Asylum is out of bounds in a town without pity: Steve Crawshaw in Hagen finds doors closing to foreigners

THE COVER of a book of photographs displaying the attractions of the town of Hagen shows a brown concrete town hall, a 14- floor apartment block, a McDonald's and a bus stop.

A steel town of 200,000 in north-west Germany, Hagen is not one of the country's more picturesque spots, but it has achieved fame of a kind in Germany. It has publicly said no to receiving more foreigners. Enough, the mayor said, was enough.

This is where Germany's uniquely generous asylum law has run into popular resistance. The local mayor, Dietmar Thieser, a Social Democrat and former trade union official, announced that Hagen was no longer prepared to take any more asylum- seekers: 'Whether that is legally acceptable or not, I don't care.'

There are 2,500 foreign asylum-seekers in Hagen today, and the numbers are due to go on rising. Mr Thieser complains that he is expected to find flats for the new arrivals, even when the town itself has a housing shortage. About 3,000 families are waiting to be re-housed.

More than 400,000 asylum- seekers arrived in Germany last year - almost 20 times as many as in the UK. They are apportioned to each of the 16 regions; and the regions apportion the refugees locally. Mr Thieser complains: 'They send us the people, but they don't give us the money.'

The mayor is unrepentant at the anger his comments have caused, and insists that it was necessary to break the taboos. 'Just as we talk about problems among Germans, we must talk about these problems, too.' The far- right Republican Party praised the mayor's 'exemplary behaviour'. But the mayor says that he is unbothered by compliments to a Social Democrat from such an unusual corner. 'Now, the Republicans have no platform on which they can alone discuss problems which objectively exist. Before, the far right could behave as though they were the only representatives of truth.'

At one of the many foreigners' hostels throughout the city, asylum-seekers say they are grateful to the German government for being allowed to be here (although they complain of constant petty racism). Paradoxically, some seem to accept the arguments in favour of stemming the flood of new arrivals: after us, no deluge. William, a student from Cameroon, said: 'I can believe that there are too many people already. It's true, the numbers are very high.'

Downstairs, meanwhile, another delivery of food is being unloaded: crate after crate of household basics: mineral water, juice, milk, sausage, potatoes, onions, washing powder. The food comes courtesy of the local authorities.

In Eckersey, where many foreigners live, groups of Turks gather all day long to chat in the main square. Many have been in Germany for decades. But there is fear here since the killings of Solingen, when five Turkish women and girls were burnt to death in the early hours of 29 May, just half an hour down the autobahn from Hagen. One Turk in his sixties denies feeling frightened, as if to do so would be a sign of weakness. But then, as if as an afterthought, he said: 'I've had nightmares every night, since then. I dreamed that my grandchildren were in the fire.'

So far, at least, Hagen has seen little lethal right-wing violence. Mr Thieser argues that his policy will help to head off the extremists, and prevent them from gaining further support. The Republicans claim, however, that Mr Thieser is merely attempting to steal their clothes. Wolfgang Schulz, leader of the Republican group, argues: 'Two years ago, we proposed just the same thing. He's done it, but too late.'

The Republicans gained 7 per cent of the vote in the last local election. Now, Mr Schulz insists, membership is increasing steadily, and they are unimpressed by Mr Thieser's bid for popular support.

The Republicans portray themselves as the voice of the little man, whom nobody listens to. Mr Schulz argues that the established parties have no contact with reality. 'The foreigners are all put into the same districts, where the little people live. None of them goes where the top people from the old parties live.'

