New German Refugee Law Poses Practical Challenges


ON paper, the Germans now have a much stricter law allowing them automatically to turn back economic refugees streaming into their country from Eastern Europe.

The law was passed in response to recent violent attacks on asylum seekers' hostels by neo-Nazis and skinheads, who blame Germany's economic struggles on foreigners in the country.

About 70 percent of Germans approve of the new asylum law, and it passed the Bundestag (parliament) 521 to 132 late Wednesday night.

The new law allows German authorities automatically to reject asylum applicants from so-called "safe" countries which Germany considers free from political persecution.

Asylum seekers who arrive here via any of Germany's neighboring countries - all considered "safe" - will be turned back to those countries.

Earlier this month, Poland and Germany sewed up a treaty allowing Germany to turn back asylum seekers who enter Germany via Poland. The Germans agreed to pay Warsaw 120 million deutsche marks ($74 million) to help the Poles cope with the reverse influx.

In practice, however, implementing the new law will prove difficult for a number of reasons:

* Eastern neighbors. Despite diplomatic efforts, Bonn has not yet reached agreement with Prague or Vienna on the return of aliens. Germany's eastern neighbors complain that the new law simply shoves the immigration problem further east.

* Clogged administrations. Officials are already overburdened with a backlog of cases, and authorities still are not handing out decisions as fast as they receive applications. With simpler criteria for deciding asylum cases, the new law should speed the time it takes to process applications, but it will take time to reduce the backlog. Last year, a record 440,000 people applied for political asylum in Germany. In the first four months of this year, 160,000 people applied, up 30 percent from a year ago.

Meanwhile, many asylum seekers arrive without identification or papers. It is tough to send them home when they won't say where they come from or through which countries they traveled to reach Germany.

* Porous borders. Allowing border guards to automatically turn back asylum seekers is one thing. Catching aliens trying to slip across is another. Most of the asylum seekers arrive in Germany via Poland and the Czech Republic, an open border impossible to adequately police.

According to the German Interior Ministry, the border patrol is short at least 4,000 guards. Officials estimate that four to five times more aliens slip through than are caught.

"The main problem is in implementing the law," says Heiner Wegesin, specialist on the asylum issue for the Christian Democratic Union in the Bundestag. The law takes effect July 1, but Mr. Wegesin estimates it will take nine months to a year "before you see big results."

Although the political will to change Germany's liberal asylum practice grew out of violent attacks by neo-Nazis and skinheads, even moderate Germans now say the country has become overrun by asylum seekers, and that authorities must sift mere economic refugees (over 95 percent of asylum seekers here) from people who are truly politically persecuted.

"This decision is crucial for internal peace in our country," said Wolfgang Schauble, parliamentary leader of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union.

Still, there is a core group of Germans who strongly oppose abandoning the old liberal law, which was considered a kind of atonement for Nazi crimes.

On Wednesday, 10,000 of these opponents descended on the capital, blocking access to the Bundestag on the Rhine River and forcing parliamentarians to arrive either by ferry or helicopter. For the most part, the demonstrations were peaceful, but about 300 autonomen, or anarchists, tried unsuccessfully to storm the Bundestag.

A few members of parliament were assaulted and 13 policemen injured.

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