Germany's Neighbors Resist a Revision Of Its Asylum Law

GERMANY'S plan to stem the flood of asylum seekers is meeting great resistance from its eastern neighbors. Officials in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria complain that legislation working its way through the German parliament would dump Germany's refugee problem on them.

Under the legislation, which seeks to change the country's liberal asylum law, Germany would automatically turn back asylum seekers to bordering "transit" countries that refugees travel through to reach Germany. About half of the East Europeans seeking asylum in Germany travel through Poland; the other half through the Czech lands and Austria.

Last year Germany received 438,000 asylum seekers (about 70 percent of the total for Europe) and there is no letup in sight. In February, 38,000 asylum seekers arrived in Germany, up 20 percent from the same month last year.

"If well-organized countries [in the West] can't manage [refugees], how can we, when we're in a state of upheaval?" asks Piotr Nowak, spokesman for the Polish Embassy in Cologne, Germany. Mr. Nowak says Poland has no infrastructure in place to handle the estimated 40,000-plus asylum seekers that Germany would pass back to Poland if the new asylum law were approved.

German officials, who start a third round of negotiations on this issue in Warsaw Monday, say they can help the Poles secure their eastern border, set up an administrative system to process asylum applications, and provide logistical support - presumably to house and then return rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin, such as Romania and the former Yugoslavia.

But "it's not just the missing infrastructure" that's the problem, Nowak says. Polish officials, like their Czech and Austrian counterparts, want Germany to pursue a multilateral solution to Europe's immigration crisis. This strategy could involve setting up Europe-wide quotas on refugees and addressing the root causes of mass migration from Eastern Europe.

Every European country can bump asylum seekers back to transit countries and process them there, "but the issue is too complicated to be solved this way," says Waltraut Herzog, a diplomat with the Austrian Embassy in Bonn. The "bump back" concept, however, is the one preferred by the European Community. Under the Dublin Treaty, which has been signed but not yet ratified, asylum seekers are to be handled in the EC country that they enter, and a decision to grant or refuse asylum made in one EC country is valid in all EC countries.

Through bilateral negotiations, Germany is trying to apply the Dublin principles to its eastern neighbors, even though they are not yet EC members. It is a de facto redrawing of EC borders, so that Germany is no longer on the edge of the EC area and thus no longer the first country of entry for asylum seekers.

"In practice, Poland and the Czech Republic are supposed to take on Germany's dirty work," writes columnist Wolfgang Koydl in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a major daily newspaper here.

Czech officials, meanwhile, have caught on to the Dublin idea and say they will not come to any agreement with Bonn until Prague first concludes agreements governing asylum with its own neighbors.

Bonn, which opposes the Czech position because of the lengthy negotiating proces that would ensue, says Prague is beginning to soften its stance. For Germany, time is of the essence, explains Heiner Wegesin, an asylum law expert in the Bundestag for the Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

With national and local elections coming up next year, "we have a very tight domestic schedule," Mr. Wegesin says. The government hopes to get the more restrictive asylum measure through the Bundestag by May and implemented this summer.

But the government may not meet its deadline. The opposition Social Democrats, whose votes would be needed to pass the asylum package, say they will not endorse the package until Bonn first works out agreements with the Czechs and Poles.

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