BERLIN -- German legislators voted yesterday to close the country to most people seeking asylum.
Faced with a gantlet of angry protesters, the members of parliament used police patrol boats and helicopters to get them past about 10,000 hooting demonstrators who blocked streets leading to the parliament building on the banks of the Rhine River in Bonn.
As the protesters scuffled sporadically with about 4,000 police outside the besieged parliament, members debated the tough new asylum law for more than 13 hours before voting about 10 p.m.
The Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, voted 521 to 132 for the new law. That was considerably more than the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitutional provision guaranteeing asylum rights. The law will go to the upper house of parliament tomorrow, where final ratification is considered certain.
Designed to cut off a flood of asylum seekers that threatened to exceed 500,000 this year, the new law, if enacted, would take effect July 1, virtually closing the German border to asylum-seekers, who previously were allowed to come into the country while their cases were considered.
Any refugee who comes from a country that Germany considers free of persecution would be immediately sent home. Many of the foreigners seeking asylum have come from Romania and Bulgaria, and those two countries are on the list that Germany now considers free of persecution. In addition, refugees who arrive at German borders will be refused entry.
Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters told parliament that asylum-seekers would only be sent back to countries where there is "no danger of torture or inhumane treatment."
Noting the growing anxiety among Germans over the enormous influx of foreigners, and the violent reaction in many cases, Mr. Seiters said: "The German people are afraid. We must calm their fears."
The victory was virtually assured Tuesday night when 132 Social Democratic Party members voted to abide by an agreement with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling coalition and support the new law. A majority of the Social Democrats voted for the bill yesterday.
Over the last 15 years, 10 efforts to change the asylum law have failed. But since the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the subsequent lifting of travel restrictions in many countries, the flow of asylum-seekers into Germany has become so great that the opposition Social Democrats finally agreed to support tighter controls.
To do otherwise in the face of the public clamor against foreigners was regarded as suicidal for any party heading into next year's nationwide elections.
The constitutional provision overturned by the Bundestag allowed admission to the country to almost anyone who could say the word "asylum."
They often stayed years while their asylum claims were processed.
The provision was regarded practically as sacred writ. Many in the postwar government had been opponents of the Nazis and seekers of political asylum from other countries. They wrote the 1949 constitution that created the world's most liberal asylum policy.
Many of the demonstrators on the streets of Bonn and many of the liberal and left politicians inside the parliament building argued that the right to asylum was one of the pillars of postwar Germany democracy.
They saw passage of the new law as a capitulation to the new radical right in Germany. In fact, the first member of parliament from the extreme right-wing Republikaner Party spoke out against asylum during yesterday's debate.
More than 2 million refugees have entered the country since 1989 when the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe began to crumble. They cost Germany billions of dollars every year. Moreover, the difficult economic times, especially in eastern Germany, have led to resentment against foreigners and displays of anti-foreigner violence reminiscent of the Nazi period.
Demands for curbs on asylum rights came as the immediate response to the wave of anti-foreigner attacks that surged through Germany beginning with the arson of an asylum home in Rostock in August.
But the attitude against foreigners was not confined to neo-Nazis. With 70 percent of the population demanding some kind of tightening of the current law, "unregulated immigration endangers the stability of democracy and only serves right-wing rabble-rousers," said Social Democratic leader Hans-Ulrike Klose.
Germany pays about $6 billion a year to care for asylum-seekers. A second bill under consideration yesterday cut by 25 percent the benefits paid to refugees, which currently average about $250 a month plus meals and housing for a family of four.
Until the fall of the Berlin, only a few thousand people a year sought asylum in Germany. The unification extended the borders with the Czech Republic and with Poland, opening the door to a flood of asylum-seekers from the former Soviet bloc, and from as far away as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
Last year 438,191 asylum-seekers entered Germany; 161,320 arrived in the first quarter of this year, according to government figures.