- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001


FRANKFURT AM ODER. Xenophobia has made a healthy headway in eastern Germany, where the post-Cold War standard of living is still striving to catch up with the rest of the country. It is here that German young people are most disillusioned by high unemployment and seek to blame the influx of asylum-seekers to satisfy their need to know why life isn't as easy as it might have been when communism handed them housing and jobs. This has given strength to many far-right political groups and popularity on a small scale to neo-Nazism. As exaggerated as the fears of these young people may be, the way the country is handling its postwar guilt by making itself Europe's safe haven comes with a price tag for both the foreigner and the native.
Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work, while German taxpayers must pay for their housing and spending money. The country currently has no limit for asylum-seekers or war refugees. For the German taxpayers, this means paying 1,480 Marks around $740 per month for the first three to six months for a family of four, just for living expenses. This is hardly sustainable in Germany's already overblown welfare state, but Germans are finding it hard to turn anyone away when the ghosts of the past loom so large.
The words "Germany" and "asylum" have therefore become the magic words for those traveling from the former Eastern bloc countries, and as far away as China. This German riverside town on the border of Poland serves as a new Check Point Charlie for those looking for opportunity. Many do not have the proper papers and so choose to make the crossing illegally, but this is difficult. With over 12,000 German border police armed with night vision binoculars, heat monitors that detect any movement of life and patrol boats that keep watch in the smaller Niesse River just beyond the Oder River, illegals have to have money and intelligence on their side to make it through. A step past the border does not necessarily mean "home free" for those entering the country illegally.
Ahmad and his friend Golcar should know. They had been caught by the police the night before near the train station here. Their crime: no passport, no visa, no story. They didn't know how they had gotten to Germany from Afghanistan, they told the officers at 11 p.m. Nor did they know where their papers were. So they spent the night at the border protection police station in darkened cells with crumbling walls.
Their story is not unique. Over 1,000 people crossed the border illegally in 1999, but the police numbers do not reflect the greater web of the people-smuggling business. Each illegal may require multiple drivers from their home town, and 30 percent of those entering the country unlawfully in 1999 were smuggled in as part of organized gangs who trade in people.
The professional smugglers try to outwit the policemen by using heat monitors bought from old army stores, and help their clients make the mad dash across the Oder as soon as they perceive the border patrol is not guarding a spot along the river. The brave swim the icy waters, but families will often cross in boats.
If they choose to apply for asylum, refugees who have entered from another safe European state from which they could also seek refuge will be turned away. But unlike the United States, where many who land without the proper papers are deported, the rules of who can stay without proper documentation are more loose.
"In case of doubt, we would rather have them here than force them out," Robert Kilp of the Office for Foreigners' Affairs said in Cologne.
Though only three percent of asylum-seekers are eventually granted asylum, even if one is not given official asylum status, many foreigners, like the refugees of war from the Balkans, are allowed to stay for years without being deported.
As I entered the questioning room of the border protection police station, Ahmad rose from his chair, bowed his head respectfully and stuck out his hand in greeting. He was more like a politician than the lawbreaker the police officer had greeted him as.
He has played this game well. German asylum law prevents deportation if there is no way to prove the foreigner came from a safe third country. As a Tajikistani, he says he fears persecution in Afghanistan, where his people are a minority persecuted by the Taliban. Now Ahmad and Golcar will seek asylum in Eisenhuttenstadt, the nearest town to the border where their application will be processed.
As they wait for asylum to be approved, they will look forward to free clothing, medical provisions, housing and even spending money. But for now, they have no status, no identity. They have joined the ranks of "Auslaender," or foreigners, who many Germans have learned to welcome and others have learned to hate.
As his friend answers questions, Golcar is still curled up in his cell, a wool blanket cocoon making him nearly invisible against the dark stone walls. A few yards away, the Oder keeps silent, perhaps the only witness to last night's endeavors. For now, sleep is his celebration of a risk worth taking, and hatred is a concept beyond his state of consciousness. For now, he is home.
E-mail: smeans@washingtontimes.com

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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