By Andrea Brandt and Jürgen Dahlkamp
It was early morning and Ali Zuker, her brothers and her parents, both teachers, were trying to buy train tickets at the station in the western German city of Trier. But their plans to travel on to Sweden, their destination of choice, fell apart when the police asked the five foreigners for identification -- and promptly detained them.
This happened two weeks ago on Tuesday, and it marked the end of a six-week odyssey by airplane, ship and train, across Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Luxembourg. It robbed the Ali Zuker family of its last strength, left them infested with scabies and, as the father says, forced him to turn over his entire assets, close to $50,000, to professional traffickers.
One of the world's biggest exoduses of refugees has now reached Germany. According to United Nations statistics, more than 4 million Iraqis are currently refugees -- from bombs, murders and civil war. An estimated 60,000 people leave the country each month. UN figures show that the number of Iraqis applying for asylum in industrialized nations was 133 percent higher in the first half of this year than during the same period last year. Germany is now in fourth place among their destination countries, behind Sweden, Greece and Spain.
Ironically Germany, unlike extremely welcoming Sweden, has not shown any particular compassion toward Iraqis in the past. Of the 2,272 asylum applications Iraqi refugees filed in Germany in 2006, only 8.3 percent were accepted.
A 'Desolate Security Situation in Iraq'
But since mid-May the German government has recommended a somewhat more generous approach. Citing the "desolate security situation in Iraq," Germany's Interior Ministry issued a new directive that qualifies the members of religious minorities for asylum. In addition, Iraqis are no longer losing their asylum status in large numbers, as they were after the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein, when German immigration authorities revoked their recognition of close to 20,000 refugees to pave the way for their deportation. Under the new, more relaxed approach, about two-thirds of Iraqi refugees were granted asylum in the first eight months of this year, although Germany continues to deport criminals and individuals it considers a threat to national security back to northern Iraq.
Word of the policy shift has apparently gotten around. In August alone, 706 Iraqis filed applications for asylum -- close to three times as many as in the same month last year. The number of Iraqis smuggled into Germany and detained by German authorities has even jumped fivefold in the first half of the year, increasing to 389 (compared with 78 in the same period last year), according to the Interior Ministry. German police have also caught another 342 Iraqis without valid immigration papers, although they estimate that for each illegal immigrant caught, at least 10 others remain undetected.
These numbers are hardly surprising given the violence in Iraq. According to an internal memo from the German Foreign Ministry, the human rights situation is "precarious" and the state "cannot adequately guarantee" the protection of its citizens. The father of student Takwa Ali Zuker reports that he was kidnapped by militant groups at home in Iraq. He points to a scar on his right temple, which he says was caused by a pistol barrel being pressed against his head.
A Greek Hub for Refugee Trafficking
Bands of traffickers are coming up with increasingly ingenious tricks to smuggle their clients into Europe. German investigators say that Greece, in particular, has developed into a hub for smuggling refugees, partly because the Greek police are too overwhelmed with the onslaught on refugee camps to properly register the incoming refugees. "Fantastically forged passports" with real visas are available on the Greek market, enabling some Iraqis to continue their journeys by air. This sort of "first-class human trafficking" can be had for about $15,000 a person, say investigators. The going rate for the "torture version" -- by truck – is usually only about $1,500.
Investigators' efforts to crack the trafficker networks, though, have gone into high gear. The German federal police and special commissions are currently conducting about 30 investigative proceedings against Iraqi and Turkish gangs. But initial successes, such as the arrest of six presumed traffickers in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in July, "tend to reveal the scope of the problem, instead of eliminating it," complains one investigator.
Domestic affairs experts from the parliamentary groups of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), alarmed by the rising numbers of illegal immigrants, have suddenly discovered the issue. Reinhard Grindel (CDU), a domestic affairs expert, wants to see "the federal government issue an urgent appeal to Italy and Greece to improve their border security." Grindel also favors the idea of "sending German federal police officers to the countries of the south as part of international teams" that would help their Mediterranean counterparts cope with the registration of the refugees.
The left-leaning Social Democrats want to see a joint meeting of the Interior Committee and the Committee on Economic Cooperation and Development deal with trafficker crime. The problem, says Dieter Wiefelspütz, the SPD spokesman on internal affairs, is "of a humanitarian and not a criminal nature."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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