Refugees and racism in the new Germany


By David Jagger

Antoinette Panajatov and Hristo Stefanov fled Bulgaria last June and thought they'd reached the free world. But in the cellar room in Frankfurt they have shared for five months with 12 other adults and five children, they can't even see the sky.

They are part of a growing number of Doppelflüchtlinge, "double refugees" who first flee their homelands and then flee again to seek safety in one German state from persecution in another.

For Hristo Stefanov and three other Asylanten (asylum-seekers), any illusions about the new world order were quickly shattered by the pain of rubber pipes beaten across their backs on a dark forest path last September near Gera in the former East German State of Thuringen.

They were ambushed by a group of baton-wielding men waiting in the trees. The four Bulgarians fought back and scattered through the forest, leaving the groceries they'd just bought strewn across the path. All reached their refuge eight kilometres away, shocked and bruised.

They might have stayed at the refuge — once a youth hostel — had the caretaker not made them fill the old swimming pool with water in case the attackers returned with fire bombs.

The Bulgarians bought train tickets with their welfare money and fled again. This time they went west to Frankfurt, haunted by news of other eastern towns like the now notorious Hoyeswerda, where locals cheered as hooligans burnt and ransacked a refuge in a high-rise housing estate.

Bunkered for the last five months in one room in Frankfurt's Wolfgang Goethe University, they are now fed by campus whip-rounds and sleep on camp beds jammed tight along the walls. In this heart of higher learning, their children — aged three months to 14 years — have no school.

Panajatov, a 24-year old cook expecting her first child in March, and Stefanov, an electrical mechanic, welder and disc jockey at 27, are languishing in limbo.

Germany's liberal asylum laws allow everyone who claims to have been politically persecuted to apply for refugee status and have their claims judged in the courts. Since unification, 20% must live in the former east's five states until their hearing.

After fleeing Bulgaria in a refrigerated truck, Stefanov and Panajatov's group were assigned to Gera, where they lodged applications on the grounds of persecution for their role in the pro-democratic movement back home. Says Panajatov in broken French and Russian: "My husband was politically active and had been arrested by the secret police. They've had democratic elections but it's still the old communists who run the country and the police."

Stefanov worked under police surveillance in his job as a disc jockey in a bar named after Bulgaria's former communist president, Todor Zhivkov, and was once led away handcuffed.

Their flight to Frankfurt, in the state of Hessen, is an embarrassment to Thuringen, proof it can't guarantee the safety of its assigned refugees. The Hessen government is loath to breach federal policy and set a precedent and just wants the problem to disappear.

Having fled Gera illegally, they are not allowed to work or receive welfare in Frankfurt. They face internal deportation back to Thuringen, or even out of the country, if the university chancellor allows police on campus, For now, they're simply tolerated.

But the Bulgarians' shaky sanctuary is merely an island in a murky flood of xenophobia that is not confined to Germany's young, poor, the lunatic fringe or the newly incorporated east. Germans may soon need a new term: triple refugees, as more and more foreigners learn the hard way the wealthy west is no safe haven.

"I think it would be possible to work here but not to live", says Panajatov, "because at the moment everybody is looking badly at us."

When Panajatov and her husband contacted the Australian embassy in Bonn, saying they were experienced cook and waiter, the embassy said Australia wanted only skilled workers like mathematicians. Stefanov was told he needed A$230 just to apply.

German interior minister Wolfgang Schauble in November claimed that xenophobia was confined to "a very tiny minority". Representatives of foreigners paint a different picture.

Harly Karg is the Brazilian-born chairperson of the Auslõnderbeirat, a forum of ethnic representatives advising the city council of Kaiserslautern, a city near the French border.

She says attacks are now commonplace in and around Kaiserslautern, where 100,000 locals and 8000 foreigners are

joined by 70,000 US military, whose giant Ramstein Air Base helps support a stable manufacturing and farming economy.

The targets, she claims, are not only foreigners but also punks, leftists and homosexuals; and the media are usually nowhere in sight.

Thirteen fires in asylum refuges across Rheinland-Pfalz (where Kaiserslautern is one of the largest cities) between January and October became public only when the Green Party questioned the state police minister in parliament on Karg's behalf.

Police have not treated them as arson, and no-one has been charged, though police concede there may be suspicious circumstances, according to the local Green Party spokesperson, Joachim Farber.

