Western countries must take responsibility!

Dr. Sunny Omwenyeke in conversation with denkhausbremen about climate change as a reason for flight, his work to empower refugees to fight for their rights and the responsibility of Western countries to work on their colonial history and the damage they have created across Africa. Sunny Omwenyeke is a long-term activist of the refugee movement in Germany and founder of the Bremen Solidarity Center (BreSoC) e.V. (photo: Ana Rodriguez).

denkhausbremen: What does climate justice mean to you? 

Sunny Omwenyeke: To me, climate justice would be a situation where countries that are most responsible for all the mess in our climate take more responsibility, where they are held accountable. Those are essentially the Western countries that have such a long record of exploiting and devastating many other countries – simply because they want to maintain their standard of living here. These countries are inconsiderate and greedy.

If the Global North is serious about addressing climate justice, for me that would mean to pay something back to other countries they have destroyed. Even as we speak, this destruction continues. It’s time to realize that the people who are not living in these so called Western developed countries also have a right to enjoy exactly the same standard of living. If this is not acknowledged, we are not playing on the same field.

You are the founder of the Bremen Solidarity Center (BreSoC) e.V. Can you describe the work that you are doing? 

Yes. I founded BreSoC in 2017/2018. Before, I studied social movements and advocacy in the UK – apart from being an activist for a very long time in the refugee movement in Germany. My work is basically focused on the grassroots-level. I don’t believe in changes coming from politicians and trickle-down effects. Self-organization, empowerment and solidarity – these are the principles that guide my activities and engagements.

I founded BreSoC, because I felt that in most of the left-wing activism in Germany, there’s always a tendency to go along with the hype on whatever the issue may be. The moment the hype is out, there is no longer any attention to the initial problem – even though it is not solved. This means that at each and every point, you have to start afresh. I felt that refugees especially needed a stable structure on the ground that they can trust and rely on, which facilitates and supports continuous activism. One year after I founded BreSoC, we also started “Together we are Bremen”, previously called “Shut it Down, Gottlieb-Daimler-Straße”, to fight against a refugee camp.

You mean the refugee camp in Bremen-Gröpelingen?

Yes. I was attending a meeting of the Flüchtlingsrat, where a social worker was talking about how great it was to be able to help refugees in this camp. I couldn’t believe what she was saying. This camp was so terrible, and these social workers were seriously thinking they were helping refugees to feel good there and even encouraged them to stay there. I was very annoyed when they wanted to move on to the next item on the agenda. I said, what the hell do you think you are doing? Do you care about what these refugees want? Do you ever ask them? So, we agreed that I should hold a meeting with the refugees from the camp in Gottlieb-Daimler-Straße. That’s what I did – and it was the beginning of „Together we are Bremen“.

So, what did these refugees want?

We had that meeting with about 35 to 40 young African refugees. I introduced myself, where I come from, what I do – and then I wanted to hear from them. Because what most people don’t understand is that when you deal with refugees, you have to create the room for them to talk. Unfortunately, many Germans who work with refugees feel they know “everything” about their situation and overlook the necessity for the conducive room for the refugees to speak. In the end, these guys started to talk and it lasted for over two hours. They described how horrible the conditions were in the camp and how dehumanizing it was to live there.

I said, “Welcome to Germany”. You have talked about how bad it is. Now the question is whether you are ready to fight and change it or if you go back and leave it as it is. I assured them I would be there to guide and support them, but the choice would be theirs in terms of what they want to do. So, I repeated the question and they said they want to fight. From this moment on, it was clear. I said, the decision of what happens to this camp is in your hands – don’t believe any other person telling you something different. They will close this camp if we fight to close it. We met again, started to inform other people and organized a demonstration in the city, with more than 700 participants. It was so powerful to see all these refugees breaking their silence and fighting for their rights. Six months later, against the determination of the former social senator in Bremen, the camp was closed. This is what empowerment can do.

Do you see a connection between your work and the issue of climate justice? Is it part of the discussions that you have with refugees?

Yes. Climate change is definitely a reason why people leave their countries in search for more security and a life in dignity. In the whole of the West African coast, for example, people make a living from agriculture and fishery, which in many cases is no longer possible due to the impacts of climate change. When it comes to climate justice you should keep in mind that it is the fossil fuel industry that causes a lot of emissions that led to the climate crisis, but it also destroys the livelihoods of people and therefore causes migration.

I come from Nigeria, where the oil industry is exploring the oil in the Niger Delta area. If you go to the villages, you will see that the farmlands are totally messed up, the water is polluted and everything is covered with black soot from burning oil pipes. People can’t live in these areas anymore.

However, my perception is that refugees don’t talk very often about the climate crisis and that it had anything to do with their flight. They are more concerned about how to earn money and support their families back home. But in the end, if you put all of these issues together, you can’t look at it apart from climate justice – because climate change is very much at the base of it all.

As climate change is such an important factor, but not a top issue being discussed as a cause of flight – do you think about including it into your strategies to empower refugees? 

Well, if you look at the Geneva Convention, which is the basis of asylum, it is long overdue to revise this document and include climate change as a reason of flight. This issue has been discussed among practitioners, activists, lawyers and policy makers for a long time already. But if you touch on the convention now to include climate change and other factors that are not recognized yet, right-wing political forces will try to change it just in the other direction. There is an attempt to water it down more and more and make it less effective as a binding document for international protection. And that is exactly what many countries, including Germany, have been doing for many years now. At the moment, you could very well argue that the continuous decline of the Geneva Convention as an effective protection tool has culminated in a situation where there is hardly any protection anymore from the EU-level. Politicians are afraid that acknowledging climate change as a cause of flight would open the door for many more refugees to be legally accepted here in Europe. That is exactly what most politicians want to prevent.

What could people and politicians from Bremen do to contribute to global climate justice?

The first thing is to look at the colonial history. Bremen is one of the top cities in colonial business and therefore has a lot of responsibility and accountability that is still pending. So, if local politicians are serious about contributing to climate justice, they would have to deal with this colonial history and to recognize the mess that was created in African countries many, many years ago. This should be the basis for any further discussion on what concrete consequences can be drawn out of this history today. But what I only often hear is something like inviting 10 young people from Namibia or other countries in Africa to study here or whatever. This is a very condescending lip-service, without any substance to it. We don’t need this bloody exchange – we need justice! But you can’t dare bet on it. Bremen also claims to be a “safe harbour”, yet look at refugees in the camp in Bremen. Now they want to add the racist and discriminatory “Bezahlkarte” for refugees to it. That tells you all.

Many people in Germany really think that Africans are poor. They don’t understand that we are not poor. By any standard, we are not poor! Millions and millions of dollars are transferred from African countries to Europe everyday – Europeans are stealing our wealth and resources from us, every single day. We know it, you know it and now it is time to stop it.