Asylum-seekers escalate Munich housing crisis

March 01, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

MUNICH, Germany -- For the worried Munich city welfare official, it was one more piece of bad news.

The rise in the number of foreigners seeking political asylum in Germany had reached a point where the already overcrowded Bavarian capital would have to house new arrivals at a rate of 250 a week instead of the previous 150.

"Where are they going to go?" asked the official, Hans Stuetzle, director of the social affairs department of the Munich city government.

For some, the answer was already clear: They were going to one of 43 transport containers sitting in a corner of the city's famous Oktoberfest grounds.

The containers, each furnished with four bunk beds, metal lockers and a small table, serve as ersatz dwellings in the latest escalation of the city's housing crisis.

With between 8,000 and 10,000 homeless in the city, a public housing waiting list with 50,000 names on it, and unused factories, schools, offices and military barracks already serving as temporary living quarters for thousands, containers and tents are the only remaining option, Mr. Stuetzle said.

And so the asylum-seekers wait, four to a container, for German courts to rule whether they are, indeed, political refugees who must be permanently resettled in the country or merely economic opportunists who are searching for a better life and must be expelled.

While up to 95 percent are usually rejected, the judicial process can sometimes take years.

Despite emergency government measures to reduce the numbers, all signs indicate that the problem in Munich, as in other German cities, probably will get worse in the months ahead.

Drawn by Germany's dazzling affluence and its unusually liberal law governing political asylum, the number of foreigners from virtually everywhere seeking permanent refuge in the country topped 31,000 in January, a jump of nearly 50 percent over the 1991 monthly average.

While the numbers would appear to be manageable for a country of 80 million, they come in the wake of two other waves of immigration -- people from eastern Germany, and ethnic Germans from the old Soviet Union and its East European satellites.

Both of these developments severely strained the resources of western cities before the waves of asylum-seekers began arriving. The asylum-seekers are "the straw that breaks the camel's back," Mr. Stuetzle said.

The influx has already intensified social tensions and triggered attacks against foreigners by right-wing extremists. While the violence and harassment are consistently condemned by mainstream political parties, the public is growing increasingly resentful of the foreigners' presence.

Peter Hausmann, spokesman for the Christian Socialist Union, Bavaria's largest political party, noted that the tension stems in part from the perception that the asylum-seekers are aggravating the housing crisis for many German families.

Mr. Hausmann and other political figures in the region worry about the shifting mood and call for an immediate constitutional amendment so that the law would no longer allow automatic entry to anyone who declares himself a victim of political persecution.

In an attempt to ease social tensions, the government has pledged to telescope the processing of asylum-seekers' cases to a maximum of six weeks.

It also has agreed to build special transit camps in each state to isolate the asylum-seekers in a further step to reduce potential conflict with the local population.

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