WorldSpace (WeltRaum) WorldSpace (WeltRaum)

Urban migration history

Since 2015, WeltRaum („World-Space“) has become an important meeting place for refugees in the city centre. Previously, it was home to the One World Shop; today, various initiatives are based there, such as the Refugee Law Clinic, which advises refugees on legal issues. In WeltRaum, refugees and Germans work together, exchange ideas and solve problems. Refugees also get involved themselves - like Ibrahim Othman from Syria, who has been working in WeltRaum for a long time, now as a full-time volunteer, and who is a member of the migration advisory board

At this stop we change our angle: racism was and is not only a problem of radical right-wing youth subcultures on the fringes of (urban) society. Racism permeates the entire city: it shapes the way migrants are treated in the authorities, encountered on the street or in public transport. This is no different today than it was in the early nineties. Refugees or people who are involved in asylum work, for example, know the struggles with the foreigners’ registration authorities who do not process applications or make arbitrary decisions.

But a lot has changed since the upheaval. There is a growing civil society, including initiatives by migrants themselves. East Germany is predominantly considered to have a weak civil society, and migrants are mainly seen as victims of discrimination and violence in the „brown East“. That is why it is important to report not only on fear zones and safe spaces, but also on spaces for action and anti-racist engagement.

Criticism of the conditions, inner-city debates and struggles of migrants through civil society brought the issue to the centre of the city. In the nineties, the struggle was for former „contract workers“, right to remain, for humane housing and the rights of refugees, against the backdrop of racist discrimination and violence. 

Migrant spaces in the GDR

Meanwhile, more than ten percent of the resident population in Jena has a history of migration: Jena is thus becoming a city built on immigration.

In GDR times, things were different. At that time, at most one percent of so-called „foreigners“ lived in Jena, and the migrant spaces were small. Even then, people from different countries studied in the university city. In addition, there were political emigrants from Chile and, as they were called at the time, „foreign workers“ especially from Vietnam, around 4,000 people who worked at Zeiss, Schott or Jenapharm; pictures of them can be found in company newspapers.

Der Glasmacher, Glaswerk GmbH company newspaper, 21 July 1982, SCHOTT Archive

Even at that time, there were people who developed an understanding for migration politics through involvement in the non-governmental solidarity movement - in Jena, for example, Franziska Rohner belonged to the Nicaragua Solidarity group.

In general, however, the gap widened between the claim of  „international solidarity“ in the GDR and the way migration was dealt with on the ground. For example, the promise of education was by no means always kept. „Foreign workers“ were often used for unskilled labour. But even for academics, life in the GDR sometimes turned out differently than expected. Sana Al-Mudhaffar’s story is one example of this.

So I said: No! This is your idea of solidarity?

Sana Al-Mudhaffar fled Iraq as a member of the communist resistance against Saddam Hussein. She came to the GDR together with her husband in 1980.

The government had offered them both not only safe refuge, but also the prospect of a doctorate. Sana Al-Mudhaffar is an economist, her husband a pharmacist. When she became pregnant, the promise proved to be null and void. The Berlin authorities - she had wanted to do a doctorate at the Berlin School of Economics - told her that she could stay, but that the child would have to leave the country as soon as it was born.

From one moment to the next, her plans for a future in the GDR were shattered - even though Al-Mudhaffar was a convinced communist. Looking back, she is still outraged:

No day care place, no apartment, no room, no right to remain. No right to remain! The child must leave the GDR! And so I said: No! Is that your idea of solidarity?

Interview with Sana Al-Mudhaffar, 24.06.2021

Original soundbite Sana Al-Mudhaffar

So the family decided to leave the country again. Suddenly, however, Jenapharm demanded Al-Mudhaffar's husband stay, because his expertise as a pharmacist was needed. And suddenly, their child was also allowed to stay.

In 1983, the family moved to Jena, Sana Al-Mudhaffar's husband did research at Jenapharm, and she herself got a job at the company. She was however never to do a doctorate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, her language skills brought her to asylum counselling, and she worked for the initiative Asyl e. V. (Citizens' Initiative for Asylum) for many years. Today she is one of the most knowledgeable experts on asylum and migration policy in Jena. 


Migration after 1989/90

After 1990, the situation in East Germany changed abruptly and permanently - also in Jena. Asylum seekers from various countries came to the city, from Eastern Europe as well as from African countries. Russian ethnic German repatriates lived in the city alongside Jewish quota refugees.

The „foreign workers“ from Vietnam were suddenly legally regarded as so-called „contract workers“ (hence the term „contract workers“ used today) and were threatened with deportation. Only in 1997 and after many struggles did they receive the right to remain.

Former »contract workers« struggle for the right to remain

Contract workers were not supposed to have any prospects of staying in Germany. Their residence status became as fragile as the status of refugees.

Those who stayed were pushed to the edge of illegality and were in dire need of advocacy. In Jena, Ngan Neumann, who was married to a German and had come to the GDR as a student, and Franziska Rohner decided to support this group. 

In the spring of 1992, Rohner, who had already been active in the non-governmental solidarity movement in the GDR, described the current situation in the city: the Vietnamese community had dwindled to less than one hundred people. They no longer lived in dormitories, but spread out across the city, trading in cigarettes or textiles.

The living conditions were catastrophic, and market trading was „determined by great caution and fear of raids and harassment,“ according to a situation report compiled by Rohner.

Report „On the situation of Vietnamese in Jena“, spring 1992, private collection Franziska Rohner

At the beginning of October 1992, when a  „Go or Stay“ event, as part of the „Week of the Foreign Fellow Citizen,“ provided information about the residency conditions for Vietnamese, Ngan Neumann demanded a fundamental right to remain for the community members.