Over the past year, Karg has collected more than 100 neo-Nazi graffiti slogans and leaflets, such as "Northland Arise" and "Action Clean Germany". Some of these have been handed out in Kaiserslautern's schools. She says they point to a well-organised movement, often fronted by young disillusioned skin-heads but certainly not confined to them. The leaflets proudly display contact names, though again, Karg claims, police have launched few investigations.

The underbelly of cosy western German towns like Kaiserslautern is disturbing proof, she says, that the rising tide of racist violence is not confined to the country's deviant and poor. If poverty is the sole cause of racism, the west, with only 5.8% unemployment compared to 11.8% in the east, should be a comparatively tolerant place.

Says Karg: "Since the so-called wave of asylum-seekers washed into the country, politicians have been telling people that once the asylum laws are tightened, all the unemployed in the east would find work.

"I always say to people, 'Imagine there were no foreigners in Germany, who would be the next group of scapegoats?'"

"There had been a consensus in society that open expression of neo-Nazism is not on", says the Green's Joachim Farber. "With a debate about numbers of people coming into Germany, this has changed.

"Especially in the last two years, open hostility has become much more accepted. But the attitudes were always there."

Late last year, a poll by the reputable Emnid Institute found that 38% of west Germans, compared with 21% of east Germans, sympathise with neo-Nazi actions or attitudes. In local elections

last October in the north-western city of Bremen, the ruling centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) lost one-fifth of its support, and the extreme right-wing German People's Union picked up six seats in campaign focussed on immigration.

In January, with 25,000 Soviet Jewish applications to Germany pending, Emnid's pollsters found that two-thirds of Germans, east and west, want less discussion about the persecution of Jews. Thirty-two per cent think Jews are partly to blame for being "hated and persecuted".

Far from assuaging tensions, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has sought to capitalise on the swing to the right. While condemning racist attacks, he has criticised refugees for "abusing Germany's liberal asylum laws" — comments similar to Australian immigration minister Gerry Hand's recent hard word on refugees: "If you're not what you claim to be, you're out."

Australia's migrants return accusations that the government here is smokescreening bigger issues with perennial immigration debates. Likewise, Germany's newcomers claim they provide a convenient distraction from acute economic problems in eastern Germany.

Just before the Bremen elections, Volker Ruhe, general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Kohl's hatchet man, wrote to all party bosses, from local council to state parliament level, urging them to attack the SPD by initiating an immigration debate. "Put the asylum laws on the agenda to challenge the SPD", was the advice to hundreds of apparatchiks.

In opposition federally, the SPD supports the liberal asylum laws which are enshrined in the constitution in empathy with those who had to flee Hitler's terror. Only with an unlikely two-thirds majority of federal parliament could they be changed.

Yet most Germans now want to prohibit from entry what they call "economic refugees" — people escaping poverty and war, but not necessarily political persecution. They object to the fact that, while only 4.4% of Germany's 232,000 refugees last year were granted asylum, another 30% will stay anyway because the Geneva Convention prohibits refugees from war zones being sent home.

The government has so far shelved plans to water down the constitution with new laws to limit refuge to those nationalities with a record of persecution at home. Instead it has sped up the assessment process from 10 months to six weeks, giving little time for asylum-seekers to document their case.

To cope with ballooning numbers, anything from army barracks to

hotel rooms is turned into refuges, in many cases prompting claims of inhumane conditions. And to quell fears of a boom in property offences, from last August asylum-seekers are allowed to work — if they can find it. Employment offices must be satisfied first that no Germans, then EEC foreigners, then non-EEC foreigners with residency (such as Asian or Middle Eastern guest-workers) can be found for the job.

This is hardly a level playing field. Yet the message to foreigners from Eckart Schiffer, the CDU's chief adviser on foreigner policy, is "when in Rome, do as the Romans do". He rejects the "fashionable" idea of multiculturalism embraced by traditional immigration countries like Australia and Canada as "unworkable".

The government repeats with increasing indignation that Germany is not an immigration country and that, therefore, no immigration policy is needed. Foreigners with residency must wait 10 years before being granted citizenship and then only if they renounce their old citizenship and cultural ties. The same applies to their German-born children.

Contradictions abound in this policy mishmash, fuelling misunderstanding and hatred. Take the ethnic German Aussiedler or resettlers. In 1990, 397,000 were welcomed, most from Poland, Romania and the old Soviet Union, by far Germany's biggest group of immigrants. Last year, 150,000 came from the disintegrating USSR alone.

