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Germany's lower house votes today on scrapping law for asylum seekers


BERLIN -- The German Parliament's lower house -- driven by economic hard times and the violence they have spawned against foreigners -- votes today on a tough new law that would erase one of the most liberal asylum policies in postwar Europe.

Fueled by widespread popular support, the new legislation tightening up controls on refugees and emigres is virtually certain to be passed by the Bundestag, the lower house of the Parliament, and go on to the upper house for final ratification Friday.

The vote creates an acute political dilemma for the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is split on the issue, with about one-third of its 259-person parliamentary delegation opposed to tightening the law.

Given the popular clamor for tighter restrictions on asylum seekers, the SPD leadership has agreed to go along with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling coalition, and in a party meeting yesterday, enough Social Democrats appeared ready to follow.

"If we upset the asylum compromise, we might as well not run next year," said Hans-Ulrich Klose, the SPD parliamentary leader, referring to next year's nationwide elections that include the race for chancellor.

In Bonn, where the vote takes place, police expect more than 10,000 people -- 3,000 of them "violence-ready" -- to demonstrate against passage of the asylum legislation. Close to 4,000 extra police will be on hand.

The new law would reverse the open-door policy that has made Germany a magnet for refugees and economic migrants from as far away as Sri Lanka and southern Africa.

Germany's liberal asylum law reflected the Nazi era and the country's postwar reconstruction.

Many anti-Nazi Germans, including the late Willy Brandt, longtime SPD leader, found asylum during World War II.

After the war, Germans fled as refugees from lands ceded to Russia and Poland. But with the high rates of unemployment in eastern Germany and the resentment that has built up against foreign workers, polls regularly report the asylum problem is one of the major concerns of Germans voters.

In 1992, 438,191 asylum seekers entered Germany. The numbers continue to rise and a new record is likely in 1993.

In the first four months of this year, 161,320 new asylum seekers rTC arrived in Germany, 30 percent more than last year.

Most asylum seekers this year come from east or southeast Europe, including 47,602 Romanians (mostly Gypsys who are widely disliked in Germany), 30,300 refugees from the former Yugoslavia, 16,421 Bulgarians, 7,243 people from the former Soviet Union and 8,109 Turks.

At the moment Germany shelters 220,000 refugees from Yugoslavia alone.

After screening, 95 percent of asylum seekers are rejected, but the present process takes years, during which the refugees are supported by the government.

Foreigners are routinely blamed for the rising crime rate. Crime consistently turns up in polls as the thing Germans fear most.

Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters confirmed these fears a week ago when he declared that 30 percent of the country's crime was committed by non-Germans.

The new asylum law, in fact, was triggered by the rash of anti-foreigner attacks and the firebombing of asylum shelters by right-wing hooligans.

The authorities immediate response was to limit the number of asylum seekers.

A crackdown on radical right extremists did not come until a couple of months later.

The new law would make it difficult for even genuine asylum seekers to enter Germany. Opponents say it makes asylum all but impossible.

The law speeds up both the screening and expulsion process. A list of "repression-free" countries has been drawn up. No one can claim asylum from those countries.

All the countries bordering Germany are on the list, and asylum seekers coming to Germany from these "secure" countries would be sent back immediately.

Poland and the Czech Republic complained about this aspect of the law. A deal has been cut with Poland, but not yet with the Czechs.

SPD parliamentarians have sought to add a judicial hearing to the process but have been rebuffed by Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats. The Christian Democrats view the law as a strong vote-getter.

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