The background was a cabinet decision in September of the same year, which limited the right to remain to the end of January 1993.

Ostthüringer Zeitung (OTZ), 30 September 1992

So-called „contract workers“` struggle for the right to remain was led by different actors on state and federal level. It was not until 1997 that they were successful.

Collection of signatures  „Permanent right to remain for former GDR contract workers“, December 1995, private collection Franziska Rohner

The beginning of the  »No Hostel« debate

The situation for those seeking asylum in East Germany was equally dramatic. According to the Unification Treaty, the new Länder had to take in one-fifth of all asylum seekers.

Unlike in the West, there were no structures of any kind in the East, no long-standing experience in dealing with asylum, no asylum policy lobby. The adoption of West German asylum law, which was drastically restricted in 1993 by the asylum compromise, was an experiment with many unknowns. This led to excessive demands on everyone involved and, above all, catastrophic conditions in the reception centres and housing.

In Jena, the controversy over asylum seekers and the rooms they should be granted flared up in 1992.

No Hostel

How stereotypes linked crime with migration

It was not only the neighbourhood residents who protested against housing on the grounds of a student dormitory in Zwätzen. The early „No Hostel“ protests were also initiated by students. When Mayor Dietmar Haroske wanted to inform them about the „new neighbours“ at a local event, he was not met by an open-minded young generation, but by a lot of scepticism and questions about „how their cars and other belongings would be insured against theft in the future if asylum seekers from the former Soviet Union, Romania, Yugoslavia, Turkey and some African countries [...] were to be their neighbours“ . Stereotypes linked crime to migration. 


How would their cars and other belongings be insured against theft in future if asylum seekers from the former Soviet Union, Romania, Yugoslavia, Turkey and some African states [...] were to be their neighbours.

With the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in the early summer of 1992, the supposed problem found a problematic solution: the reception centre was opened in the former barracks in the Jena Forest, secluded in the woods. Fortunately, neo-Nazis did not make it up there; there were no attacks. Nevertheless, many refugees found life in this housing, fenced in with barbed wire, hard to bear.

The situation in the Jena Forest became a long-standing battle between those politically responsible and activists such as the association Asyl e.V., Amnesty International or the migrant self-organised group The Voice

They all campaigned for better living conditions, but also for basic rights: for the abolition of the residence obligation, or the right to work. Franziska Rohner wrote an open and very forceful letter to Mayor Haroske in March 1992 :

Fences and walls, mass accommodation, as far away as possible – how is anyone meant to realise that p e o p l e live there?

There was barbed wire around it to 'protect' the inhabitants.

Excerpt from an interview with Franziska Rohner on the Central Reception Center for Asylum Seekers in Jena Forest, 2021

In 2001, two young women, Dorothea Appenroth and Sylke Zitzmann, exposed the conditions in the Jena Forest in a photo exhibition. 


Photos of the reception centre in the Jena Forest, 2001, private collection/photos: Dorothea Appenroth, Sylke Zitzmann

Photos of the initial reception centre in the Jena Forest

Appenroth and Zitzmann photographed the barbed wire and the barred windows, the dilapidated rooms and carelessly packed food packages, the unhygienic conditions in the kitchens and the full bin bags in the hallways.

But they also captured the messages on the walls: fantasies of an undivided world and, again and again, the sticker„No human is illegal“. 

The exhibition, a cooperation between The Voice, the  „Ausländerbeirat“ (Foreign Residents’ Committee) and the Refugee Council, was shown in the university's main building in 2001 and was reinstalled in the city's town hall in 2022.

Safe Church

It was a long way from the forest, where the first reception centre for „asylum seekers“ was located, to the city centre - literally and figuratively. In 1994, the city church drew attention from across the region by granting asylum to Armenian Christians; this is another example of how the topic of migration was brought back into Jena city centre.

Church Asylum 1994

The church asylum was organised by the Protestant regional church, in a cooperation with the registered societies Asyl (Asylum) and Eine-Welt-Haus (One World House).

In a statement from September 1994, the regional church council compared the action to protests in GDR times:

But if, despite formal legitimacy, citizens consider a state decision to be ethically illegitimate, they must have the opportunity to act according to their conscience. The church stands up for this now just as it did in the GDR.

Tents were pitched in the church hall for several families, and a portable toilet was erected next to the altar. The religious space became, as Franziska Rohner recounts in the interview, a „small village“.

Samvel Babayan, himself an Armenian Christian who already had a humanitarian residence permit and an apartment in Jena, helped his compatriots. At night, he sometimes guided them to his apartment to take a shower.

Other Jena citizens also came by and brought what was needed: An early form of urban welcome culture. A handout explained the situation of those in the church to the wider public:

Statement by members of the Citizens' Initiative for Asylum and Christians of the Jena church congregations on church asylum, private collection Franziska Rohner

Nevertheless, the church asylum was not a turning point, but, as Rohner characterises it, an event in itself. The widespread scepticism, the everyday racism, the discrimination, and attacks from the right hardly changed. 


By raising awareness of migrants’ living conditions, they could also be criticised. And by disputing or even fighting over migration policy issues in Jena, these became more central to city life and politics.

Nevertheless: Migrant living environments in the city are still unknown and unfamiliar to many citizens of Jena.

Migrant living conditions, the urban struggles around migration, and the struggles against racism can only be partially reconstructed from the sources we found. The picture remains incomplete and will never be fully pieced together, not least because we lack sources. Even today, racism goes unnoticed or undocumented far too often - and cannot thus be criticised.

Text: Franka Maubach


Further Reading: 

Katja Illgen: Fremd in Thüringen? Vietnamesisches Leben in Deutschland und in Vietnam, Ausländerbeauftragte in Thüringen (Ed.), Erfurt 2007.