FECL 54 (May 1998):

IMMIGRANT HUNTING AT EASTERN BORDER: ‘CARRIER SANCTIONS’ AGAINST TAXI DRIVERS

In the Land of Saxony, around 70 taxi drivers have been charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Their crime consists in having taken "illegal immigrants" as passengers. Now, taxi drivers in Zittau and other towns in the three-country "Euroregion", where the borders of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic meet, think twice before taking passengers who look with foreign looks.

Heinz L. is a cab driver in the town of Zittau in the German Land of Saxony (former Eastern Germany). When a customer with foreign looks and accent asks him for a ride, he gets nervous and often refuses to take the passenger. Heinz L. knows that he may cannot afford to make any more mistakes. In early 1997 he was sentenced to 16 months imprisonment for having "aided and abetted" illegal immigration".

Heinz L.’s trouble began in the early hours of 10 July 1995, when three Yugoslavian men asked him to take him from Zittau to the nearby town of Bautzen. The three well-clad men said they lived in Zittau’s reception centre for asylum seekers. Heinz L. knew that some of his colleagues had got into trouble with the BGS (Bundesgrenzschutz: German Border Protection Force), for having taken illegal immigrants. So, to make sure, he asked the three men to identify themselves. When they showed their passports Heinz was satisfied. Shortly later, the cab was stopped by a BGS patrol. The officers checked the three passengers and discovered that, while their passports were valid, they lacked stay permits in Germany. The three men were swiftly returned to Poland, as "illegal immigrants".

Heinz L. was sentenced two years later by a Zittau court. The judges found that he was well aware that he was transporting illegal aliens and had been "rewarded for this".

Pending a decision on his appeal, Heinz was allowed to continue to drive his taxi, but he has become cautious and suspicious and often drives off when foreigners approach his cab.

 

"We don’t take strangers any longer", cab driver says

Mehmet C. is a Kurd who has been legally residing in Germany for several years. He works at a kebab restaurant in Zittau. Since he finishes working at 1 h am he is obliged to go home by taxi. This has never caused any problem, he says, because the cab drivers know him. But one night, he returned from Dresden by train. When he wanted to take a cab home at the railway station, the taxi drivers all refused to take him. Mehmet C. had no other choice but to walking home, in the middle of the night, simply because of his Mediterranean looks and his heavy accent.

Taxi driver Bernd B. confirms Mehmet’s story: "That’s correct! We don’t take strangers any longer". Bernd B. affirms he has nothing against foreigners. "But if the BGS stops me and discovers that my passengers have just entered the country illegally, I could get in real trouble".

Almost every third cab driver in the Zittau area has already encountered some problems with the authorities, in connection with the transport of aliens. In the whole of Saxony, about 70 proceedings are said to be pending against cab drivers. According to the taxi association of Saxony, there are some black sheep among the drivers who actually engage in immigrant smuggling, but most of the drivers "caught" by the BGS are perfectly innocent. This is contested by BGS spokesman Klaus Müller: "With a little common sense, it isn’t that difficult to make out manifestly illegal people".

 

A Catch 22 situation

Obviously taxi drivers do not share this view. Indeed, they find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. Under German law, they may neither refuse to take a passenger because of his or her appearance, nor are they authorised to carry out identity checks. Thus, they argue, it is hard to distinguish "good" passengers from "bad" ones. However, in the opinion of the Zittau judges who sentenced cab driver Heinz L., there is an easy solution to the problem. In their reasons for judgement they found that, with a simple phone call to the BGS, the defendant could have had his passengers’ identity checked...

"What do they imagine?", wonders Bernd B. "Somebody climbs in my taxi and wants a ride. I take my handy phone and inform the BGS that I have a suspect in my car - please, take over! Obviously I already feel the knife in my back!"

 

Making informers of taxi drivers

Burkhard Hirsch, the legal affairs speaker of the FDP (liberal-democrat) party in the federal parliament, is unequivocal. Nobody can oblige taxi drivers to call the BGS, he says, and a taxi driver cannot be punished merely because he has taken an illegal immigrant. "After all, a baker will not be found guilty, just because he sold a roll to a foreigner - even if the latter is a dangerous criminal". Hirsch is unequivocal: only a taxi driver who knows that his passenger is illegal and takes advantage of this knowledge to charge him an excessive fee, is breaking the law.

In the case of Heinz L., none of this has been proven. In the opinion of his defence attorney, he was convicted simply because the authorities wanted to set a precedent.

The judgement against Heinz L. has angered cab drivers throughout Saxony. As a taxi driver in Zittau puts it: "Our job is to take passengers, not to act as informers for the BGS".

 

Authorities’ war on illegal immigrants fuels racist sentiments

The ongoing hunt, not only for "illegal immigrants", but also for their real and alleged helping hands highlights a disquieting development in Saxony. The authorities’ efforts to seal off the border against "undesirable" immigrants pouring into Germany from the central and Eastern European countries, has significantly contributed to creating a sentiment of a state of siege among large parts of the local population strongly affected by high unemployment rates and other problems of integration into Western German society. Many local Germans regard immigrants and refugees as direct competitors on the labour market and regard their region as the outermost bulwark against the "threat from the east". It is not astonishing, then, that the activities of a steadily growing number of neo-Nazi groups are tolerated, and sometimes openly supported, by parts of the public. What is worse, this disquieting climate is being fuelled by the authorities’ spectacular war on illegal immigration. In some towns near the border, volunteers have formed so-called citizens’ militias "helping" the BGS to control the border and to catch immigrants and refugees. Alone, the neo-Nazi groups do not represent a serious political threat. But in a local milieu, where judges press taxi drivers to denounce forced migrants and refugees, and where militia men mingle with border police officers, there are reasons for serious concern.

Problems encountered by anti-racist and pro-asylum groups show the seriousness of the situation. A number of German anti-racist groups intend to organise an international summer camp under the motto "no one is illegal" in Saxony, near the Polish border. In May, they still had not found any camping ground, because all land owners and camping place managers contacted were afraid to of problems with the local population, the authorities, and with violent Nazi groups, if they made their camping grounds available to people who support asylum and immigration.

 

Sources: Berliner Zeitung, 22.10.97; report from "AG3F"- Antirassistische Gruppe, Hanau, Germany, 5.5.98.