Speech in the German Bundestag, 30th April 1992

To Preserve the Right of Asylum

by Konrad Weiss

Today is a depressing day in the short history of our reunited country. A human right, a fundamental right for which outstanding German men and women fought at immense personal sacrifice and risked their lives, is being unthinkingly called into question here today. "Persons persecuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right of asylum" continues to be one of the most magnificent sentences ever written in the German language.

It was written as a result of first-hand experience of guilt, persecution and suffering. It was possible to write it because German men and women had experienced themselves what it means for the victims of persecution to find refuge, for outcasts to be welcome, for those ostracized to be respected. It was necessary to write it because German men and women were deeply shocked by the guilt in which they had participated silently, passively or actively. It was permissible to write it because they wanted to create a better Germany, a Germany which builds no walls.

For sixty years this country suffered as a result of the fanaticism of those who had elevated the state of being German into a religion and persecuted, expelled and destroyed everything they called "un-German". What was the result? A devastated and divided country; millions of dead; ostracism and contempt. Tireless efforts were required before we Germans were respected and trusted again, before we could return to the family of nations, before this country became a democratic Germany. Has this long and painstaking process been forgotten?

It fills me with sorrow and shame that this indeed appears to be the case so shortly after reunification. It is a disgrace that in our country foreigners are insulted and attacked, that xenophobia is used to woo voters and that right-wing extremists are elected to German parliaments.

It is a disgrace that in this country people should be allowed to distribute National Socialist pamphlets with impunity and that a German public prosecutor should refuse to take action against them, as was the case in Schwedt in December 1991. I cannot spare you the following appalling examples:

It is possibly with impunity to demand "Stop the accusations connected with the Holocaust". It is possible with impunity to glorify the "loyalty and spirit of self-sacrifice, the comradeship and honour" of that cowardly, thieving gang of murderers, the SS. And it is possible with impunity to claim that foreigners are to blame "for more crimes, more rapes, more social unrest and more pollution, for the fact that our country is being swamped with foreigners and dominated by them, and for anti-German propaganda". Cries of "Germany for the Germans! Foreigners out!" are to be heard again.

As abhorrent as this phenomenon is, in the course of the present debate we are becoming fully aware of how despicable this unthinking xenophobia is. This xenophobia, which is becoming ever more widespread, must not be allowed to form the basis of political action. It must not determine the atmosphere in which such an important matter as an amendment to the Basic Law is decided.

It would augur badly for our democracy if this government and the democratic parties in this country were not in a position vigorously to counter this mood and find a humane solution to the problems that have arisen.

However, instead of seeking alternatives which do not impose inadmissible restrictions on the rights of the victims of persecution, instead of thinking and acting constructively, both the government and the SPD are on the defensive and are equally helpless, as their bill on asylum procedure shows. Should this flirtation prove to be the prologue to a Grand Coalition, it could very well also be the prologue to a new German tragedy, for our democracy too is vulnerable and open to attack. Democracy can be safeguarded only if the complex interaction between those in power and those in opposition is preserved.

I call upon you, the parliamentarians of the reunited Germany, to take a decision which will not encourage those in our country who seek salvation in Germanomania. An amendment to Article 16 would be no more than a helpless gesture. It would not solve the refugee problem any more than new police-state methods would. Or do you want to build a new wall round Germany?

The fateful claim that the boat is full is invariably coupled with the remark that it is more effective and more humane for those concerned to "combat the causes of the refugee problem". This may be true in theory but it has nothing to do with thereality of our world, for in both quantitative and qualitative terms everything that has been proposed and implemented so far in this connection is woefully inadequate, given the global dimension of the refugee problem. It is simply dishonest to pretend that an isolated attempt to combat the causes of refugee flows could be successful as long as our international economic system does not change substantially and as long as we are not prepared to relinquish the economic and political hegemony of the north, and insist on continuing prosperity and growth.

Another popular argument is that harmonization of asylum law at European level is required. Of course, further development of the European Community is desirable. But we must not allow this to deepen even further the gulf between us and the poor countries of the South and East. The ideology of Schengen is, however, synonymous with delimitation and shutting oneself off - something which we have fought against for decades, successfully, so I believed. Is this policy now to be abandoned?

If the media and politicians only ever preach delimitation and safeguards against abuse, this merely confirms the public's prejudices against refugees and immigrants. This defensive stance shuts out people for whose hardship and flight we are partly to blame or forces them to become illegal immigrants just because we are not willing to share. It also reinforces the differences in legal status which exist within the German population. Far from preventing xenophobic attacks on refugees, this policy of delimitation directly encourages them.

It is imperative that the issues at stake be discussed objectively. Facts, not slogans conjuring up horrific images, must determine the debate. No one can deny that only a limited number of applicants are recognized as being entitled to asylum and that their integration does not pose a serious problem. This also applies to the refugees admitted under the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The problems arise only because all refugees and immigrants are forced to apply for asylum, which naturally places an excessive burden on the authorities, federal states and communes.

The proposed amendment to Article 16 is merely an attempt to cure symptoms, as is the totally misguided bill on asylum procedure. Tension can be eased effectively only if a completely new concept for immigration governed by specific rules is introduced. The package submitted by the grouping Alliance 90/The Greens, which consists of bills on immigration, taking up residence and refugees, and its proposal for a redefinition of the term "citizen" are a sound basis for further deliberations.

As long as the fact that Germany is and will remain an immigration country is not recognized and as long as this realization is not translated into responsible policy, the immigration problem cannot be defused. As long as applying for asylum is the only means of entering Germany as a legal immigrant, the hostels for asylum seekers will remain overcrowded and an excessive burden will continue to be placed on the authorities. However, if those driven to emigrate by economic hardship are permitted, in line with specific regulations and in a responsible fashion, to settle in Germany, the number of asylum-seekers will soon drop sharply.

Our immigration bill guarantees the legal status of all immigrants and ensures that they enjoy largely the same rights as German citizens. It includes provisions governing the state benefits required for integration, the conditions under which immigration upon application would be possible and the procedure involved.

Our bill on refugees permits unrestricted realization of the individual right of asylum enshrined in Article 16, paragraph(2) of the Basic Law and, by amending the Quota Refugee Law, guarantees the admission of economic migrants.

At European level too, it must be ensured that each individual application for asylum continues to be examined and that ajudicial review of administrative decisions continues to be guaranteed. The concept of so-called "persecution-free" countries introduced in the bill of the CDU/CSU is not acceptable.It would allow refugees from these countries to be refused entry at the border. There is a risk of serious misjudgements occuring on account of political interests or factors which have no bearing on the matter, which could result in people's lives being directly threatened.

If the current policy of refusing immigrants entry were continued, Germany and Europe would increasingly have to be made into a fortress. Europe would become a closed society which would seek to shut itself off from poverty in the world. This policy will fail, however, for in a fortress Europe neither the rule of law nor democracy nor prosperity could be retained.

Combating the causes of the refugee problem therefore also means making political efforts to create a more equitable international political and economic order and a society based on solidarity. To this end, transparent and democratic regulations governing immigration and the status of immigrants need to be introduced without delay and the right of asylum must be protected and safeguarded. In the long term, however, only radical change can remove the causes of the refugee problem. Only if we succeed in reducing the divide between North and South, East and West will future generations live in peace and survive.

The grouping Alliance 90/The Greens will not support an amendment to Article 16 of the Basic Law. For us, the right of asylum of "persons persecuted on political grounds", which we were late in acquiring, remains a precious and inviolable right.

© Konrad Weiss 1992-2024