German treatment of Romanians stirs up old fears: Deportations remind critics of Nazi era, writes Adrian Bridge in Berlin
Saturday 10 April 1993
He did not go into more detail. Captain Ralf Pistor, head of the border police at Berlin's Schonefeld airport, did not give him the chance. And, besides, the man had a plane to catch: a one-way flight to Bucharest to where he and some 100 fellow Romanians were about to be deported.
Under the terms of a controversial agreement signed between Bonn and Bucharest last October, Germany won the right to return - by force if necessary - any Romanian discovered to have entered the country illegally or whose application for political asylum had been turned down.
The agreement was reached against a background of virulent racist attacks in Germany, many of which were directed against gypsies, who make up by far the largest part of the nearly 200,000 Romanians who have fled here since the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in 1989. But critics immediately denounced it as blatantly discriminatory with sickening echoes of the Nazi era, during which hundreds of thousands of gypsies were sent to their deaths.
'We gypsies are once again being treated like animals,' said Rudko Kawczynski, president of the Hamburg-based Roma National Congress. 'In Romania we are persecuted and now we are being forcibly deported - from Germany of all countries. This is racist politics in the old tradition.'
Although some of those gathered in the airport's specially sealed-off waiting room on Tuesday night were gypsies, the majority were not. Clutching plastic bags containing the meagre possessions they had brought with them on their flight, most were ethnic Romanians caught by German border police illegally entering the country from Poland earlier that day.
After what for many had been an arduous journey through Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, and a night-time crossing of the Oder river, their only experience of the promised land of Germany consisted of hours of questioning at detention centres close to the border and the bus ride to the airport on the eastern outskirts of Berlin. They all had a small souvenir too: a stamp in their passports bearing the single word 'Deported'.
Compared to the violence witnessed at other forcible repatriations - such as those of Vietnamese boat people from Hong Kong or Albanians from Italy - the scene at Schonefeld was one of model restraint. On Tuesday, nobody resisted. Sometimes they do, admitted Captain Pistor. That's when the handcuffs come out. In cases of continued resistance a member of the border police will personally escort the person on a separate flight to Bucharest.
Although the agreement with Romania came into force last November, the deportations only began in earnest this year. To date nearly 10,000 Romanians have been repatriated, most of them on the now almost daily flights from Schonefeld.
Many more will follow. Despite persistent allegations by gypsies and some human rights groups to the contrary, Germany does not accept that Romania is a country of political persecution and will not, therefore, recognise the applications for asylum lodged by the tens of thousands of Romanians who are still here. Over the past few months, moreover, Bonn has also stepped up patrols along the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic, making it much harder for would-be illegal immigrants to avoid capture on entering the country.
More are being caught and more are being sent back. Gypsy pressure groups such as the Roma National Congress claim that many of those being deported are not being allowed to put in applications for asylum, as they are still allowed to do under German law. Not surprisingly this is denied by German officials, but also by the Bonn representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has sent observers to the deportations.
'On the whole, the people being repatriated are simply illegal immigrants or rejected asylum-seekers,' said Stefan Teloken of the UNHCR. 'As such we have no legal objections to what is happening. Lots of countries have these sort of agreements with each other and there is nothing unusual in this one.
'The real issue at stake is a moral one. After what the Nazis did to the gypsies in the Second World War, many people find it repugnant to see these sort of deportations being carried out here today. The debate is not about the legality of what is happening but about historical guilt.'
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