Behind the Headlines; Being a Refugee in Germany Today Means Fear and Risk of Violence

What does it mean to be a refugee in Germany today? For Gamal Mukhta, one of about 500,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived in the country since the beginning of 1991, it means spending long, empty days in a refugee hostel in the East German city of Potsdam, afraid to go out for fear of being beaten by racists.

Mukhta’s face, which still bears a jagged scar across his nose, was sliced open by knife-wielding skinheads several months ago as he returned to the hostel. He spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from surgery to repair the damage.

When he tried to file a complaint with the police, they just laughed and told him not to bother, said Mukhta.

In his native Sudan, Mukhta, who is 36, worked for Shell Oil and, in his spare time, volunteered for the country’s Democratic Party and played keyboards in jazz bands.

The Islamic fundamentalist regime imprisoned him for two years for his work with the democratic movement, he said.

Now he waits his days out in the prefabricated two-story hostel, which was used as a nursery school until asbestos was discovered.

Ninety-eight people from 21 different nations share the warren of rooms at the Potsdam hostel, where the corrugated-metal walls and ceiling are covered with peeling paint.

All of them are scared. And with good reason.

As German politicians discuss possible solutions to their “refugee problem,” violent incidents against asylum-seekers all across Germany, particularly in the East, continue to mushroom.

By mid-September, more than 2,200 reported acts of violence had been committed against foreigners this year, according to the president of the federal criminal police, Hans-Ludwig Zachert.

This wave of xenophobic violence resonates deeply in the collective Jewish psyche, which is still deeply scarred from the events of the 1930s and ’40s, when a similar scapegoating of minorities resulted in the Holocaust. Jews around the world have expressed concern over the recent events here.

Only recently, after months of tension, have government officials pledged to take concrete steps against the law-breakers. And their pledges have yet to be realized.

Over the past few months, rather than crack down against those causing the violence, the government has tried to alleviate tensions by evacuating the refugees from hostels when there are riots against their presence.

And now legislators are working to amend the constitutional article that gives refugees from the Balkan states, Central Europe, Africa and Asia the right to seek asylum in Germany.

More recently, politicians have made statements decrying the violence, but they often seem to be crafted more out of concern for Germany’s image abroad than for the safety of the 5.5 million foreigners of every nationality who reside among Germany’s 80 million citizens.

The reluctance to crack down has had a price: Ten refugees have died and countless others have been injured.

And according to observers, the government’s lethargic response to the terror is being interpreted by the law-breakers as tacit permission to continue.

“It is encouragement,” said Dr. Gerhard Schoenberner, director of Wannsee House, the Berlin villa where Nazis planned the Final Solution to “the Jewish problem” in 1942, which now serves as a museum about the Holocaust.

“What can these neo-Nazis learn but that it is an invitation to the next city to do the same?” asked Schoenberner.

Even Jurgen Gohring, director of Germany’s domestic security agency, known as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, agreed.

“If the asylum-seekers are evacuated, as they have been, it is seen by the skins as a success of their tactics,” he said. “This is something we should not repeat.”

Complicating the problem is rhetoric used by politicians to appease voters fed up with high unemployment and special treatment for refugees.

“Certain politicians use language I can only understand as encouraging violent ideas,” said Schoenberner, noting that some have pointedly refused to condemn the violence. “They are starting to talk like people from the extreme right.”

The perpetrators of the violence are mostly skinheads and neo-Nazis, groups with a lot of overlap whose combined numbers have remained fairly steady in Germany at about 40,000 since 1988, according to data from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

The strategy of the loosely organized network of extreme rightists has been to dispatch a core of rabble-rousers to towns and cities to rally against the foreigners.

Around the country, in the West but more so in the East, the extremists find Germans who are unsure of the future, fearful of burgeoning financial difficulties and resentful of the financial benefits that asylum-seekers receive from the government.

Violence against foreigners has come to be accepted as a legitimate expression of the escalating tension.

It is obvious that the economic and social burdens of the unification, bringing together East and West, Communist and Democratic, are turning out to be a greater strain than anyone had predicted.

In September, the unemployment rate in the “new federal states” of former East Germany was 13.6 percent. In what was formerly West Germany, the jobless rate was 5.8 percent.

While the chief problem in the East is unemployment, the West faces a housing shortage.

“Housing is an explosive issue,” said Karsten Voight, a member of the German parliament and the foreign-policy committee spokesman for the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Eighty-five percent of new housing in Hamburg goes to foreigners, which foments tremendous resentment among the Germans who cannot find housing when they need it, he said.

Asylum-seekers are permitted into Germany by dint of one of the most liberal asylum laws in the world.

All one must do to apply for asylum is to cross the border into Germany and ask for it. Asylum-seekers get social welfare benefits, housing and food, until their cases are decided, which takes an average of 13 months but can stretch on as long as five years.

The cost to Germany of supporting asylum-seekers in 1991 was about $4 billion, and in 1992 the cost is expected to reach as high as $6.7 billion, according to Eduard Lintner, junior secretary of the interior.

Fewer than 5 percent of asylum-seekers’ applications are approved, according to Brigitte Baumeister, junior whip of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, the coalition government’s ruling bloc.

But only 4 percent of those whose applications are rejected are deported, Baumeister said. Many whose applications are rejected destroy their passports and legal papers, without which their home country refuses to accept them. They become people without a state and stay on in Germany illegally.

Resentment is most palpable against immigrants who have cultural norms that do not meld easily into German culture, notably Gypsies and Turks.

It is part of German culture to expect complete assimilation. Christian refugees from Central European countries are the most easily accepted.

There is little interest in accepting other cultures. Being German is defined by blood line rather than legal standing. And citizenship is difficult to obtain, even for second-generation residents whose parents came to Germany as “guest workers” decades ago.

“If someone wants to be a German, he has to be a ‘real’ German. Germans like to live in a Christian-oriented culture. They don’t like to live among non- Germans,” Dr. Gerd Langguth, the European Community representative in Germany said in an interview in Bonn.

Ironically, Germany needs an influx of about 300,000 foreigners annually in order to maintain its labor force, according to a study conducted by the German parliament’s research institute.

Almost 2 million foreigners were employed in Germany in 1991.

Another element adding to the tension is the local and regional governments’ strategies for settling the asylum-seekers.

Hundreds of refugees from a dozen different cultures are routinely installed in barracks-like buildings with only the barest of toilet and cooking facilities, in the middle of dense apartment complexes.

In Rostock, where five nights of rioting at the end of August included the firebombing of a hostel in which 150 people lived, local residents vented their frustration by applauding the skinheads, cheering them on.

“0ut of ignorance or bad intentions, the city administration in Rostock put all foreigners together in a central living area, though they knew it would cause problems,” said Schoenberner of Wannsee House.

“There were no toilets, nothing. It was completely overcrowded,” he said. “It ends with everything dirty, begging, stealing.”

According to Jerzy Kanal, the recently elected chairman of Berlin’s Jewish community, “there has been a tremendous lack of understanding on the part of local and regional officials on assigning asylum-seekers to locales. They don’t understand what they are really doing.”

The results of the government’s handling of the asylum crisis are sure to have an impact that will be felt long after the violence against foreigners has ended.

Meanwhile, support for the far-right Republican Party is rising. The party, headed by a former Waffen SS member, is gaining strength at the state level. In recent state elections in Baden-Wurtemberg, the Republicans won 13 percent of the vote.

A recent poll of 300,000 adults in the weekly magazine Stern revealed that 6 percent of respondents would vote for the party.

The Republicans now have enough support to put them over the 5 percent threshold necessary to gain seats in the Bundestag in the next federal elections.

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