AGAINST a background of anti-foreigner rioting in many cities and towns of former East Germany, pressure is building for a change in the federal republic's policy of giving asylum to virtually unlimited numbers of refugees.
Senior figures in the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) appear to be edging toward conditional acceptance of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's call for a change in the liberal asylum law enshrined in the Constitution.
"We disagree with Mr. Kohl's motives for wanting to tighten up the asylum law," the official said, "but something must be done to curb the anti-foreigner sentiment now sweeping Germany."
He acknowledged, however, that many rank-and-file SPD members were opposed to a change in Germany's asylum law. "There is going to be a lot of argument before we can hope to get solid support for an amendment to the Constitution," he said.
The official was speaking after a weekend of spreading violence in more than a dozen cities in eastern Germany as extreme right-wing protesters, shouting "Germany for the Germans" and "Foreigners out" attacked refugee hostels with fire-bombs. Steel tensions
The worst incident was at Eisenhuttenstadt, a drab steel town of 50,000 east of Berlin, where right-wing gangs attacking a refugee center had to be beaten back by police equipped with a water canon and truncheons.
The center is the main reception facility for asylum applicants crossing into Germany from Poland. It was built to house about 1,000 people, but at the time of last weekend's attack it contained more than double that number.
In the Weissensee district of Berlin last weekend, vandals knocked down gravestones at the Adass Jisroel Jewish cemetery. A week earlier right-wing gangs desecrated a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Hermann Lutz, chairman of the German Police Federation, warned last weekend of "a brushfire of violence" unless citizens in the eastern cities could be persuaded that measures were being taken to combat "social strife."
Police officials said that the worst rioting was occurring in places where unemployment was running as high as 50 percent.
"A pattern appears to be developing," a senior Berlin police officer said. "Fairly small groups of right-wing demonstrators are bussed to east German cities and are joined by local youths with a grievance against refugees. In Eisenhuttenstadt there was a hard core of about 150 troublemakers. Most of the local youths are unemployed and see the foreigners as the reason for their situation."
The officer added that in the Eisenhuttenstadt violence, many local citizens stood by and cheered as fire bombs were hurled at a refugee reception center. This happened also in rioting late last month in the eastern German port of Rostock, another center of high unemployment.
Speaking after the Rostock violence, Chancellor Kohl said "asylum abuse" was a root cause of the troubles. Noting that up to 500,000 refugees were expected in Germany this year, mostly from eastern Europe, he called for urgent measures to change Article 16 of the Constitution, which offers asylum-seekers an "open door" into the federal republic. Opposition blams Kohl
Leading SDP politicians, however, dispute Kohl's analysis and accuse his center-right coalition of mishandling reunification.
Karl-Heinz Blessing, the SPD's parliamentary floor leader, said Monday that the government had misjudged the financial cost of reunification and "raised expectations too high" in eastern Germany. The result had been "serious social unrest" that threatened to get worse if firm action were not taken.
Berlin offers numerous illustrations of the disparities in united Germany's economy. A 15-minute walk eastward from the Brandenburg Gate up the Unter den Linden, the main boulevard of former East Berlin, is like a stroll through a time machine. The well-maintained buildings and parks of western Berlin rapidly give way to gloomy office blocks and scatterings of poorly-tended shrubs and trees.
Along Friedrichstrasse, a main east Berlin thoroughfare, poorly- dressed men and women loiter near seedy food stations. A cafe worker says one in three people in the district is out of work. He says he agreed with those who called for a change in the asylum law, but adds: "It would help if more money were available for investment" in eastern Germany.
Evidence suggests that neo-Nazi gangs and other right-wing groups are taking advantage of economic deprivation in eastern Germany to spread their message of racial hatred while politicians in Bonn and Berlin wrangle over how to pay for the ballooning cost of reunification. Kohl's challenge
Kohl faces a tough fight if he is to persuade parliament to change Germany's asylum laws, an SDP official in Berlin said.
The official noted that Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), agreed Tuesday that the asylum law needed revision. He pointed out, however, that Kohl could not secure a constitutional amendment without a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
"This means that he needs SDP backing for such a move, and there will be a price for our support," the official said.
A CDU source said a change to the asylum law would require a redefinition of refugee status.
"Many people arrive here claiming to be political refugees when in reality they are looking for a better life. We need to make a sharper legal distinction between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants," the source said.