Who, at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars, would have thought that Germany would become the refuge of choice for the shellshocked, homeless Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina?
Just three years ago, Germany was being pilloried, with critics calling it an abject failure in protecting foreigners already in its midst. Racist skinheads and neo-Nazis were prowling its streets, roughing up Africans, laying siege to Vietnamese workers' hostels, chanting, "Foreigners out!" Arbiters of nation-state morality asserted that Bonn wasn't doing enough to stop them.
But since 1992--when the fighting broke out in Bosnia--Germany has shown a different face to the world. Its consular officials began wielding their visa stamps boldly, giving tens of thousands legal entry to Germany. For Bosnians who simply fled, no papers in hand, Germany forswore deportation. And in Bonn, the Ministry for Social Affairs offered all Bosnians a welfare-benefits schedule as generous as anything available to German citizens--and that is generous, indeed.
In the end, Germany has sheltered up to 400,000 Bosnians from Europe's bloodiest fighting since World War II.
Although there are tens of thousands of Bosnians receiving temporary protection from Finland to Portugal--and smaller numbers as far afield as Canada and Australia--the figures for Germany dwarf anything any other country has done.
"No other country has approached this level of generosity, and that's not said often enough," said Judith Kumin, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Germany.
Now, though, the cold winds of Auslaenderfeindlichkeit, as the Germans so liltingly call hostility toward foreigners, may be gathering in Germany once again. No one is screaming "Bosnians out!" or lobbing gasoline bombs at the drab hostels where thousands of refugees wait out the days until they can go home. But senior politicians, alarmed at the cost of housing and feeding the refugees, and newly encouraged by the Dec. 14 signing of a Balkan peace treaty in Paris, are beginning to say that it is time to send the refugees home.
"It hasn't become a movement yet, but I think the majority has the idea that the Bosnians should go home as soon as possible, because the German taxpayer has to pay so much money," said Barbara John, commissioner for foreigners for the city-state of Berlin.
The interior ministers of Germany's 16 states--who have legal authority for refugee affairs--agreed last week to lift the ban on deportations to Bosnia on March 31.
"We consider the civil war situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina to have ended, with the signing of the peace treaty," explained Alwin Ziel, interior minister for the state of Brandenburg.
Reasonable though this may sound at first pass, it has sent shafts of fear shooting through the world's biggest Bosnian expatriate community. On Thursday, Bosnians and their advocates held candlelight demonstrations in front of more than 100 city and town halls across Germany, calling on the states to reverse the decision.
"We would like to avoid panic among the Bosnian people, but we can see that there is a lot of anxiety, just in the number of phone calls we're getting," Kumin said. "If you look at what these people have been through, then you can understand why they can't even conceive of going back."
Refugees seated around an oilcloth-covered table in the hall of a hostel on the northwest side of Berlin say this is so. Housed in the sprawling office complex of an old factory, attacking the boredom with orange soda, cigarettes and peanuts, they speak achingly of home, complaining that their temporary status here makes it all but impossible to find work.
But asked about the prospect of forced repatriation, they express terror.
"It isn't exactly the way [President] Clinton said, that people will be able to return to their homes," said a Muslim construction worker from the city of Srebrenica, who fled the U.N. "safe area" before it fell to Bosnian Serb forces amid untold horror in August. So frightened is he, even today, that he refuses to give his name.
"With my own eyes, I saw the Serbs burn my house down," he said. "When I left the area, a Serb asked me if I knew who did it. I was so afraid that I answered that I didn't know. But I did: It was a Serb who works for the police."
Tears welled up as he let it out that his nieces and nephews all disappeared when Srebrenica finally fell.
"Everybody wants to return to his home, but because of the way Bosnia has been divided, this dream cannot be fulfilled," said his friend, a fellow construction worker and Muslim from Bijeljina, near the border of Bosnia and Serbia. Although his house is still standing, he said he can't safely return because Bijeljina now lies in the Serbian area created by the peace accord reached last month in Dayton, Ohio--and for him, that is enemy territory.
"We will be able to return when the international community guarantees that, in every town and in every village, there will be an international police force," he said. "Otherwise it will be even worse than before."
Well-educated Europeans, these refugees haven't worn out their welcome in Germany because some here think that their skin is the wrong color or because they exhibit strange, irritating foreign ways. On the contrary, the Bosnians lead lives of near-invisibility here, separated from the mainstream in hostels, socializing at their own coffeehouses, reading their own newspapers in their own language.
"I've never felt discriminated against in Germany, and I've never talked to anyone who thought they had been," said Senada Marjanovic, a Bosnian who works at a Berlin refugee hostel.
If the Bosnians are given an early send-off, it will be solely because, in their numbers, they cost more than even prosperous Germany is willing or able to pay. According to Commissioner John, each unemployed Bosnian adult qualifies for a welfare payment of $380 per month, the same as a German; each child can receive $190. About two-thirds of the Bosnians in Germany receive such welfare.
But the costs only begin there. Germany must also pay for refugee housing, medical care and any social workers whose services they require. John said that, while there are no exact statistics on the total cost, she has seen estimates on Bosnian support that range as high as $7 billion a year.
Some levels of government here have gone to court to try to force other levels to shoulder the burden. Last week, two cities and a county in the central German state of Hesse won a court ruling against the state government, which they argued had accepted about 36,000 refugees while fobbing off the costs onto the ill-equipped municipalities. Frankfurt and Wiesbaden complained that Hesse's welcome had cost them more than $50 million over the past three years.
Kumin said the United Nations in January hopes to convene a governmental meeting of all countries that have received refugees, so they can plan among themselves what next to do next.
Times staff writer William D. Montalbano in London contributed to this report, as did Janet Stobart of The Times' Rome Bureau, Sarah White of The Times' Paris Bureau and Andrew Van Velzen of The Times' Toronto Bureau. Times special correspondent Mirtha Jusic in Zagreb, Croatia, also contributed to this report.
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Where They Fled
The bloodshed in the Balkans over the last four years has displaced an estimated 3 million people. The United Nations reports that the refugees had sought shelter from the former Yugoslav federation in these nations:
(Country: No. of refugees)
Croatia: 228,000 (1)
Czech Republic: 6,730
New Zealand: 200
Slovak Republic: 1,900
United States: 12,820
Rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro): 300,000 *(2)
(1) These are Bosnian refugees only. This figure does not include Croatia's own, internal refugees created when it went to war after separating from Yugoslavia.
(2)These refugees are Bosnian Serbs, not Muslims)
Source: United Nations High Commission on Refugees