Afghan refugees came to Germany to escape the chaos of war back home, but after reaching the country they live with the fear of deportation. For some, the thought of being sent back is more intimidating than suicide.
There are currently up to 180,000 illegal immigrants living in Germany, according to government statistics. They arrived in the country with nothing, least of all a visa or legal residence permit, were placed in community housing projects and given "tolerated" status by the government, which maintained the right to deport them at any time.
Some 30,000 foreigners officially sought asylum in Germany in 2005, the most recent year for which official records exist. Many of them were Afghans, chased out of their country either by the repressive Taliban regime or the US-led war that overthrew it.
Once in Germany, some would rather die than return to the turmoil of their home country, according to Bernd Mesovic of Pro Asyl, a refugee lobby group.
"During one deportation attempt, a 35-year-old Afghan refugee once jumped from the stairs leading up to the plane and broke both of his legs," he said, adding that, while being treated for the injuries, the man told doctors he would kill himself if authorities tried to deport him again.
Avoiding deportation at any cost
Traumatized by events in Afghanistan, many refugees are afraid of being forced to return. Mohammed Ali, an Afghan asylum-seeker in Hamburg, said he "experienced a great deal of suffering (in Afghanistan)."
"We had very many problems there, political as well as family-related," he said.
Ali is a newcomer in Hamburg, but deportation is a possibility regardless of the amount of time a person has spent in Germany, a fact that can be especially problematic for the children with "tolerated" immigration status. After attending German schools, training for a job or working for a German company, they can find themselves being sent "home" to a country they have only seen on TV.
This needs to change, said Sybille Laurischk, the free-market liberal FDP party's delegate for migration affairs.
"A considerably more liberal clause is needed in the law, so that (these youths) can finish their vocational training, which would give them opportunities to get along better in their home countries," she said.
New law a mixed bag for immigrants
In mid-March, Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government of Social Democrats and Christian conservatives enacted a new law for these 180,000 "tolerated foreigners." The new law would grant them the right to stay in Germany if they find work by the end of 2009.
Under pressure from the state governments in Bavaria and Lower Saxony, a compromise was reached that does not require the states to extend full social services to refugees, prompting Pro Asyl's Mesovic to describe the law as "merciless" towards elderly and disabled immigrants.
Others voiced support for the law, saying it gives asylum seekers a "outlook for the future," in the words of German Commissioner for Integration Maria Böhmer. The compromise granting illegal immigrants the bare minimum of social services merely writes into law what has been a long-standing practice, Böhmer added.
Paymana Haydar's family fled Afghanistan in 1989, and has been living in Germany ever since.
"We wanted a happy life," Haydar said. "My parents wanted us to go to school here and to live in peace and quiet, like the other children of this world. They wanted to keep us away from war and chaos."
Although there are hundreds of immigrant families like the Haydars in Germany, their chances of their becoming German citizens are slim.
Sharing the global burden
Laurischk said the way Germany deals with immigrants needs to be fundamentally changed.
"In our opinion, immigration cannot be controlled through asylum requests," she said. "We have introduced a motion in the Bundestag that would also define certain occupation groups as interesting for immigration. However, we are still considerably far away from that."
Mesovic said Germany's immigration policy doesn't do enough to help asylum seekers and ends up putting the burden on neighboring countries, where most refugees look for safety.
"I get the impression that Germany is distancing itself more and more from international refugee rights -- in favor of a practice that says, 'The people should stay in their regions, then we are willing to help out to some extent, but few should find asylum here in Germany and the EU.'"