Many are descendants of migrants asked to settle in Russia by Tsar Catherine the Great, and very few have been to Germany or speak German. But if they have a grandparent's or great grandparent's German birth certificate or can prove they were part of a German community or church abroad, they automatically assume immediate German citizenship.

The red carpet rolled out for the Aussiedler has often produced ill-feeling, with locals, foreigners and the Aussiedler trading animosity.

Says Aussiedler Waldemar Schmidt, 41: "We have a lot of sympathy for them (asylum-seekers), after we all have gone through a lot ourselves. But I know some who haven't been persecuted at all. They come here for a few years, they don't want to work and just want to collect benefits."

He, in turn, cops it from the locals. A welder in the Opel car parts factory in Kaiserslautern, Schmidt spends most of his free time and income building a house for his family. Yet his wife Maria, 38, listens to locals' pointed gossip in the bus about "Russians" living off their taxes.

In Russia, at least Waldemar Schmidt was guaranteed a morning greeting from his co-workers; at Opel many just turn away.

"We didn't live badly in the Soviet Union, but we were always foreigners", says Schmidt, who lost family members to Stalin's labour camps during and after World War II. "They called us Germans, fascists, and here they call us the Russians, foreigners again."

Also heading to Germany are citizens of other EEC countries, who are automatically allowed residency. Guest workers are still hired from outside the EEC.

Last, but on recent rates of application, unlikely to be least, are the asylum-seekers, like the Bulgarians in Frankfurt. Last year's 232,000 joined 300,000 already granted asylum or permitted to stay in Germany. In 1990, Germany's asylum-seeker intake accounted for almost half of Europe's total.

In all, Germany has received just under 2 million immigrants since 1989, more than five times as many as Australia's intake in the last two years. It is enough to strain any system.

Germans are quick to point out their famed bureaucracy has done very well to accommodate the numbers.

But to Antoinette Panajatov and Hristo Stefanov, this is little consolation.

"We have been here since June now, and we can see that we have no chance. All of us who came here just want to live in peace", says Panajatov.

Their plight may soon he commonplace in a world faced with population movements unprecedented since the massive migrations that followed World War II, and strident nationalism to match.

Former French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's recent comments on "noisy, smelly immigrants driving French people crazy" and US presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan's frequent broadsides at what he calls "the land fill called multiculturalism" typify rising xenophobia worldwide. When the US recently shipped hundreds of Haitian refugees back home to face further persecution, Germany looked like paradise.

But in few countries are the people and their policy-makers as unprepared for mass migration as in Germany. Before last year's influx, the migrant population was only 5.3 million in a country of 78 million.

Foreigners are not just targets of extremist violence but suffer daily insults. Black French citizen and Frankfurt resident Malou

Siquilini, 31, is used to locals clutching their handbags to their chests when he approaches. Strangers have asked mockingly if he ever washes his hair.

Siquilini recently offered his seat on a crowded Frankfurt train to an elderly woman. "Sit, Grandma", he said in broken German.

"I am not your grandma. Am I black?", she screamed through the crowded carriage and refused the seat.

Germans, like all in the lucky countries, fear more than losing their seats. And in western Germany they have more to lose than most. Christopher Hein, an east German dissident writer, believes this fear of high living standards being plundered by the marauding poor is at the heart of today's xenophobia.

At a demonstration against racism in Berlin in late December, he voiced widespread German attitudes to foreigners: "You have taken the first step in making war against us, without ever having declared it. We are defending ourselves out of fear of your poverty, out of fear that one day we may have to share it."

Such soul-searching opposition to racism is mounting as more Germans realise the public face of xenophobia is only the tip of the iceberg. Anti-racist rallies attracted 100,000 people across the country late last year. Billboards produced by unions and churches, listing sports stars to rock singers in support, proclaim "we are all foreigners almost everywhere". And in Berlin suburbs "Nazis Out" graffiti is as widespread as "Foreigners Out".

But Antoinette Panajatov and Hristo Stefanov are not waiting for the mood to swing in their favour. They may yet make Australia their next stop; welcome or not. [Shortly after this article was completed, the Bulgarian asylum-seekers in Frankfurt's Goethe University were moved to a nearby refuge. However, in Hessen, they still have no right to work or welfare.]