Refugees face hostility in former East Germany

April 04, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- "Refugee, yes, but no peace," is how Said Kahn describes his situation in Germany. Since arriving four months ago from India, he stands a good chance of being officially accepted as a refugee but so far has not managed to escape the threat of violence that led him to flee his native Punjab province.

As a political activist there, the 30-year-old Mr. Kahn had good reason to fear becoming a victim of the harsh treatment frequently meted out to critics of the central government by army troops.

Unluckily for Mr. Kahn, shortly after he arrived in Germany, he was assigned to live in a home for refugees in the small town of Leisnig in the former East Germany. The coldness of the residents was bad enough, but when a dozen skinheads brutally attacked the refugees in February, Mr. Kahn realized that his flight from India had not ended the threat of violence.

Mr. Kahn and the 60 other refugees pooled their money and went back to the western half of Germany. They are now living in Frankfurt, where the authorities are trying to force them back to Leisnig -- and the skinheads.

"We are humans, and we expect dignity. In East Germany, they hate foreigners," Mr. Kahn said.

The problem Mr. Kahn faces is typical of what thousands of refugees in Germany are experiencing.

After unification last October, East Germany disappeared, and in its place five new state governments sprang up.

The 11 old states in former West Germany immediately saw a way to reduce their share of the unpopular refugees and required the new states to take their share of the foreigners who arrive in Germany seeking political asylum.

This year about 200,000 refugees will arrive under Germany's liberal refugee laws, and about 40,000 will be sent to the five new states. About 5,000 people, mostly Asians and Africans, have been sent already. But after their sometimes terrifying experiences, the government is being forced to reconsider its policy.

Political leaders say there are several reasons why racism is worse in the east than the west of Germany. One reason commonly cited is that Germany's Nazi past was neverworked out or seriously discussed in East Germany. Racism was deemed to have ended with the Communist takeover.

Since economic union with West Germany last summer, however, a new element has been added: mass unemployment. Many industrial areas of the five new states are threatened with 50 percent unemployment. Already 3 million people, or about 35 percent of the work force, are unemployed or on shortened working hours.

"It's too soon to bring refugees over here. We don't have the money to house them properly, and it only makes local people envious to see resources spent on foreigners when they are unemployed," said Christian Steinbach, head of the Leipzig city administrative district in the east.

Mr. Steinbach and other officials have called on the federal government to change its policy of sending the refugees to the eastern states until the economic situation is under control and the local community has become used to the idea of being part of a more open society.

Mr. Steinbach said the violence could continue to spread. In Zielitz, a small town in the Leipzig administrative district, for example, a gang attempted to burn down a refugee's home. In other towns across the region this year, foreigners have been beaten up, stabbed and often cursed.

"Racism in the five new states is significantly higher than in the rest of Germany," is the understated conclusion of a report commissioned by the federal government from the Cologne Institute for Social Research and Policy.

Not all former East Germans, however, are opposed to the new arrivals. In Eisenhuttenstadt, a small city where refugees for the state of Brandenburg arrive before being dispersed to other towns, residents donated beds, mattresses, clothing and kitchenware to a new refugee home. Others have volunteered time to help the new arrivals.

But even the most well-meaning attempts to deal with the strangers cannot make up for poorly equipped housing, bankrupt state governments that cannot afford to hire personnel and overburdened police that cannot provide protection.

For Mr. Kahn and the other refugees who were sent to Leisnig, the situation has reached a Kafkaesque climax. Refugee officials in Frankfurt now claim that the refugee officials in Leisnig incorrectly filled out the forms allowing the refugees to transfer to Frankfurt after the attacks. If the refugees do not move back to Leisnig, the Frankfurt officials say they will have the refugees arrested for breaking the law and sent back to Leisnig.

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