Germany's new asylum law curbs flow of 'illegals' Border guards see immediate results

August 02, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

ZITTAU, Germany -- The border patrol van douses its lights and lumbers slowly down a rutted dirt lane while Dirk Besser scans Poland across the river through infrared night glasses.

It's a little before midnight, and he's looking for border jumpers hoping to cross the Neisse River into Germany. He's not seeing any.

Germany's new asylum law became effective July 1, and illegal immigrants seem to have gotten the word that you can't stay even if you can swim the river.

Stalled in economic doldrums and fearful of mass emigration from Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, virtually every Western European country has toughened immigration laws. Getting asylum, never common except in Germany and France, has become rare.

The new German law closes the border to anybody coming in from a "safe country." All of Germany's neighboring countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, are deemed safe by the new regulations.

The Border Police unit at Zittau -- 54 men and women, including Mr. Besser -- guard about 15 miles of the 260-mile Polish border. Another unit is responsible for the Czech border, another 270 miles.

In the first three weeks of July, border guards stopped 1,394 "illegals," about half the 2,724 they stopped in June. Only 45 of them asked for asylum.

"All [including those who mentioned asylum] went back the same day," says Volker Amler of the border protection headquarters in Frankfort an der Oder.

That's about what's happening nationwide. Preliminary figures show that some 23,000 asylum seekers have come into the country in those weeks in July, down about one-third from June, when 31,123 came in, and half of the 46,496 in July 1992.

"This tendency shows the law is already taking effect," says Erwin Marschewski, a spokesman for Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union. The CDU majority pushed the law through in response to a rush of attacks on foreigners by right-wing extremists, in what has been called a bar-the-victim .. law.

After this country's constitutional court granted asylum to a Ghanaian refuge the other day, conservative politicians feared a "flood" of cases. But only 10 cases had been decided by the high court by then, and just three are pending. Not a burden, said a court official.

The high court has allowed a Togolese man, an Indian and two Ghanaians to remain in Germany and file for asylum. Appeals by four Ghanaians, a Pakistani and a Nigerian were rejected.

The court's decisions, observers say, signal to border police and lower courts that each appeal should be decided on its own merits. Lists of safe countries were merely guidelines, they say.

The decision to deny entry comes immediately. Asylum seekers have 21 days to appeal to a local court. If they lose there, they can appeal right away to the constitutional court.

All appeals so far have come from people who have flown into Frankfurt am Main airport. But even there, asylum requests have dropped from about 23 a day to nine.

At Zittau, the "schlepper" who guides illegal immigrants is often a German or Polish taxi driver. He drives passengers to the border, points across the river, then drives through a legal checkpoint and picks up his fares on the German side.

"It costs two, three, 500 marks, depending on whether they go to Dresden or Leipzig or Erfurt" says Volker Amler.

Mr. Besser's patrol pulls up to a German farm near the Neisse and walks to an abandoned bridge. The river is at most 20 yards wide here, but flowing fast.

"The Neisse is high now," Mr. Besser says. "Men can come across. Women with children can't."

The border is in the middle of this old cobblestone bridge, closed by a chain-link fence pretty much chopped up by border jumpers and haphazardly repaired with barbed wire.

"No problem to come through," Mr. Besser says.

"We found 26 people asleep in that barn one time," he adds.

The border guards move on to a railroad bridge -- there are a half-dozen bridges within two miles or so of their barracks. They flash portable searchlights into the high grass along the river bank, disturbing only a duck, which squawks its protest.

"Last week a Romanian family came across here," Mr. Besser says. "When they saw us they all ran in different directions. We caught the mother, father and a baby on this side."

Two more kids stayed on the other side. "We called, but they wouldn't come. They stayed in Poland."

The mother, father and baby were sent back, apparently for a family reunification.

The Zittau border guards routinely stopped 30 to 40 "intruders" a day along their strip of the border until the new law came into effect. Now the count is dropping.

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