Reunification Means Hard Times for Foreigners in Germany

"We are all foreigners - almost everywhere"

Asked when he had last been harassed, a Pakistani who has lived in West Germany for 20 years responded:  "I haven't had a bad experience all day."  But it was then only 11:45 a.m.  Racist outbreaks have become an everyday occurrence in larger German cities; racially motivated crimes have increased 500% during 1990.


The 1.6 million Turks, who make up by far the largest ethnic minority in Germany, are the most frequent victims of racial incidents.  Foreigners kept their offspring off the streets after the German soccer team won the world championship last Summer; the dark-skinned kept their distance from unification festivities on October 3.


Germans appear to have been the sole beneficiaries of national unification.  A young Turk in West Berlin stated categorically:  "We used to want the Wall to be opened, but not any more."  He now avoids East Berlin:  "We used to go there frequently and have heavy discussions with the people.  But now they hate us all."


For 40 years, racist comments had been forbidden by the East German constitution.  Almuth Berger, the East German State Secretary for the Concerns of Foreigners from March until October, attempts to explain the hatred of foreigners:  "The topic was always taboo.  That's why we never noticed how much fear and hatred there was within us.  The insecurity with which East Germans now live has aided its growth.  Fear of losing one's job fosters aggressive behavior towards strangers.  That's most obvious when a struggling firm needs to decide which employees to fire."  Other observers regard foreigners to now be on the receiving end of the hostility once reserved for communists.

Berger, a Lutheran pastor in Berlin's United church, is concerned about the setbacks which unification has brought to her work.  "The border to Eastern Europe has become much more forbidding for our people.  The borders to the West have been opened, the ones to the East closed.  For now, Poles can no longer enter Germany without a visa.  The last East German government had permitted as many Jews to settle here, as wanted to.  Bonn has stopped all this for now and we don't know where to go from here."


As State Secretary, Berger had the capability of blocking government extradition measures; her office now has little more than an advisory role to the Bonn-based government.  Foreigners had been given the right to vote in East Germany even prior to Erich Honecker's fall; today, this voting right has again receded into the distant future.

Will the Iron Curtain be replaced by a "golden" one on Germany's eastern and southern borders?  Despite church protests, more stringent legislation on foreigners was passed by the Bundestag last April.  Nevertheless, the new German state is bracing for an influx of asylum applicants.  More than 180,000 are expected for 1990, up 33% over the previous year.  Pessimists warn that the final departure of the Soviet occupation forces in 1994 may transform the Red Army into a mass of 380,000 refugees seeking political asylum.  Undoubtedly, at least several tens of thousands will attempt to remain.

Though only 3% of asylum applicants are successful, approximately 30% of the remaining persons remain in Germany illegally.  Until now, there have been relatively few attempts to expel these persons by force, yet the number of these attempts will undoubtedly increase.


Who is a German?

Only 0.5% of the East German population was foreign; that number is shrinking even further at present.  Just 10% of those 85,000 Vietnamese, Mozambicans, Angolans and others who had been brought into the country through government-to-government accords are expected to remain.  Eight percent of the West German populace consists of foreigners, a total which still lags behind Switzerland's 14%.  Many, like the recent arrivals from Albania, would happily proceed on to North America if given the chance.


The conservative German press prefers to describe its country as overrun by asylum seekers; the conservative, evangelical news service "Idea" recently described Germany as "exploding" with foreigners.  A book entitled "The Storm on Europe" envisions a "plague of locusts" descending on Europe.  Yet, strangely enough, such descriptions seem most appropriate when applied to ethnic Germans.  After all, only one in four immigrants arriving in Germany is legally regarded to be a foreigner.  The 40-year-old "Vertriebenengesetz" (Law for the Expelled) had determined that persons born within the German borders of 1937 as well as those able to document that close relatives had served in the (Nazi) Wehrmacht, could qualify as Germans.  Consequently, many thousands of youthful Polish and Soviet citizens have been labeled as ethnic Germans upon arrival
in West Germany, even if they spoke no German.

Nearly 14 million persons have moved to West German soil since 1945, 3.4 million of them since 1950.  Six-hundred-thousand ethnic Germans will arrive during 1990, up from 78,500 in 1987.  One-hundred-thousand ethnic Germans in Rumania are waiting to enter; the same is true of roughly two million Soviet citizens.  West Germany has always regarded itself as the motherland of all Germans, and the attempts of Social Democrats to scratch the Vertriebenengesetz as a relic of the Cold War will meet with considerable resistance.  Wags claim that Christian-Democratic concern for foreign Germans is oiled by that group's tendency to vote conservative after immigration.

Rev. Heinrich Albertz, a social activist and a retired mayor of West Berlin, raised temperatures a year ago when he accused recent immigrants from East Germany of being economic refugees: "I'm not impressed by the scenes of all the young people now leaving the GDR.  Those are the same conformist careerists, of which we already have thousands, that will be causing us plenty of trouble yet."

Barbara John, the West Berlin politician responsible for foreigners, labels it racist that a more-or-less ethnic German from Eastern Europe can qualify immediately for citizenship, while a Turk born in Germany must overcome numerous bureaucratic hurdles.  She points out also that many "foreigners" are actually natives:  30% of Germany's foreign residents were born in Germany; indeed, 70% of those foreigners under age 18 were born there. 

Interestingly, though there are 86,000 civilian Americans in Germany and they together with the British form the sixth largest group of foreigners, the Anglo-Saxons are almost never mentioned as troublesome.


Migration within Germany

Until mid-1990, East Germans who left their country for the West tended to be regarded as duty shirkers by those they left behind.  Thanks to reunification and galloping unemployment, migration westward is no longer seen as abandonment.  Parents seem relieved if their offspring can locate employment somewhere; return visits to the home place have suddenly become matter-of-fact.  The Protestant churches no longer discipline pastors who move westward without the sanction of their superiors.  In the past, these pastors had been kept from obtaining pastoral appointment in the West, much to the chagrin of some Western conservatives.


Though commuting from the East to jobs in the West solves economic problems for many former East Germans, the permanent migration from East to West is continuing.  Between March and
October of this year, 200,000 adults moved westward.  Persons from East Germany no longer receive government aid when moving to the West; yet, the mere fact that East German salaries are 60%-70% lower than Western ones remains incentive enough for some to leave. 

A forced, reverse migration is in the offing:  As of January, 1991, the five formerly East German provinces will be receiving 20% of all asylum seekers and ethnic German immigrants.  Herein lies a major task for Rev. Berger's office:  locating housing and cajoling local authorities to aid these new arrivals.  A further wave of immigrants from the poorer Southern European countries is anticipated for 1993.  At that time, all tariff and travel barriers within the European Common Market countries will be dropped,


The Response of the Church

The need for a reduction in immigration is accepted by most:  West Germany, the size of Wisconsin and Indiana, has 64 million inhabitants; the former East German provinces are as large as Ohio and have a population of 16 million.  Immigration to Germany is presently 33% higher than to the U.S.  Though many immigrants are a combination of both, much political effort will yet be expended in an effort to distinguish between economic and political refugees.  Where the assessments of the government and Christian groups have differed, the latter have on occasion
offered foreigners sanctuary within church quarters.


All would agree that the spread of humane living conditions in less-developed countries is the most ideal solution to the migration northward and westward.  Yet, even if good will were sufficient, this would take decades to realize.  Consequently, Rev. Berger believes that this long-term solution must be coupled with a present willingness to host refugees.


One placard common among German Christians deserves to be pondered elsewhere:  "We are all foreigners - almost everywhere."


Bill Yoder

Berlin, October 17, 1990


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 1,475 words