Protests erupt over vote to limit refugees: German MPs forced to run gauntlet of demonstrators to enter parliament for debate on constitutional amendment

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The Independent Online
THE GERMAN parliament voted last night for controversial changes in the constitution, which will attempt to stem the flow of asylum-seekers arriving in Germany. After a 13-hour debate, 521 voted last night in favour of the change, only 132 against.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered around the parliament and blocked roads to protest at the vote. Streets leading to the parliament were sealed off by police barricades to prevent protesters getting in. This was the biggest such confrontation that Bonn had seen for a decade, and briefly it exploded into violence.

Four thousand police had been bused in - one policeman for every two protesters. Nevertheless, MPs, as well as parliamentary workers and journalists, had difficulty in getting to parliament for the final asylum debate, which continued throughout the day. Demonstrators were reluctant to let MPs through the barricades. Some MPs arrived by boat or police helicopter.

Within parliament, the historic changes were passed with little difficulty. Some in the opposition Social Democratic party (SPD), whose support was necessary for the two-thirds majority needed for a change in the constitution, expressed last-minute doubts about the deal. But a majority of SPD members voted, albeit reluctantly, for a tightening of the rules.

Under the new rules, the right of would-be asylum-seekers to stay in Germany while their case is being considered is hedged around with ifs and buts. Those arriving from 'safe third countries' - Poland, for example, or the Czech Republic - can be sent back directly. Under an agreement with Warsaw, Germany will carry some of Poland's costs, and a similar deal is being worked out with the Czech Republic.

For 40 years West Germany prided itself on its generosity towards refugees. Since the collapse of Communism, however, the stream of asylum-seekers has become a flood. There were 400,000 asylum-seekers last year, and more than 160,000 in the first four months of this year alone (30 per cent up on the same period in 1992). The overwhelming majority come from Romania, followed by former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

Those in favour of the changes - including, after much agonising, the leadership of the Social Democrats - argue that the changes will help to neutralise the far-right Republican Party and reduce the extreme-right violence directed against asylum-seekers. Opponents argue, on the contrary, that the government, together with the SPD, has allowed the xenophobes to set the agenda.

To some extent those concerns are shared by those who are professionally involved. Walter Koisser, representative in Germany of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told the Suddeutsche Zeitung yesterday that the changes 'set a very bad example for the rest of the world'.

Others argue, however, that Germany had to do something, and that it is hypocritical to argue otherwise. Freimut Duve, a Social Democrat MP, argued in Die Zeit: 'The world utopia of Article 16 (on the absolute right to asylum) stood for 40 years in the dubious shadow of the Wall . . . I feel sick when I see how comfortably many of my friends crouch behind a moral hedge in order not to be dirtied by the mud of our time.'

Germany has for many years taken in many more refugees than Britain, and will no doubt continue to do so. Post-war Germany has always had an open-door policy; it is therefore all the more embarrassed that it is now installing locks for the first time. As a partial quid pro quo, Germany is due to relax its citizenship laws for those already living in Germany.

The protests around the Bonn parliament were a mixture of the well- meaning and the randomly violent. Yesterday morning some of those trying to reach the parliament were physically attacked. The demonstrators' day had begun with a church service. But by lunchtime the sun was hot and so were the Autonomen, the quasi-anarchists who believe that a demonstration is only worth going to if there are clashes with police. Some started throwing bottles and cobblestones at the police, who soon moved in to disperse and arrest them.

After the violence, the police retired in shifts to sit in the shade of the chestnut trees and eat their lunch. The demonstrators, went back to the 'Yes to asylum - No to hate' slogans. One female demonstrator explained the violence: 'Just a few idiots. It's hot - and most people hadn't slept all night.'

(Photograph omitted)