Asylum Seekers : W. Germany Swamped by Refugees

Times Staff Writer

Each day, they arrive at East Berlin’s Schoenefeld Airport: Palestinians, Iranians, Ghanaians, Tamils, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, all seeking asylum. But not in East Germany.

From the airport, they are put into buses or aboard elevated and subway trains for the journey to the Berlin Wall. There they are quickly waved through East German immigration and into West Berlin.

These are the “asylum seekers,” refugees from storm or strife seeking to build a new life somewhere in the West.

They pose a growing problem for West Germany, where most of them end up. This year, the wave of refugees arriving in the country has become a flood tide, inundating the country’s capacity to absorb them.

45% Increase This year

The number of refugees has risen by 45% above last year, with 43,000 new arrivals already registered in 1986.


Violence has recently entered into the reaction against the new arrivals: In West Berlin, gasoline bombs have been thrown into the makeshift camps for the asylum-seekers, destroying tents. Two refugees from Bangladesh were hurt by tear gas sprayed by unknown assailants into an emergency shelter.

And last month, fights broke out between leftist and rightist factions in a tent shelter occupied by refugees mainly from Iran.

“The Federal Republic (of Germany) at present possesses no adequate instrument to deal with large influxes of people seeking asylum,” Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann said recently. The new arrivals pose both a criminal threat and the potential for terrorism, he declared.

The crime rate among Ghanaian refugees, for instance, is eight times higher than it is among foreigners as a whole in West Germany, he said, and there is a high incidence of drug offenses among Arabs, Turks, and Pakistanis.

‘Terrorist Threat’

“There is very great concern about a potential but incalculable terrorist threat, which could be present among travelers from India, but also from Arab countries,” Zimmermann added.

So far this year, about 21% of the asylum seekers are Lebanese or Palestinians, with 18% Iranians, followed by Turks, Poles, Indians, Ghanaians, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

They flock to West Germany because of the constitution, called the Basic Law, which guarantees everyone the right to apply for political asylum. East German authorities make the process easier by allowing refugees to enter so long as they fly in on the national airline Interflug or the Soviet carrier Aeroflot from Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent and pay hard currency for their tickets.

The travelers are quickly shunted to West Berlin where, because of the special status of the city, there are no immigration controls.

West Germany and the Allies who still control West Berlin--the United States, Britain, and France--do not regard the border between the east and west sectors of the city as a legitimate international frontier.

If official immigration checks were set up on the western side of the wall, the Allies fear that East Germany would be able to claim that this action would confirm East Germany’s claim that East Berlin is the legitimate capital of a sovereign state and that its border with West Berlin would be an international frontier, instead of simply a part of a city under four-power control. The latter view of the Allies and the West German government dates from the end of World War II.

East German Pressure Ploy

Many diplomats believe that the real reason East Germany encourages the flow of asylum seekers is to inflict refugee pressure on West Berlin and West Germany.

In East Berlin, one senior Western diplomat explained the Communist government’s motivation this way:

“The East German airline gets hard currency from the refugees, they increase the pressure on the West Berlin resources, they embarrass the West German government, and, being absolutely cynical, they can tell the incomers, ‘You want to go to a free society? Fine, go there, enjoy it, and good luck.’ ”

The refugee’s pathway, officials here say, is lubricated by hustlers, who sell tickets to the foreigners, promising them a paradise in the West. Often, they coach the asylum seekers on exactly what to tell the West German authorities when they are questioned.

“The emphasis is on the word asylum, " says one person who is familiar with the procedures. “They make them memorize the word because it is the key to their entry to the West. Recently, some refugees from southern Lebanon said they wanted to get away from the fighting. But since they hadn’t mentioned asylum, they were refused entry and sent back.”

Food From Red Cross

In West Berlin, the refugees have stretched the city’s resources very thin, even though the number of beds available for them has been increased this year to 7,100 from 4,500. Various buildings in West Berlin have been converted into hostels, and some refugees are even living in workers’ huts at building sites and in school gymnasiums. They are provided with food by the Red Cross.

In some cases, the newcomers are given nightly accommodation vouchers worth about $10, which are labeled “Pension nach Wahl” (Guest house of your choice). Armed with these, they have been known to wander around looking for a pension called “nach Wahl.

In a West Berlin hostel, one Iranian recently explained why there were so many refugees from his country this year.

“There are some political protesters who spent time in Khomeini’s prisons,” he said in reference to Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “Then there are those who don’t want to be conscripted and killed in the battle against the Iraqis.”

But avoiding conscription, even for the bloody six-year-war between Iran and Iraq, does not constitute grounds for securing asylum with the West Germans.

Turkey Way Station

Nevertheless, the Iranians keep coming, usually making their way out of the country through Turkey, where they are allowed to stay for only a short time until they can arrange passage elsewhere. Agents for Interflug and Aeroflot are quick to sell them tickets to East Berlin.

There, they are rapidly moved across the border into West Berlin.

At stations of the elevated railway or subway, West German police inspect their documents and send them to local centers, where the long process leading to the granting of asylum begins.

Other newcomers board trains for the West German frontier, and enter West Germany though cities like Helmstedt. There they are accepted at the refugee center--but hardly welcome.

“We cannot go on like this,” Helmstedt city manager Lothar Wien said. Seven thousand refugees have passed through the city this year, he said, and he has been forced to requisition hotels, houses, schools, and even a pub to house them.

One expert in the field estimates that less than 20% of the refugees are technically eligible for political asylum, but that about 60% of those who get inside West Germany are eventually allowed to stay.

Lengthy Procedure

This is because the procedures for permanent admission can take up to four years. By that time, the applicant may have found a job and his children are speaking German better than their native tongue, so they are allowed to remain on humanitarian grounds.

But West Germans are fast running out of humanitarian spirit.

Bavarian leader Franz Josef Strauss, whose Christian Social Union is part of the coalition government in Bonn, has called for a constitutional amendment to reduce the flood of asylum seekers.

However, the opposition Social Democrats say that they will object to any such move. The government has decided to hold a special conference of party leaders in September to discuss steps to control the influx of refugees.

But if the issue becomes a political one during this election year, most West German voters, commentators say, would favor measures reducing the number of immigrants.

More than $1.3 Billion

As Interior Minister Zimmermann has pointed out, West Germany during the past couple of years has taken in twice as many refugees as France and 10 times as many as Britain or Italy. And the cost to the West German government of sheltering asylum seekers this year alone is expected to exceed $1.3 billion.

One possible solution to the problem would be an agreement by East Germany and the Soviet Union not to allow their airlines to accept passengers without proper visas.

But so far attempts by the West Germans to gain East German cooperation have made no progress, with the single exception of the Tamils from Sri Lanka. In that case, the West German government increased a credit to East Germany to $404 million from $285 million in exchange for East Berlin’s agreement not to allow refugee Tamils to cross the border without valid visas for West Germany.

Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher failed, too, during his recent visit to Moscow to get the Soviets to agree to limiting the flow.

So officials are now suggesting as an answer a tougher, faster system of screening asylum applicants--and widely publicizing the fact that most will be refused and sent back to their countries of origin.