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Europe: Influx Of Kurdish Refugees Prompts Tension Between Germany And Italy

  • Roland Eggleston

Bonn, 8 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The surge of Kurdish refugees to Italy has created new tensions between the Italian and German governments and re-opened some old wounds in Italy about German attitudes.

The German Government, led by Interior Minister Manfred Kanther, has expressed fear that many of the refugees will leave Italy as soon as possible and make their way across Austria or Switzerland into Germany, which is already home to several thousand Kurds. Most members of that community are legal residents in Germany but their presence is controversial because hard-core political groups stage frequent political demonstrations, some of which have led to violence.

Kanther and foreign minister Klaus Kinkel have used sharp words to criticize Italy for allegedly not doing enough to stop the refugees and also for showing a considerable degree of sympathy for their situation. Kanther has accused Italy of taking a "soft attitude" because most of the refugees are likely to move on from Italy anyway. Yesterday he accused Italy of acting as a "transit" country for the Kurdish refugees. "This cannot be accepted from a member state of the European Union," he said..

Italian politicians have made clear they consider most of the Kurds as refugees from the fighting in south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq or from Turkish oppression. Prime minister Romano Prodi said on Sunday that Italy would greet Kurdish refugees "with open arms" and declared that the issue of civil rights in Turkey is "real, not fictitious." President Luigi Scalfaro said Italy was "wide open" to people "living with persecution." Senior prelates of the Roman Catholic church have openly expressed sympathy for the refugees.

The tone used by Bonn in criticizing Rome has provoked a sharp reaction in Italy. Italian newspapers accuse the German government of arrogance and of trying to dictate policy to the rest of its European partners.

One of the sharpest comments came from the Rome newspaper "La Repubblica." It said the fact that Germany was the biggest power in western Europe gave it no right to display what it called "imperial arrogance" towards its partners in the European Union. The newspaper listed a number of other disputes between Italy and Germany and said that "once again, Germany was showing its incapacity to recognize that other nations had equal worth, equal rights and equal legitimate interests as Germany"

Other Italian newspapers have suggested that Germany is over-reacting considering that the numbers of Kurdish refugees who have reached Italy is less than 2,000. This compares with the around 16,000 Albanian who fled to Italy during last year's upheavals. Newspapers say there is little evidence that more than a handful of Kurds have actually reached Germany. The newspaper "La Stampa" said that compared to the thousands of illegal refugees which reach Germany every year the German Government's reaction to a few hundred Kurds "borders on the hysterical."

In Germany itself, commentators believe the Government's attitude to the Kurds stems from its concern about the number of people from poor countries who slip into Germany, where they are hidden in ethnic communities and take jobs which could be held by some of the four million German unemployed. In the first half of 1997, around 15,400 illegal immigrants were caught on the German borders. The border authorities acknowledge they have no idea how many more evaded capture, but they believe it is also in the thousands. The Federal border police in Koblenz said today most of the illegal refugees come from Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. Most of them try to cross the border from Poland, the Czech Republic or Austria. Most of the Kurds wanting to reach western Europe are carried by ships from Turkey or Greece. However a spokesman for the federal border police said that in the last year there has been an increase in the number of Kurds coming across the border from the Czech Republic.

Germany's criticisms of Italy focus on its obligations as a member of the so-called Schengen system. This is an agreement between nine European Union countries abolishing internal borders. It means, for instance, that one can enter Germany from France or Austria or other countries without showing a passport or undergoing controls. But membership in the Schengen system carries with it the responsibility to maintain sharp controls on the outer borders to ensure that criminals and other undesirables are not allowed to enter what is frequently called "Schengen land"

Italy became a full member only a few weeks ago despite considerable doubt from Germany whether it was really capable of controlling its outer borders. Italy has around 8,000 km of coastline where it is difficult to maintain a permanent watch for smugglers bringing people by sea from Greece or Turkey or north Africa.

The present crisis has already led to suggestions by the Interior Minister of the province of Lower Saxony, Gerhard Gogowski, that the Schengen agreement be suspended. However he has found little support in the federal government which considers Schengen a major step forward in creating European unity.

Yesterday (Wednesday) security experts from the most directly-affected Schengen countries will meet in Rome to discuss what can be done about the problem of Kurdish refugees. The officials from Germany, France, Greece, Italy and Austria will meet together with senior Turkish officials to consider measures for stemming the flow.

A German government spokesman said today that Bonn would await the outcome of this meeting before deciding what extra measures it will take. Commentators have suggested that it might re-introduce controls on travelers crossing even Schengen borders. The Schengen agreement allows it to do so if the maintenance of public order or national security require such a move.