Herbert Leuninger (3rd from right) gives a press conference on 8 September 1986 in the grounds of the Hesse communal accommodation centre in Schwalbach (Main-Taunus District). He has gone on a hunger strike to get proper housing for the 147 asylum seekers staying provisionally in 19 tents. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa | Thelen

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.