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Despite promises, German red tape throttles immigration of Soviet Jews


BERLIN -- A year after united Germany promised a "generous" treatment of Soviet Jews wanting to immigrate here, government rules and bureaucracy have significantly slowed the number of those entering.

Government officials speak of necessary regulations to administer the former flood of asylum-seekers. But some Jewish leaders say Germany now is purposefully excluding Jews who want to come and making life difficult for those who manage to arrive.

"The government just feels trapped into accepting the Jews but really doesn't want them. There's not a generous attitude or attempt to integrate people," said Irene Runge, an assistant professor at the East Berlin Humboldt University and a leading figure in the Jewish community.

Government officials argue that despite a deluge of up to 1 million would-be immigrants this year, they are trying to honor the commitment made by the former East German government to accept unconditionally any Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union.

This policy continued after Germany united in October in recognition of Nazi Germany's role in exterminating 6 million Jews. Officials promised "generous and magnanimous" treatment of Jews seeking to flee the pogrom-like atmosphere in the Soviet Union.

By the end of April, about 7,000 Soviet Jews had taken advantage of the new rules and fled to Germany, giving a healthy boost to the aging local Jewish population of 30,000.

But starting in May, the government imposed strict regulations. Only those Soviet Jews who applied and were accepted through a German consulate in the Soviet Union would be allowed in. Any arriving on a tourist visa and hoping to apply in Germany -- as most had previously done -- would be sent back.

Since then, 16,000 have applied but only 2,000 granted entry. Up to another 1,000 have arrived illegally and are threatened with being sent back.

German officials admit that the number of Jewish refugees has been reduced but say this is inevitable given the need for an orderly immigration.

"The flood has been reduced, but every country has some sort of procedure for accepting entrants. Germany is no different," Interior Ministry spokesman Paul-Johannes Fietz said.

But the rules are unknown to many Jews wanting to leave the Soviet Union, according to Mrs. Runge, who helps many newcomers adjust to life in Germany.

"They think that the former generosity still exists, sell everything and arrive. Then they find that they're here illegally and may be sent back," Mrs. Runge said.

Another change in policy is that the newly arrived Soviet Jews come under normal German refugee procedures, meaning they cannot live where they want and cannot work.

The 2,000 who arrived legally in the four months since the new rules took effect have been divided among Germany's 16 states to live in state-run refugee homes in small towns. All are living on welfare, because as refugees they are not entitled to work.

Barbara John, the Berlin city government's commissioner for foreigners, said most Soviet Jews would like to come to Berlin because of the city's liberal atmosphere and because 4,000 of their compatriots are already here.

"From our point of view, almost all the immigration has stopped. We hardly see any more arrivals," Mrs. John said.

But Mr. Fietz said Germany cannot be expected to accept all Soviet Jews who want to enter. The country already faces an influx this year of 1 million refugees and ethnic Germans returning home. Housing is in short supply and social services overburdened.

In addition, Germany has come under strong criticism from Israel for accepting any Jews at all. This has led Germany to recognize that its role may be to serve as an emergency shelter for threatened Jews but not as a major emigration goal.

"Our policy is that Israel is their homeland, followed by the United States. We come somewhere after," Mr. Fietz said.

But Mrs. Runge said the government is afraid of antagonizing the growing far-right groups in eastern Germany. Recently, for example, the interior minister said he wanted to reduce the number of refugees to hinder the growth of right-wing extremism, which wins points by blaming many of Germany's social ills on foreigners.

"Racism thrives on ignorance. We don't need fewer foreigners and Jews but more. Instead of trying to make it as difficult as possible for the Jews to come, the government should be opening its doors," Mrs. Runge said.

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