Bosnian Refugees May Have to Exit Germany

Decision might oust 320,000 by summer

FOREIGN policy driven by domestic considerations is often thought of as an American specialty. But Germany has recently shown that it too can play the game.

Although NATO has yet to fully deploy all of its 60,000-strong Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia, German authorities are already starting to plan for the repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of Bosnian refugees here. And ''compassion fatigue'' has clearly set in as state and local governments are feeling the financial pinch of supporting some 320,000 Bosnian refugees.

This desire for swift repatriation has put Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel under some pressure in his dealings with the other members of the ''contact group'' (Britain, US, Russia, and France) and the Bosnian government. Countries involved in the peace process want to ensure that reconstruction in that war-ravaged country continues apace if the refugees are to truly return home.

In a visit to Sarajevo earlier this week, Mr. Kinkel had to reassure Bosnian officials that Bonn understood ''that the right conditions have to be created'' before repatriations can take place. ''We aren't going to put anyone out on the street,'' he added.

The Bosnian officials had reason to be concerned: The conference of German interior ministers (IMK), which is responsible for asylum and refugee questions, has decided not to renew the ''general ban on deportations'' to Bosnia when it runs out March 31. This is the legal provision, in place since 1992 and repeatedly renewed, under which Bosnians have been allowed to remain here as war refugees. Technically, with the ban lapsed, deportations could begin July 1.

But in Hamburg, Peter Kelch, spokesman for the conference, protests what he characterizes as an ''incorrect interpretation'' of the ministers' decision. He adds that the ministers have called on the federal interior minister, Manfred Kanther, to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the European Union to ensure proper ''basic conditions'' before compulsory repatriations of Bosnian refugees occur.

Stefan Teloken, spokesman for the UNHCR here, says the UN was ''not very happy with this early decision'' by the IMK on the ban before a special UNHCR conference on the subject to be held in Geneva Jan. 15-16. But the decision was not unexpected, he adds. Germany has more Bosnian refugees than all the other EU countries combined. Of these, approximately 30,000 are applying for asylum, according to Mr. Teloken. Most of the rest are in Germany on a six-month ''toleration permit,'' but up to 40 percent have a ''residence permit,'' valid for one or two years. In most of these cases, the individual is not on public assistance - a sensitive point here, where a family of four can receive up to $3,500 a month in welfare payments.

In fact, Johannes Gerster, a senior member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Party, on Tuesday suggested that welfare to refugees be replaced with a financial incentive for them to return home. Kinkel called this proposal unhelpful.

After decades of experience with ''guest workers,'' asylum-seekers, and ethnic Germans returning from eastern Europe, Germany still has trouble seeing itself as an ''immigration country.'' It has taken in some 8 percent of Bosnia's prewar population of about 4 million.

Referring to the 1.2 million displaced refugees within Bosnia, Amke Dietert-Scheuer, a member of the Greens in the Bundestag, has urged that ''these internal refugees need to be dealt with first. They still have people living in tents. In the present situation, things simply aren't ready for the refugees to return.''

Those claiming individual persecution may still apply for asylum, though the criteria has been sharply tightened.

Teloken estimates that the refugees' return will take about two years, with the bulk of them not leaving before 1997. ''The return of the refugees is a crucial element of the peace plan - but if it is done too soon, it can be a destabilizing factor,'' he says. Any plans for repatriation ''are very much subject to developments on the ground,'' he adds.

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