Immigration: Germany: Hand of welcome keeps visitors at arm's length

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The Independent Online
GERMANY has two important policies on foreigners. One is unusually liberal; the other, unusually strict. Both - the easy-going attitude to letting people arrive, and the tough attitude to letting them integrate - have led to enormous social tensions, vividly reflected in the arson murders of five Turks in Solingen.

Where Britain locks the doors and pretends it cannot find the key, Germany has long extended a welcome to foreign refugees. For decades, the persecuted and huddled masses were encouraged to seek shelter in Europe's most generous democratic state.

While the Cold War continued, the numbers remained manageable. But, with the opening of the Iron Curtain, the number of those arriving has soared: 440,000 last year, the majority from Romania, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia. That is almost 20 times as many as arrived in Britain.

Still burdened by its own past, Germany was reluctant to acknowledge the pressures it faced, playing host to so many foreigners. But, as Germany's economic problems escalated after unification, so did resentments - and attacks on foreigners.

Eventually, after much angst - the liberal policy on asylum was one of the proudest boasts of post-war democratic Germany - the German parliament voted last month to overturn the constitution, and curb asylum immigrants. Asylum-seekers from countries deemed safe can be turned back at point of entry, for the first time. Even now, the rules are less anti-foreign than in Britain; but, for Germany, the change is radical.

Its new policy has already had an effect. The number of foreigners seeking asylum in Germany fell sharply in May, according to the Interior Ministry. Only 31,705 foreigners applied for asylum that month, compared with 43,243 in April.

Defenders of the changes in policy say that the constitutional amendments will blunt the force of the far right; critics say that the changes merely steal the far right's clothes.

Meanwhile, by a cruel paradox, those suffering the brunt of resentment over the influx of asylum-seekers have contributed enormously to Germany's wealth in recent decades. Germany encouraged huge armies of Gastarbeiter - 'guest workers' - to come to Germany to be co- creators of the country's economic miracle. There are 1.8 million Turks in Germany. But they have always been treated as second- class citizens, their non- Germanness always emphasised.

The flip-side of Germany's liberal laws allowing foreigners in was that they were not expected, or even allowed, fully to integrate. Ethnicity remained the basis of the country's citizenship laws, to a much greater extent than elsewhere in Europe. Turks and other foreigners remained foreign, even in later generations.

If the open-door policy on asylum-seekers helped create a fertile climate for far-right resentments, the restrictive policy on integration gave the 'guests' in Germany little protection against xenophobia.

Much of the recent violence has been against asylum-seekers. But, in the worst two single incidents, resident Turks were killed: a woman died, with her niece and granddaughter, in an arson attack in November; two women and three girls, members of an extended family, died in the latest arson attack, in Solingen, near Cologne. One Turk in Solingen - an ordinary German industrial town, with no special history of racial tensions - expressed a view last week that can be heard from Turks all over Germany: 'We're very frightened that this could happen again.' There is bitterness at what is seen as an official betrayal. In the wake of the latest killings, the German government faces increased pressure to introduce more liberal citizenship laws, including the possibility of dual citizenship.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl emphasises that racism is not just Germany's problem but is Europe-wide. That is true, and should be acknowledged by Germany's partners. But it is inappropriate, coming from Mr Kohl. As some in his own party have pointed out, his approach should be: 'This is not just Europe's problem - we in Germany have a serious problem to grapple with.' Until he, or his successor, has the courage to say that, the problems seem certain to get worse.