After a tough weekend of talks, all-party agreement was reached on changing the liberal asylum clause in the constitution which has opened the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of would-be refugees from central and eastern Europe and the Third World.
Under the new constitutional clause set to be approved, Germany will henceforth be able to turn back asylum-seekers entering from other European countries, or from other countries in which it is judged that there is no political persecution.
At a press conference after the talks, Wolfgang Schauble, parliamentary leader of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU), and the sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), said that the right of individuals to seek asylum in Germany would remain and there would be a special status for refugees from war zones, such as Yugoslavia. The parties also agreed that asylum procedures would be drastically speeded up, Mr Schauble said.
With half a million people expected to seek refuge here this year alone, the asylum regulations have frequently been cited as one of the main reasons for the outburst of xenophobic violence that has claimed 16 lives since the beginning of the year.
The violence erupted in late August when right-wing extremists stormed a hostel for asylum- seekers in the north-eastern town of Rostock every night for almost a week. It reached new heights late last month when a Turkish woman and two children were killed in a firebomb attack on their home in the western town of Molln.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl has long been urging constitutional change as a means of halting the influx of refugees and, by implication, the violence against them. But in order to get the two-thirds majority required in parliament for such a change he needs the support of the SPD, which gave its approval for a tightening of the regulations only in November, after a month of agonising internal debate.
Under Germany's asylum laws, enshrined in the constitution adopted by West Germany in 1949, the country agreed to give refuge to anybody claiming persecution on political, religious or ethnic grounds. Unsuccessful applicants for asylum were given the right to appeal against the decision and to stay on in Germany, receiving financial support, in many cases for several years, pending the outcome.
The law, designed largely in recognition of the fact that many Germans persecuted under the Nazis were given refuge in other countries, and as proof that Germany had turned over a new leaf, has been widely abused, particularly in recent years. Of the 500,000 expected to apply for asylum this year - a dramatic increase on the 256,000 last year - well over 90 per cent will be rejected on the grounds that they are economic rather than political or religious refugees.
The number of people coming has placed an almost intolerable burden on local authorities, whose responsibility it is to house, feed and, more recently, to protect them pending the outcome of their applications. While the main parties in Bonn have squabbled for the best part of two years over whether to change the asylum law, neo-Nazi extremists have taken the law into their own hands and, often with the tacit support of local people, have subjected hostels for foreigners to almost nightly firebombings.
The urgency of coming at last to some sort of agreement was underlined once again over the weekend when, despite recent efforts to crack down on the offenders, right-wing extremists hurled firebombs at a hostel for asylum- seekers in the north-western town of Konigslutter.
Elsewhere in Germany, Romanian and German youths clashed in Grosskanya in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, and several injuries were reported in Berlin after left-wing extremists staging an anti-fascist rally clashed with police.
Disgusted by the violence against foreigners, more than 250,000 Germans joined forces in a candle-lit protest in Munich yesterday evening, organised under the simple motto: 'A city says No'.
The Munich protest was the latest in a series of rallies and demonstrations held in cities and towns throughout Germany recently with the aim of demonstrating the isolation of those responsible for the attacks.
A newspaper reported yesterday that two American banks have abandoned plans to invest in eastern Germany because of the attacks on foreigners.
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