled his willingness to set up an advisory board. However, it was to continue to include the Commissioner for Foreigners and representatives from the housing support, social, education and culture departments. Thus, the advisory board did not represent exclusively migrant interests.

However, migrants in the city wanted to establish their own advisory board in order to exert influence on city politics. They therefore looked for a way to establish an advisory body to the city administration. To this end, they contacted the Integration Advisory Council of the twin city of Erlangen and had its members advise them on the drafting of an association statute.

Rea Mauersberger, who is still active in the Integration Advisory Board, describes her work for the board as „politically hard work“. She herself had already been active as a political speaker in Brazil and was already familiar with the issue of racism at that time - especially from a colonial perspective. She gained contact to other politically active people through the university and the Latin American community there, which in turn already existed in Jena during GDR times.

It was not until 1994 that a „foreigners' advisory council“ was approved in Jena by the city council. In a meeting in January 1994, the SPD parliamentary group introduced a draft resolution for the constitution of such an advisory council.

The majority of the parliamentarians were in favour of the bill. However, there was also a minority who did not agree. According to the minutes of the meeting, one councilor described the proposal as „extremely inappropriate, since it concerns only 1% of Jena's citizens. Thus, other minorities could also appear and demand similar advisory councils. Furthermore, the bill does not define what is meant by foreigners.“ The city councilor felt it was „coercion that the statute asks us to pass the implementation of 6 meetings per year.“

Councilor Christoph Boock (Free List parliamentary group) even expressed „astonishment that attempts are repeatedly made to install bogus institutions that are supposed to enforce rights of minorities in political bodies. Based on the current laws, there is no reason to integrate such institutions in the city parliament or in the city administration.“

Other parliamentarians sharply criticised the debate. Günter Graupe of the SPD, for example, was „shocked by the previous discussions. The group of foreigners in our city asks that they can come to us with their problems and interests. That one denies such a thing is incomprehensible.“

At the end, the mayor at the time, Peter Röhlinger, pointed out „the city of Jena has to give a political signal at this time. The city of Jena is striving for partnerships, for international relations, which are vital. Narrow-minded behaviour is out of place here.“ Röhlinger (FDP) thus also brought the aspect of a city image policy and related economic policy aspects into the debates.

Excerpt from the minutes of the city council meeting of 12 January 1994, Jena City Archives

While the Ministry for State Security was already observing „fascist“ slogans in public spaces and right-wing skinheads in Jena in the 1980s, right-wing violence and the propagation of right-wing ideologies became publicly visible at the beginning of the 1990s. As a social problem, however, these ideologies only now became open to public discussion.

Racist attacks and hostilities were thus also part of the news in local and regional, but also nationwide media coverage from 1990 onwards. From the mid-1990s onwards, the city could hardly resist integrating migrant interests without damaging its image.

In January 1994, a decision by the city council led to the long-standing commitment of political activists to an independent representation of interests. This made it possible for migrants to draw attention to their perception of (everyday) racism and right-wing violence in an institutionalised way.

Today, the Migration and Integration Advisory Council (the name Foreigners' Advisory Council was later rejected) sees itself as an „advisory body" and is elected for 5 years at a time on the basis of the main statutes of the city of Jena. It is an „independent representation of the interests of all people with a migration background in Jena, strengthens their right to participation and makes recommendations for municipal action and decision-making.“ The advisory board is a „consultative body“ and is elected for 5 years at a time on the basis of the main statutes. It is an „independent representation of the interests of all people with a migration background in Jena, strengthens their right to participate and makes recommendations for municipal actions and decisions.“

How successful the advisory board has been in improving the living situations and political participation of migrants in recent decades remains to be seen. Rea Mauersberger is rather critical of the city council’s actual acceptance and still speaks of a „token function“.

Migranetz Thüringen, Screenshot

Text: Carsta Langner

Further reading:

  • Alexopoulou, Maria: Deutschland und die Migration. Geschichte einer Einwanderungsgesellschaft wider Willen, Ditzingen 2020. 
  • Foroutan, Naika/ Karakayalı, Juliane/ Spielhaus, Riem (Hg.): Postmigrantische Perspektiven. Ordnungssysteme, Repräsentationen, Kritik, Frankfurt, New York 2018. 
  • Hunger, Uwe/ Candan, Menderes: Politisches Engagement von Migranten in Vereinen und Verbänden, in: Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 4/2014, pp. 137-141.