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Bosnia: German Court Ruling Could Affect Many Bosnian Refugees

Munich, August 7 (RFE/RL) -- A German court's decision about the rights of refugees to obtain political asylum in Germany could affect thousands of Bosnian Muslims who do not wish to return home and are seeking asylum, lawyers say.

A Berlin court this week ruled against two Muslim families from northern Bosnia who fled from Serbs in 1992. The Muslim families applied for asylum in Germany on the grounds that if they returned home they would face continued persecution, and that there was nowhere else in Bosnia-Herzegovina where they could go to live without fear of persecution.

The families are not entitled to asylum, the judgement said, because they are not persecuted by authorities in the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It declared that those who could seek protection from their own state against political persecution did not require asylum in Germany.

The court said the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was fully capable of protecting, on its own territory, Muslims who had fled from the Bosnian serbs. Neither the identities, nor the homes of the two families were identified.

The families' lawyers said today they were debating whether to challenge the ruling in a higher court. While the ruling might be technically correct, they said, it ignores the realities of daily life in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the fact that in some areas returning refugees faced hostility and persecution.

The lawyer's point was supported by Germany's branch of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Bonn. In a statement, the Commission said there was no alternative safe area for these two families inside Bosnia-Herzegovina. The refugee office also questioned whether the ruling was in keeping with Germany's constitution.

The asylum applications were originally accepted by officials in the province where they are living, Westphalia. But it was challenged by the federal government's office in charge of refugee affairs.

The families' lawyers said the federal government was concerned that a successful application for asylum could serve as a model for thousands of other refugees from Bosnia who do not wish to return home in the present conditions. More than 320,000 refugees are living in Germany. It is government policy that almost all of them should return home in the near future.

Bosnians are not the only refugees in Germany seeking asylum. Germany is a favored country for refugees from many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The federal government said today that, since the beginning of this year, 66,538 refugees had applied for asylum. About the same number sought asylum last year. The government did not say how many of the applications had been granted.

Despite the court's ruling, the two Muslim families are in no danger of being sent back to Bosnia-Herzegovina immediately. The court said its decision did not affect their right to protection in Germany as refugees from a civil war.

The court also said Germany could not compel them to return to an area now controlled by Serbs, because there they would certainly face persecution.

A spokesman in the office for refugee affairs said the families would certainly be able to remain for a longer period. Even if the government introduced a program for the compulsory return of refugees, it would first apply only to single people and childless couples. Families would be in the last group compelled to return to Bosnia and that could be more than two years away.