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Plight of Afghans in Germany

An upcoming court ruling could make it easier for these refugees to gain asylum.

In many ways, the six Wiar children are like most others in this country. They speak fluent German. The four younger ones go to school. They like movies and teasing each other. But, as Afghan refugees still waiting for a decision on their asylum application, they are quite atypical.

"It's absurd," says Sunika, the eldest."We're not allowed to travel," she says. "We're not allowed to work. Right now, I just stay home."

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Along with their parents and an uncle, the Wiar children fled war-ridden Afghanistan 10 years ago, when Sunika was 13 and Imen, the youngest, was just a baby.

The family applied for asylum, and was sent to Brandenburg, in the former East Germany, to await a decision. Now, a court case slowly working its way through the German court system may finally bring their wait - and that of tens of thousands of other Afghans - to an end.

To be eligible for asylum here, an applicant must show persecution by the state. Unlike most other countries, Germany will not offer asylum for any reason other than persecution by the ruling government. Because Germany doesn't recognize the Taliban regime that controls 95 percent of Afghanistan, its citizens are not eligible for asylum in Germany.

Last year, Germany's constitutional court said that persecution by a "state-like organization" amounted to the same thing. It sent the case back to the lower court for a decision.

"The Afghans have it the worst," says Horst Gradtke, a Hamburg lawyer who works with Afghan refugees. "They have been left hanging for three years."

Thanks in part to an official relationship that dates to the early 20th century, there are some 70,000 Afghans living in Germany, one of the highest concentrations in Europe. (Hitler believed that Afghans were the original Aryans, and considered them "blood brothers.") Germany's largest community is in Hamburg, where at least 20,000 people support two mosques, several television stations, and a multitude of shops.

To help share the burden of supporting asylum seekers, Germany divides applicants up among its 15 states. The government sees that their basic needs are met, but living conditions are often less than ideal. When an asylum seeker is sent to a place to wait for a decision, he is not allowed to leave the immediate area without special permission. They can't leave their towns, say, to shop at an Afghan grocery in Hamburg, or to to see relatives in Frankfurt.

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Within that community, there is concern that a generation is being wasted. "There are many, many people who have been put aside," says Ahmad Ebrahimzada, who was born and raised in Afghanistan, but is now a German citizen. "If [Germany] wants to send them back, it should give [the Afghans] something to take with them. Give them the opportunity to work or to learn."

For the past eight years, the Wiar family has shared two rooms in a special residence for asylum seekers. Their Afghan passports were taken away. Without special permission, they are not allowed to leave the zone around Hennigsdorf, a gray town where they feel unwelcome.

Sunika would like to go to trade school, but hasn't been able to obtain the necessary work permit. Brishna, next in line, wants to study business administration, but asylum seekers are not eligible for higher education. She did get a work permit, however, and is teaching at a nursery school. She is the only member of the family who works. "For the father, it doesn't matter, but children have to be allowed to work or to study," says their dad, Mohammed Kabir.

The family could have stayed in Frankfurt, where their relatives are, or in Hamburg with its large Afghan community, had they chosen not to apply for asylum. Instead, they could have applied for a duldung, which allows them to stay in Germany until the situation at home is deemed safe. Duldung holders can stay wherever they want.

Unlike other refugees in Germany, Afghans cannot be deported; United Nations sanctions against the Taliban mean that there are no commercial flights to Kabul. "They can't be deported, so they have to be tolerated," says Ali Milantchi, another Hamburg lawyer.

It is generally assumed that the courts will eventually rule in favor of the refugees. But many worry that the German government may see the duldung as a reason not to grant asylum: If the political persecution was so bad, why did these people wait to apply for asylum?

Until the ruling, though, there is just one answer, says the children's mother, Parwin Wiar: "Always more waiting."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor