THE difficulties Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government is having getting its own coalition partners to concur on proposed changes in Germany's liberal asylum law indicate how sensitive the issue is. At a time of record immigration, continuing violence against foreigners, and immense public demand to "do something," United Nations officials are concerned that proposed legal changes could restrict the rights of those legitimately in need of asylum.
Article 16 of the German Constitution states, in part, that anyone fleeing political persecution enjoys the right of asylum. This guarantee has roots in the not-too-distant past, when, under Hitler, thousands were forced out of the country because of their religious or political beliefs.
Now Chancellor Kohl's conservative Christian Democrats propose replacing this provision in the Constitution with a statement that asylum will be granted under the terms of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, to which Germany is a signatory.
The Geneva Convention defines refugees as only those with a well founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political ideology. Public opinion holds that most of those now seeking asylum would be refused under the Geneva Convention.
"It has been shown, that measures taken hitherto to limit the abuse of the right of asylum have been defeated by realities," says an official statement by Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters.
Under their leader Bjorn Engholm, the Social Democrats are likewise trying to address the issue. Last month a number of their leaders came up with "the Petersburg change," known for the resort where it was worked out: a formula to retain the right of asylum but establish legal immigration, with quotas, as in the United States and elsewhere - something Germany doesn't now have. The Petersburg formula is to be voted on at a special party congress Nov. 17.
The Christian Democrats, however, are planning to bring their constitutional proposals to the full Bundestag next month - before the Social Democrats' party vote, without which, their leaders insist, they will have no party mandate to negotiate with the government.
The Free Democrats, coalition partners with the Christian Democrats and their southern German sister party, the Christian Social Union, have urged the Union parties this week avoid the "provocation" that would be caused by forcing the issue in the Bundestag prematurely. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Bundestag, and everyone knows the need for consensus.
Consensus has been hard enough to come by even within the parties. Some prominent Christian Democrats opposed calling for an October vote. The Social Democrats are likewise split; a Bundestag aide notes that it is often Social Democrats at the state level that insist on maintaining the right to asylum, whereas the municipal politicians, struggling to meet newcomers' demands for services, are calling for changes. The mayor of Munich told the Suddeutsche Zeitung recently, "We can't be a catch-basin for the
whole third world."
Germans are just beginning to appreciate the extent to which they are dependent on foreign labor, especially in low-level jobs.
A poll taken this past spring by the Mannheim Institute for Practical Social Research, indicated that 74 percent of the public in western Germany and 84 percent in the east approved of the fundamental right to asylum, even though they believed that only a limited number of political refugees should be accepted in Germany. Moreover, three-quarters of those surveyed assumed that most asylum-seekers abuse the right to asylum.
A WESTERN diplomat says he doesn't feel anyone believes that the legal change will address the whole problem, but he does see that the political leadership generally feels itself under pressure to act. He also cautions that explaining the political urgency of the issue in terms of popular frustration should not be taken as a justification for violence or an indication that Germans are somehow back to their old ways.
Germany has taken in nearly 280,000 asylum-seekers so far this year, already topping last year's record of 256,112. This is roughly twice the level of immigration into the other 11 European Community member states combined. The two largest groups are those from Romania and former Yugoslavia.
Under German law, a person can simply enter the country, on a tourist visa if need be, and claim "political asylum." From there a determination process that one diplomat calls "Kafkaesque," and that can last years begins; civil servants are laboring to reduce a backlog of 350,000 to 400,000 applications. The due-process provisions of the Constitution are seen as meaning the asylum problem can't be handled simply by administrative streamlining.
The slow pace of the system is widely decried as a factor in the crowded conditions in the communal homes for asylum-seekers, which have been the targets of right-wing gang attacks. Even when claims to asylum are finally determined to be unfounded, very few people get deported, because deportation is as sensitive a matter as the right to asylum.
UN officials, however, worry that in the zeal to tighten up an administratively messy system, the numbers of people with legitimate grounds for asylum may be underestimated. Walter Koisser, the representative in Germany of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has criticized politicians and the press for letting the situation get to a point where amending the Constitution is seen as the only course of action. "Of course people are going to come anyway; the question is, through which door will they come? "
Back in Germany after many years in the third world, he has been troubled to see Germany apparently more interested in "building up a very precise legal process" for handling refugees than in dealing with them as human beings in need of protection.