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Flight of Kurds Opens Holes in Europe's Borders

Germany demands end to exodus. EU police met last week. Italy and Greece say Kurd migrants are welcome.

'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," reads the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The sentiment has been taken up in Rome in recent days.

Last week, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said the Kurdish refugees fleeing Turkey across the Adriatic Sea in rickety boats would be welcomed "with open arms."

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And Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro declared his country "wide open" to "people living with persecution."

What has played in Italy as noble idealism, however, has been seen in Germany as cynical grandstanding. Italy's announced decision to grant political asylum to the approximately 2,000 refugees that have arrived since the beginning of the new year touched off a bitter conflict with Germany.

The conflict was calmed - somewhat - by a marathon 10-hour meeting of European police chiefs at the end of last week. Turkey and seven European Union (EU) members agreed to a program of tighter controls on Kurds departing from Turkey.

Yesterday, Turkish police detained more than 1,300 people in a crackdown on would-be illegal immigrants to Western Europe.

Both the German and Turkish governments consider the Kurds economic migrants rather than political refugees.

Kurdish exodus a sensitive issue

It's a sensitive point for Turkey, whose government does not like being accused of repression against its population: 27,000 people are estimated to have died in the guerrilla conflict between Kurdish rebels and government forces.

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It's also a sensitive point for Germany, the likely final destination for these Kurds, because of its generous social benefits and the large Kurdish communities already established here. "Hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Germany exercise a powerful attraction," says Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian interior minister.

Even if Italian authorities decide the incoming Kurds are not qualified for political asylum, they have 15 days to get out of the country, which in many cases means heading for Germany.

In October, Italy joined Germany, Austria, France, the Benelux countries, Portugal, and Spain as a signatory to the Schengen Accord, which allows for passport-free border crossings between participants. So once on Italian soil, travelers face no further immigration restrictions as they head to other "Schengen" countries.

Even in a country as self-consciously a "land of immigrants" as the United States, where the melting-pot ideal has been elevated to the status of national myth, there are inconsistencies in treatment of would-be immigrant groups: Cubans fleeing Castro, si; Haitians, no.

Refugee welcome mat worn out

Here in Germany, sensitivities about the arrival of new waves of foreigners are even keener. On one hand, many Germans have had their own experiences as refugees: the legions forced out of the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic at the end of World War II, and the waves of Silesians forced westward into defeated, war-ravaged Germany when the map was redrawn and their communities reassigned to Poland.

On the other hand, today's Germans note they have accepted more Bosnian refugees and more Kurds from Turkey and Iraq than has the rest of the EU combined. The country's financially strapped cities and towns are feeling the pinch. Unemployment for December hit a record 4.55 million, seasonally adjusted.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl admitted publicly Friday that his stated goal of cutting joblessness by half by 2000 is "certainly not achievable."

And in the run-up to federal elections Sept. 27, politicians are playing on voters' fears of joblessness, crime, and immigration - which can appear closely related.

Germany's conflict with Greece and Turkey, as well as Italy, over lax border controls has been smoothed over by an agreement reached in Rome Thursday.

The accord included provisions to police external borders more carefully and to exchange criminal investigative information among EU members to prevent what Manfred Kanther, Germany's hard-line conservative interior minister, called "a criminal wave of migration" into Germany and other countries. Mr. Kanther pronounced himself pleased with the accord.

On Saturday, Turkey's Interior Minister Murat Basegioglu said his country's police had arrested 3,000 would-be illegal immigrants bound for Western Europe.

Earlier in the week, German newspapers had speculated that Turkish authorities may have been responsible for the earlier wave of refugees in the first place. The presumption was that this was in revenge for hurt feelings after the Luxembourg summit last month, at which Turkey's bid for membership in the EU was rejected.

The Kurdish wave and the Rome accord show how hard it still is for the EU to work out what should be fundamental building blocks on European unity, such as free movement across borders - and also how necessary it is to work together.

The wave also illustrates how difficult it can be for the EU to engage on the nettlesome issue of human rights abuses by a close partner and prospective member such as Turkey. Even advocates of Turkish membership in the EU, such as Ankara's ambassador to Bonn Volkan Vural, concede the country has serious human rights problems.

The liberal German weekly Die Zeit praises Italy in the latest issue for having the courage to acknowledge that the Kurds have legitimate grievances and to grant them political asylum. The paper further calls for financial help to Italy for increased border policing.

Free movement or secure borders?

With more neighbors than any other country in Europe, security-conscious Germany is particularly worried about border controls and imported crime. But Bonn has notably not called for suspension of the Schengen accord - despite Mr. Kanther's harsh criticism of other countries' border policing.

Torn between the Schengen accord, with its promise of free movement, and internal demands for strict guarding of "Schengenland's" outer borders, Germany is calling for both. Germany doesn't want to be seen to dominate the EU, but it wants what it wants.

Germany's reaction to Italian behavior on the Kurdish issue can also be seen as another episode in the love-hate relationship between the two countries. On one hand, Italy is a popular destination for Germans, who have been admirers of Italy's culture at least since Goethe.

But over the past couple of years, German Finance Minister Theo Waigel has been publicly alarmed at the prospect of letting Italians, with their allegedly sloppy public finances, into the European currency union - never mind that Bonn has been having trouble getting its own finances into shape to meet the single-currency criteria.

And now the accusation is that the Italians aren't practicing good border control.

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