Herbert Leuninger was the co-founder and charismatic spokesperson of PRO ASYL, the mind behind the PRO ASYL movement when asylum law was at risk of abolition in Germany in 1993. He dedicated his life to defending refugees and human rights. Herbert Leuninger died in Limburg on 28 July 2020 at the age of 87.
“When the government and authorities no longer do their damned duty it is up to the citizens to demand respect for human rights. This is not a private hobby, this is a public responsibility,” said Herbert Leuninger in 2011.
In the tradition of resistance
Leuninger’s life and work was profoundly marked by the knowledge of what it meant to live in a society in which barbarism and injustice prevail. When the National Socialists came to power he was still a child. His parents, Alois and Elisabeth Leuninger, had anti-Nazi convictions and his uncle Franz Leuninger was a Christian trade unionist and active in the resistance to the Nazi regime; he was hanged in Berlin-Plötzensee prison on 1 March 1945. Herbert Leuninger belonged to a generation that understood the fight for human rights as a matter of life and death.
He became a Catholic priest and devoted himself in his work to those deprived of their voice and their rights – the refugees. From 1972 to 1992 Leuninger was the migration officer of the bishop of Limburg.
“Going hungry for housing”
Herbert Leuninger, the founder, did not attend the founding ceremony of PRO ASYL – he was on a hunger strike because of the inhumane conditions in the tent accommodation for asylum seekers. On 8 September, the day PRO ASYL was founded, he was fasting and wanted to stay in the camp until the refugees’ tents were removed.
The protest bore fruit: five days later the tents were taken down.
Founding of PRO ASYL
The human rights organisation PRO ASYL was founded by Leuninger together with Jürgen Micksch and other human rights activists from churches, unions, associations and refugee initiatives. He was the spokesperson of the organisation until 1994 and then, until 1998, its director of European affairs.
In the early 1990s, Germany was shaken by racist attacks on migrants and asylum seekers. They were flanked by an ugly, inhumane and anti-refugee debate, which made its way even into the federal parliament in Bonn. The right to asylum was to be largely abolished.
The struggle for the right to asylum
In 1992 and 1993 PRO ASYL mobilised a large-scale campaign to preserve the right to asylum according to Article 16 Basic Law (German constitution). On 3 October 1992, well over 100,000 people demonstrated in Bonn’s Hofgarten against racism and for the basic right to asylum.
Herbert Leuninger said the final words, which he recalled as follows: “In short sentences I took the mickey out of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (intelligence service). They bothered about a lot of other things, I said, but not the constitution. That was why we citizens were called upon to take direct action. I yelled staccato into the microphone: WE-ARE-THE-CONSTITUTION-PROTECTION!
On 26 May 1993 Leuninger was also in the huge crowd that blocked the federal parliament in Bonn. The MPs were only able to enter the building by means of a landing stage on the Rhine. The protest was in vain: the federal parliament amended the basic right to asylum. Only a few days later, on 5 June 1993, speaking at at a solidarity rally in Solingen after the rightwing extremist murder of five members of the Genç family, Leuninger warned, “Politicians and policies that flirt with the far right will lead us to disaster!”
Leuninger fought racism and rightwing extremist violence, denouncing a political establishment that repeatedly failed to overcome it. One year after the curtailing of the basic right to asylum he described the new asylum policy as “concentrated DE” – deselection, deportation, deterrence.
Herbert Leuninger did not lose heart in face of the curtailing of the basic right. After the vain struggle to uphold a basic right based on the experience of Nazi dictatorship he pointed the way forward: PRO ASYL had to confront the European challenge. Protecting the right to asylum was at stake in Europe, indeed worldwide. The Geneva Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights had to be defended: it was a matter of maintaining access to the right to asylum. Shortly before his death he asked for a report on the efforts and projects of PRO ASYL in Greece and at the European Union’s external borders.
Leuninger’s achievements were honoured on several occasions, e.g. in 1991 with the Wilhelm Leuschner Medal of the Hesse state government and in 1998 with the Walter and Marianne Dirks Prize (together with his brother Ernst Leuninger).
We mourn a great human being and an irreplaceable champion of the rights of refugees. Our sympathy goes to his family.