“I am human. Do not mark me with a number on my wrist.” These words are uttered by my friend Bahjat Al-Mostafa, a Syrian refugee and software engineer who is forced to wear this wristband at all times to gain access to his refugee camp in Germany.
Bahjat told me about his camp located on the outskirts of Berlin, in the borough of Spandau, when I met him on a recent research trip to Germany. Thousands of asylum seekers are living in the Spandau camp, which was erected overnight in an old tobacco factory. It still smells vaguely of cigarettes. Old conveyor belts and machinery haunt the abandoned factory that Bahjat tentatively calls home.
While Bahjat is grateful to be among the nearly one million refugees welcomed into Germany, he is concerned with the conditions inside camps.
As these makeshift spaces become more crowded, many problems are emerging. Bahjat highlights the lack of privacy, limited food, and poor sanitation infrastructure. It is not unusual, he says, to wait in line 45 minutes for the toilet.
One issue that has received scant public debate in Germany is how asylum seekers are forced to wear numbered wristbands to gain access to their camps. Bahjat has been forced to wear a wristband since arriving in Berlin four months ago.
It has recently come to international media attention that asylum seekers are being forced to wear similar wristbands in Cardiff, Wales. Clearsprings Ready Home, a private firm contracted by the Home Office to accommodate newly arrived asylum seekers in Cardiff, has now promised to stop enforcing the use of wristbands.
Banning ID bands is an important step, but critical attention and action must be cast more widely, as this issue is not confined to Cardiff.
The broader problem is how asylum seekers are being "welcomed" and "accommodated" globally. In an increasingly privatized asylum regime, companies are profiting off the plight of people forced to move under precarious conditions. While one private company in Cardiff may drop objectionable policies, similar practices persist elsewhere. Inhumane governing strategies are crossing borders more effortlessly than many people. We need to address how appalling strategies like the refugee wristband are spreading, or we will end up with mere band-aid solutions.
Much like in Cardiff, without the numbered wristband asylum seekers in Germany are denied entry into their camp. Bahjat is one of many refugees who will be wearing the wristband for many days and months as he waits for permanent residency. As he gestures at his wrist, I think to myself how I have only ever voluntarily worn such a plastic band for a few hours to attend events such as musical festivals and conferences — celebratory and well-managed gatherings that seem a world apart from the reality of Bahjat's refugee camp.
Bahjat acknowledges that identifying asylum seekers in camps is necessary, but he insists that "it is unnecessary for this information to take the form of a wristband."
Some camps in Germany print identification on a piece of paper that refugees carry on their person. Camps like the one Bahjat is currently housed in, however, have opted to mark refugees with a wristband inscribed with thick black pen as this saves minor printing costs for the private firms managing temporary shelters.
Saving a small amount of money on printing ends up costing asylum seekers their basic humanity. As Bahjat says, “I feel like an animal when I wear this number on my body.” Shaking his head in disapproval, he says that when he walks around Berlin, he feels marked as less than human. As long as he and other refugees are required to wear this wristband, he says, integration into "normal" life is impossible.
While Germany has been celebrated as a leader within Europe in terms of its reception of refugees, more work is required to ensure that it is a dignified form of hospitality. Banning the use of refugee wristbands, not just in Cardiff but everywhere, is one small but vital step in this direction.