Czechs fear ripple effect as Germany's law sends migrants back to them Refugees are trying to pass through

August 03, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

CERVENY UJEZD, Czech Republic -- As refugee camps go, the converted Soviet army base at Cerveny Ujezd looks pretty good: It's nestled in a quiet birch grove, the rooms are clean, and full meals are served three times daily.

So why do most of those who arrive at Cerveny Ujezd slip away quietly in the night, never to be seen again on Czech soil?

"People who leave their homes somewhere in Eastern Europe, their dream is Western Europe or America," said Tomas Haisman, head of refugee affairs at the Czech Interior Ministry. "It's not a former Communist country."

Since the beginning of last month, however, the journey for more and more of these people may end here at Cerveny Ujezd, 20 miles from the German border, rather than in Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe.

With the introduction of Germany's new asylum law, anyone seeking asylum in Germany who has passed through a country deemed to be safe for refugees -- a category that includes all of Germany's neighbors -- may be sent back to the border.

From there, taking care of the refugee will be the neighboring country's responsibility.

This responsibility has Czech officials worried.

"We have no capacity. We have no means," said Jiri Grumlik, who oversees the Czech border police.

"And frankly speaking, not many of the asylum seekers want to stay here. More than 80 percent of the people who come to the refugee camps disappear again and try to get to Germany. Many of them know that if they ask here for asylum, they can't ask in another country," Mr. Grumlik said.

Although it's too soon to know what long-term effects the asylum law will have on the flow of refugees and migrants, arrests have fallen slightly in recent weeks. In the first three weeks of June, 1,081 refugees were caught trying to cross the border illegally; in the same period last month the number fell to 965, Mr. Grumlik said.

The fear is that the Czech Republic could end up as host to tens of thousands of those who don't make it to Germany. Already, the Czechs are caring for more than 2,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia, as well as some 600 people from other countries who have been granted asylum and another 600 who have requested asylum and are awaiting a decision.

But those seeking to stay represent only a fraction of the refugees and migrants passing through.

In 1991, Czech authorities stopped 23,000 people trying to cross illegally into Germany. The number grew to 31,000 last year.

By the end of May of this year, more than 21,000 people had been caught, Mr. Grumlik said -- and he estimates that only one-fifth of those who try are caught.

In all, more than 438,000 people asked Germany for political asylum last year, and the largest numbers of those are thought to have passed through the Czech Republic or Poland. With conditions in the republics of the former Yugoslavia and former Soviet Union continuing to deteriorate, few expect the numbers to fall.

"More and more people are still going to come from the east, because people have to see this with their own eyes," said Jan Maxa, deputy director of the Cerveny Ujezd camp, 60 miles north of Prague. "And there are so many conflicts over there -- in Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan -- there will be a lot of people who won't want to fight, who will want to get away."

Indeed, most see the German law as simply pushing the problem farther to the east.

Faced with the possibility of having to care for thousands of refugees, the Czech Republic is seeking to tighten its border on the east with Slovakia.

Although Slovakia was reluctant to begin enforcing a more strenuous border regime, the Czechs and Slovaks have agreed to establish full border checks for citizens of third countries. Already the Czechs have begun sending suspected migrants back to Slovakia.

The Czechs also plan to require citizens of some former Yugoslavian and Soviet republics to obtain visas before entering the country.

"The Czech Republic doesn't want to inherit the problem that Germany has had, so they want to limit access to their country," said Daisy Dell, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Prague. "Everybody's shifting the refugee problem east, and you can't go very far before you run into very serious difficulties."

The Czech Republic, for instance, has no agreement with Hungary or Ukraine on readmitting illegal immigrants. This means that in many cases, the best the Czechs will be able to do is send them back to Slovakia, where they will likely wait for another chance to cross the border into the Czech Republic and try to make it into Germany one more time.

A further concern is that as Western Europe becomes harder to penetrate and the Czech economy begins to develop, more refugees and migrants will be content to remain in the Czech Republic. The country is already becoming a destination for some refugees, only four years after it was still producing refugees of its own.

Sarki Hustaz, 29, who fled his native Ghana in the wake of threats on his life from local officials, says he didn't plan on ending up in the Czech Republic but now would like to stay until he feels it is safe to return home.

"I just wanted to get away from Ghana. My brother told me that anywhere in Europe would be good," said Mr. Hustaz, who has been in the country for more than a year awaiting a decision in his case. "I'm happy to be here. If I didn't like it, I would have left already."

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