Many asylum-seekers fear going home more than rising hostility in Germany

December 17, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The wary Gypsy displays his Yugoslavian passport with the thin smile of a longtime lottery player who hasn't yet cashed a winning ticket.

His name is Miodrag Saitovic. He's come for help to the small, lemon-colored office of the Rom Gypsy Union at an asylum-seekers shelter in southwest Berlin. His wife Dobrila trails behind in a ratty fur coat.

His Yugoslavian passport may not be impressive in many parts of the world, but for a Gypsy in Germany, it's a whole lot better than a Romanian passport.

Germany is shipping Gypsies back to Romania when they don't qualify for political asylum. Romania has agreed to take them. About 200 have been returned already.

Neither country is particularly sympathetic to Gypsies. Romanians have been accused of running pogroms against Gypsies. In Germany they are widely stereotyped as dirty, lazy thieves. Germany has never paid restitution for the hundreds of thousands of Gypsies killed in Nazi death camps.

Asylum is a constitutional issue in Germany and an international issue for the European Community. The United States struggles with its own asylum policy in trying to deal with Haitian refugees.

European immigration ministers last week agreed to "streamline" asylum policies. They decried racism while allowing for speedier expulsion of asylum-seekers making "manifestly unfounded claims."

A German appeal that other nations admit more refugees was rejected. Germany complains that it gets 80 percent of all asylum-seekers in Europe.

The mainstream parties in Germany constantly debate adding limitations to the virtually absolute guarantee of asylum in the Constitution.

The rise of neo-Nazism in Germany is often described as very largely a reaction against the immigrants.

Six million foreigners live in Germany. About 500,000 are expected to have entered the country by the end of the year, about 80 percent more than came the previous year.

Asylum-seekers have come to symbolize all foreigners, and nothing but trouble, to many Germans. They've certainly borne the brunt of neo-Nazi violence.

The indecision over the asylum law has been seen by many as, in effect, encouraging Nazi hooliganism.

Asylum-seekers are routinely characterized as mostly economic migrants who come to Germany to take advantage of a liberal social welfare system.

Only about 5 percent of asylum claims are approved. But getting a decision can take five years.

Uncertain status

Miodrag Saitovic, peering suspiciously from under a battered fedora, doesn't say what his status is. "Uncertain" might be the appropriate word to stamp in his passport. He says that the German government wants to return him to Yugoslavia.

He came to Berlin five months ago from Belgrade, the capital of the Serbian rump of what used to be Yugoslavia. He and his wife still don't have much more than their seven children and their Yugoslav passports.

"No apartment. No money. No social help," he said. "All we do is walk the streets. Eat, sleep and walk the streets. And we don't get enough to eat."

He doesn't live at the asylum home, but he won't say where he and his wife sleep. His children are scattered around Berlin. He doesn't work.

"I'm an old man," says Mr. Saitovic. He's 56. "No jobs for an old man."

Immigrants without the proper papers have great difficulty finding jobs. The young men who live at this asylum home complain of extreme boredom because they can't work.

"All over the world there are people who don't want to work, and they give them work," says a young Gypsy named Marjan Ibraimovic, who works with the Rom Union.

"Here people want to work and they don't give them any."

But no matter how little Mr. Saitovic has in Germany, he doesn't want to go back to Yugoslavia.

"At the moment it is very bad," he says. "They treated us like dogs in Belgrade.

"I was an officer," he says. "They would take me immediately back into the army and send me out to fight."

Smoke and people

The tiny office of the Rom Union is full of smoke. It's also filling up with people seeking help.

A big curly-haired man in a black leather coat joins the conversation: "Yugoslavia is terrible because of the war. The young men have to go to war. They come here to escape."

His name is Kostic Rodoljiul, and he's been in Germany 22 years. He's come to offer his help to other Rom. The Rom are one of the two big groups of Gypsies in Germany; the others are called Cinti.

The German Red Cross runs this shelter. The Rom Gypsy Union offers a kind of self-help social service.

Mr. Rodoljiul says Gypsies are subject to "ethnic cleansing" in Yugoslavia.

"When the Serbians clean out Muslims, they clean out Rom, too," he says.

"Germany?" he says. "No problems. Where is good is good. Where is bad is bad. There are many Nazis."

This "home" has never been troubled. It's tucked into an industrial area south of Tempelhof Airport, between an expressway overpass and a railroad cut. It's not really in anybody's backyard.

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