Gains by far-right parties force Europe to re-examine immigration restrictions

November 20, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Gains by far-right parties are forcing several European countries to re-examine the place of foreigners in their societies.

Austria and Switzerland have found their consensus-style politics challenged by anti-foreign parties in recent elections, and gains by extreme-right parties in Germany have given rise to calls for that country to change its view of German citizenship. Currently, only people with "German blood" stand a decent chance of becoming citizens.

Until the recent fall of communism, all three countries were able to control immigration to suit the needs of their economies. Now, however, Germany has gotten about 500,000 unwanted immigrants in each of the past two years, and Austria and Switzerland have gained 50,000 each in 1989 and again in 1990.

Partly as a result of this influx, far-right parties have scored surprising electoral gains. In Switzerland, last month's elections saw the Auto Party increase its representation to eight seats from two, and the Schweizer Demokraten increase its strength to five seats from three. The ethnic Italian-based Liga dei Ticinesi entered Parliament for the first time.

All three parties advocate slamming the door on foreigners, who make up 16 percent of the Swiss population, and staying out of the European Community, which they fear would force Switzerland to open its borders to even more foreigners.

In Vienna, Austria, the far-right Freedom Party recently moved ahead of the conservatives to become the second most powerful force in the country and a rising force in national politics.

Similarly, in the German state of Bremen, a far-right group that experts had written off a year ago made a surprising comeback on the strength of an anti-refugee campaign.

The election results have prompted varying reactions.

Swiss commentators said the four-party coalition that has ruled the country for nearly 30 years faces a real threat. "The cozy situation of the past is being challenged by the nearly unstoppable wave of immigration," said Sonntags-Zeitung, a Zurich newspaper.

In Austria, the trend has been for the established parties to jump on the anti-foreign bandwagon and proclaim that refugees will not be allowed to stay indefinitely.

Vienna's mayor, Social Democrat Helmut Zilk, echoed far-right calls for the speedy deportation of illegal immigrants and refugees.

"If necessary, the army should be called on. They can't continue to abuse our generosity," Mr. Zilk said.

In Germany, there has been no shortage of similar calls for refugees to be sent home.

More recently, however, the debate has swung in the other direction, as more and more conservative politicians have joined center and left-of-center advocates to change Germany's restrictive laws and allow more foreigners to become citizens.

German President Richard von Weizsaecker became the latest prominent member of the ruling Christian Democratic Union to call on Germany to set immigration quotas like those in the United States, Canada and Australia. The wave of illegal immigrants should be addressed "more realistically" than by simply denying almost everyone citizenship except for ethnic Germans, he said.

Currently, anyone with German ancestors, even if he no longer speaks German or has relatives in Germany, can return to Germany and receive citizenship relatively easily. But even third-generation residents of Germany whose grandparents may have come as guest workers during the 1950s and 1960s have to go through a maze of rules and regulations to acquire a German passport.

"That only people with German blood can be Germans -- this is almost a unique rule in the world," said political scientist Roland Tichy, who has studied Germany's immigration policy since World War II.

Although a labor shortage caused by post-World War II reconstruction prompted the East and West German governments to allow limited immigration, the new residents, their children and their grandchildren were never given full citizenship. They remain Turkish, Yugoslav or Italian citizens, Mr. Tichy said, making their integration into German society harder.

That has led to a "ghettoization" of foreigners because few see themselves as German, and they do not learn the language or acquire proper job training or higher education, according to Liselotte Funcke, the former commissioner for foreigners who resigned this year in protest over the government's inaction.

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