West Berlin -- with economic recession, unemployment, and a body of foreigners that already constitutes more than 10 percent of the population -- is again groping for ways to handle the flood of immigrants.
The diversity enriches the city, as the ubiquitous Turkish groceries and restaurants attest. But the rapidly growing influx of new asylum seekers -- 600 in May, 1,600 in June, close to 2,000 in July -- also burdens that welfare budget and could strain the social tolerance of Germans used to living in an overwhelming German city.
At present there are 10,000 and 12,000 asylum applicants in West Berlin, of five times the number of beds in refugee homes the city maintains. Schools and empty buildings have had to be requisitioned to house the newcomers, and West Berlin is even planning to build camps to take the overflow.
Four years ago the long lines outside the aliens' registration office began worrying West Berlin. In a nation haunted by the memory of rejection of Hitler's dispossessed Jews by one country after another, the right of asylum was a central one, enshrined in the Constitution. But it led to growing problems for the host cities.
As the liberality of West German asylum became known, especially among Pakistanis, many would-be immigrants began coming here seeking not a new political, but a new economic, life. This at least was the finding of administrators and judges, who disqualified almost 85 percent of applicants.
West Berlin quickly became a favorite point of entry, since Asians could get cheap flights to East Berlin via Moscow, then simply take the subway to the land of promise. A regular business sprang up, with agents getting a $1,600 "commission" for procuring plane tickets and personal documents. Applicants could count on West German welfare payments and could stay in this country until their cases were decided -- a process that with appeals could easily take six years.
The numbers swelled. The 16,400 asylum seekers of 1977 jumped to 107,800 last year in West Germany as a whole. West Germany stanched the flow somewhat by requiring visas for Turks, Indians, Bangladeshi, and some other citizens and banning employment for newcomers for 12 months.
And for a time West Berlin stanched its own flow by instituting a quick screening process to separate the real political refugees from the most obvious economic refugees. Those who were clearly ineligible for political asylum were deported to their home countries with a free air ticket and $100 cash. The middlemen got the message, and the influx of newcomers slowed.
In May of this year, however, the West German Federal Constitutional (Supreme) Court declared fast screening unconstitutional in the absence of any federal law authorizing the practice. This news spread rapidly, and with no new law likely before the end of this year, West Berlin is experiencing a new deluge of would-be immigrants.
This time the Sri Lankans -- usually coming from the Tamil minority -- are the most numerous. They are followed by Pakistanis, Ghanaians, and Arabs.
A new category of refugees that could increase, given current hardship at home, is Poles. The numbers are still relatively low, 600 in the first five mon ths of 1981 (up from 400 in the entire year of 1980).