Germany Wrings Its Hands Over Forcing Out Bosnians

Refugees strain welfare system, but is it safe to send them back?

News coverage of children hugging stuffed toys as they returned to war-ravaged Bosnia April 1 has put a heart-rending face on the wrenching debate in Germany over what to do with its 325,000 Bosnian refugees.

The children, whose return has been requested by the Bosnian Federation officials, are heading for a refurbished orphanage in Sarajevo after having lived nearly five years - more than half their lives in some cases - in Germany.

But not all the early returnees are being handled carefully - or going willingly. A high-profile mass deportation of 41 Bosnians at the Munich airport last month prompted a strong statement from several prominent Germans, including former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, calling for an end to the deportation of refugees. "A clear correction of the current practice is called for," the statement read in part.

According to Christian Schwarz-Schilling, chairman of the German parliament's human rights committee and a signer of the Genscher statement, interviews at the airport with the deportees revealed that:

*Refugees were arrested at their workplaces and taken to the airport in handcuffs, with no opportunity to pack up personal effects.

*Others were rounded up at their homes in the small hours of the night.

*A woman was deported just four days after her release from the hospital after an episode of heart trouble.

Some of these deportees were allegedly "criminals," but their criminal offenses included such things as driving with a Bosnian driver's license or crossing or traveling outside the area of German they have been settled in.

Germany has taken in more Bosnian refugees by far than any other country. But finances are tight, and politicians see every refugee that can be "encouraged" to return as one more load off the social-welfare system.

If German mishandles the refugee return, many observers worry, it could lose credit in the eyes of the world for the generosity it has shown. This a special concern now, when Germany is keen to play a larger international role and wants to be a permanent member of a reformed United Nations Security Council. "People will forget the four years that refugees were accommodated here and will remember the image of the grandmother in handcuffs at the airport," warns Judith Kumin, representative in Germany of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Refugee affairs are part of the portfolio of Germany's 16 state interior ministers, who as a group work out policy with the federal interior minister.

These authorities tend to consider the refugees as social-welfare cases, rather than whether conditions in Bosnia are safe for their return.

The particular problem is Bosnian Muslims from areas now under Serb control as the result of the division of Bosnia into two entities.

Ms. Kumin suggests what it would be like for a returning refugee who can't return to his home, but tries to get as close as possible. "You sit in someone's basement while your money from Germany [repatriation assistance] is running out, and you can see your house occupied by someone else. Tension and frustration build. Pretty soon, you're ready to take matters into your own hands." Germany's interior ministers "may not realize how explosive the situation is," she adds.

The 1995 Dayton Accord provides that refugees and internally displaced persons in Bosnia be able to return to their homes. By focusing on a swift return of refugees to Bosnia, the ministers are contributing to a "kind of abdication of the Dayton Accord," the UN's Kumin says.

Dr. Schwarz-Schilling, the human rights monitor, says that four principles should govern the return of refugees to Bosnia:

*Deportation of Muslims to Serb-controlled areas must stop at once.

*Refugees from Muslim-controlled Bosnian Federation areas who "are earning their bread" and not on welfare, should be able to negotiate about their return.

*Deportations should be limited to those who entered Germany illegally. Any foreigners who commit crimes are already subject to deportation.

*Before sending refugees back, suitable housing in Bosnia must be found first.

But Armin Schlender, speaking for Rudolf Geil, the interior minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania who chairs the interior ministers' group, says the human rights statement will not affect the current deportation policy.

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