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Monday, 29 January, 2001, 17:16 GMT
Trapped in no-man's land
Berlin Wall
The fall of the Berlin Wall brought a surge of hope for refugees in the east
Refugees in the former East Germany are living a twilight existence, dependent largely on crime to make a living, and facing growing racism. The BBC's Kieran Cooke investigates.

The town of Eisenhuettenstadt, about an hour's drive east of Berlin, lies right up against the Polish border. It is not a pretty place.

Dominating the town is what was called, in the old days of the German Democratic Republic, the Stalin steel works.

A cruel eastern wind scythes along the broad avenues, lined with mean-looking concrete apartment blocks.

Despite the bitter cold, groups of men squat on the pavements. When a policeman approaches, they scurry away.

I am an in-between person, at home nowhere - that is the fate of the refugee

Vietnamese refugee
They are sellers of illegally-imported cigarettes.

All of them are Vietnamese: it is hard to imagine a landscape more removed from that of south-east Asia.

There are about 100,000 Vietnamese in Germany, west and east.

As a community, they reflect the historical divisions of both countries.

Harvest in Vietnam
Refugees say they cannot return to their old lives
In the late 70s, Germany - more generous than any other country in Europe to refugees - gave a home to tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people, who were settled in the old West Germany and given full rights of residence.

My friend Thanh is different. He is from what was North Vietnam, and is a highly-qualified engineer.

A quietly-spoken, deeply intellectual man, with a fascination with 20th Century French philosophy, Thanh originally came to what was east Germany as a contract worker in the early 80s.

At one time, up to 100,000 Vietnamese lived as "gastarbeiter" - guest workers - in east Germany, making up the biggest non-German group in the communist state.

As bad as conditions were, they were better than in poverty-bound Vietnam

They were kept in what were appalling conditions - housed in hostels, segregated from the German population and forced to forfeit a substantial portion of their wages in return for East Germany's continuing financial support of Vietnam.

Any woman who became pregnant had to have an abortion or her contract was immediately terminated.

Yet as bad as conditions were, they were better than in poverty-bound Vietnam.

Thanh saved as much as he could from his salary in a machine tool factory: he sent money, bicycles, even a fridge, back to his family in Hanoi.

Vietnamese woman
Up to 30,000 Vietnamese live in a twlight world in the east
Then came 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thanh, along with thousands of other Vietnamese, flocked into the west.

They, like many East Germans, were confused at the sudden turn of events, uncertain in the new, free market world.

The boat people from south Vietnam looked on the newly-arrived North Vietnamese with suspicion.

The German authorities, not willing to accommodate the new arrivals, gave Vietnam substantial funds in return for taking the guestworkers back.

I feel that if we are not accepted, or if we feel lonely here, perhaps we only have ourselves to blame

Refugee Thanh
Thanh, along with many others, accepted a free one-way plane ticket and a $2,000 pay-off and returned to Hanoi.

But he found life back home very hard. His family had come to depend on his foreign wages.

After a few months he paid a smuggler the equivalent of $5,000 to return to Germany.

Thanh talks quietly of his long and hazardous journey. He had to bribe his way out of a jail in eastern Russia.

Strict laws

In Belarus, he had his meagre funds stolen and had to work in a restaurant kitchen for six months to get money to continue his journey. He almost froze to death in Ukraine. Finally, via Poland, he made it back to Berlin with $10 in his pocket.

Germany is generous in the provision of funds and housing for would-be asylum seekers.

But immigration laws are strict.

Many people spend years trying to get work permits. They live in limbo, concerned about their status, never able legally to get a job.

Vietnamese man
Racism is on the increase in the old East Germany
Thanh was one of the lucky ones: he was given a work permit as a result of an amnesty granted to many of the former east German guestworkers.

But today, up to 30,000 Vietnamese, along with thousands of other would-be asylum seekers, still live a twilight existence, often involved in crime.

The illegals in the Vietnamese community have cornered the contraband cigarette trade.

For the most part, they live in towns and cities in the former East Germany. There, they have to endure a rising tide of racism.

Fascist fringe

Unemployment is three times higher in the east than in the west: many Germans in the east resent the presence of the state-funded foreigners.

A fascist fringe feeds on such feelings.

The Vietnamese in the east, along with other foreigners, are wary of being attacked: in one recent much talked-of incident, a Vietnamese, cornered by a group of East German skinheads, turned on his attackers and stabbed one to death.

Thanh is philosophical.

"We belong to another world, far, far, away," he says. "Yet I feel that, if we are not accepted or if we feel lonely here, perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.

"As time goes on, I know I cannot settle again in Vietnam. My children are now German, not Vietnamese.

"I am an in-between person, at home nowhere. That is the fate of the refugee."

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See also:

16 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Vietnam revisited
02 Feb 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
Hanoi homecoming
31 Aug 00 | Europe
Europe fears spread of racism
30 Aug 00 | Europe
German racist killers jailed
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