Munich, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany is preparing to accept thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo as temporary refugees in the coming months. But officials in Bonn say they hope that other West European countries will share the burden equally.
The federal Interior Ministry in Bonn told RFE/RL today that around 20,000 places are available immediately for new Kosovar refugees and the number could be increased if necessary.
Most of the places immediately available were occupied by refugees from the Bosnian war, many of whom have returned home. At the height of the Bosnia conflict, Germany took in some 350,000 refugees, of which about 100,000 remain. The federal Interior Ministry said today new efforts are being made to persuade them to return home to make way for the refugees from Kosovo.
Refugees from Kosovo began arriving in Germany last year. By this February, the number had risen to some 320,000. The Interior Ministry says new refugees are caught almost daily on the German borders after being brought across Europe by smuggling gangs.
Few of the Kosovo refugees have been granted political asylum, although most have requested it. Instead they are given refugee status, which offers virtually no chance of permanent residence in Germany. They are expected to return home when the situation allows it. However, the Interior Minister in the province of Hessen, Gert-Uwe Mende, has proposed that the newcomers should be assessed as "refugees from a civil war," which would ease some of the bureaucratic procedures. This can be done if a majority of the provincial governments agree.
Individual German cities are making preparations for housing refugees apart from the efforts by the federal government. The city government in Munich said today it could provide immediate accommodation for 1,800 people. Preparations had been made to provide temporary accommodation for more refugees in heated tents and others could be given temporary shelter in schools and other accommodation if necessary.
The provincial government in Hessen said today it could accept around 1000 refugees immediately. The city of Bremen says it has space for only 300 refugees immediately but more temporary accommodation could be found quickly.
Germany insists that all European countries should share equally the burden of accommodating and feeding refugees from Kosovo. A spokesman with the federal Interior Ministry told RFE/RL today: "We cannot accept a repetition of the situation with the Bosnian refugees. Half of the total came to Germany while the other half were divided between the other European countries."
The spokesman said Germany had made its position clear at a meeting of European Union experts in Brussels on Wednesday. He said Germany would offer concrete proposals for dividing the refugees among individual countries at a conference of European interior ministers later this month.
Germany has said it is "disappointed" at statements by France and Britain that they are unwilling to accept large numbers of Kosovar refugees. Some political leaders have also said they are concerned that many of the refugees arriving in Italy may make their way north to Germany.
A spokeswoman for the provincial Interior Ministry in North Rhine-Westphalia, Lydia Jendryschik, told RFE/RL today that the initial effort should be focused on providing assistance in the Balkans-- including accommodation, food, warm clothing and other necessities. She said: "Every penny spent on the refugees in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro helps four times as much as the same money spent in Germany." North Rhine-Westphalia gave shelter to 75,000 refugees during the Bosnian war -- more than any other German province.
Jendryschik also warned that the reception of Kosovar refugees could lead to internal problems, considering the number of Serbs living in Germany. She said "There is a very real danger of clashes between the two groups." She added that this should be taken into account in deciding where to house the new refugees. There was a similar warning from the provincial Interior Ministry in Bavaria.
The German refugee organization, Pro Asl, said today that Germany should throw open its doors for the refugees from Kosovo. Heiko Kauffnan, the spokesman for the organization, said "Switzerland has offered to accept 50,000 by the end of the year," and argued that "Germany should be able to take many, many more."