In some respects, the mayor echoes that view. 'The people in Bonn go on television talk-shows and talk about 'disillusionment with politics'. But they don't really know what's going on.' The mayor insists that the closing of its doors is based on practical problems, not on racism. If the town continued to take more refugees, he says, it would have to turn over sports halls to temporary accommodation - as has happened before. And that, he says, Hageners would refuse to accept. Already anonymous leaflets have started appearing, saying: 'Citizens] We must organise ourselves]'

Hagen used to be a booming steel town. But those days are long gone. Thousands of jobs have been lost. At the Krupp steel works, yet more jobs are due to go in the next few months. Outside the main works, a plaintive notice declares: 'Hagen must remain a producer of steel]' Already, the unemployment rate is 10 per cent (up from 8 per cent last year), and seems set to rise further.

Hagen's policy was described by one of the mayor's Social Democratic colleagues as 'living-room racism', and there have been calls for Mr Thieser's resignation. But there has been rare political unity on the council: most Social Democrats voted in favour, as did the other mainstream parties, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats - and, of course, the Republicans.

The only ones who have consistently opposed the policy have been the Greens. Matthias Peck of the Greens suggests that Mr Thieser's defiance of the law sets a disastrous example. 'This gives carte blanche for Solingen and Molln (where three people were burnt to death last year). Those people can say, 'We're just going one step further.' '

There is a paradox at the heart of the question of xenophobic violence. Most bitterness is reserved for the asylum-seekers, or the Scheinasylanten, the 'fake asylum-seekers', who continue to stream into Germany. Many Germans believe that the foreigners arriving merely want a share of Germany's affluence. 'We can take the ones who are fleeing the war in Yugoslavia, of course - but not the others,' was one typical comment in Hagen.

Yet the most lethal attacks have been against Turks, many of whom have been in Germany for two or three decades, and who have contributed enormously to its wealth.

Even now, there is often little solidarity between Turks, who form about 5 per cent of the population of Hagen, and the the new foreigners, the asylum-seekers. One Turk argued: 'Asylum-seekers are all liars.' His friends laughed in agreement. Another man added: 'They work cheaper than us. We get paid 18 marks ( pounds 7) an hour. And they offer to do the same job for five.'

Hagen, like other towns across Germany, provides food and shelter not only for those fleeing the Yugoslav wars, but also for Romanians, Bulgarians and others who seek to escape their present circumstances. All have the right to stay while their cases are considered. It is a government policy developed during the Cold War, when the numbers were manageable, because the borders were almost closed. Now that they are open, however, the numbers have become a flood.

Few seriously doubt that the pressures are enormous, especially when Germany is trying to cope with its own recession, and with the traumatic effects of the re- marriage of west and east, after 40 years apart. The asylum rules were recently tightened somewhat, despite the qualms of the SPD (which eventually voted in favour of the change); but most Germans believe that the asylum- seekers will continue to arrive.

A bank employee, walking with his wife in Hagen's pedestrianised shopping centre, said: 'We've nothing against foreigners. When one says the ship is full, then they say that we are Nazis. But why don't they go to England, instead? That's what I want to know.' In most cases, even disagreement with the council's initiative is voiced only cautiously. One man argued: 'We must be careful not to stir up hostility to foreigners. After all, the lack of apartments is not just here, it's everywhere.'

Mr Thieser believes that he has usefully focused attention on the problems facing Hagen and other towns. 'We wanted to make clear that the situation is dramatic - not just with us, but everywhere. This has nothing to with asylum, yes-or-no, but to do with the communities, and what they can do. Now, we have at least given ourselves a breathing space.'

Mr Peck argues differently. He believes that the asylum-seekers will continue to arrive, and that Mr Thieser's gesture was, in that sense, 'just hot air' (a compromise has already been struck between council and regional government). But, Mr Peck says, the Hagen rhetoric can have dangerous consequences, by encouraging resentment of those who continue to arrive. 'It would be wrong to think that we have seen the last of the violence.'

BONN (Reuter) - Two refugees were injured when arsonists attacked a hostel in the northern town of Raisdorf, police said yesterday.

They said the two men suffered mild smoke inhalation while fleeing the burning house, where about 20 refugees stayed near the Baltic port of Kiel on Friday night.

(Photographs omitted)

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