HAMBURG – Almost one million refugees have entered Germany this year, after a long journey by land and sea, in anticipation of a better future. But along with the increase in the number of refugees entering the country, violence against them is increasing significantly and spreading throughout the country – they are attacked in the streets, the buildings where they live are set on fire and even those who help them are threatened. And meanwhile, it seems that the authorities are incapable of handling the worrisome situation.
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This year there were 222 serious attacks against buildings housing refugees between January and November, and 104 people were injured. But the most worrisome finding of a comprehensive study conducted by the German weekly Die Zeit is that only in four cases did the investigation of the events end in a conviction. In addition, only in eight instances was an indictment served, in 41 cases the suspects were identified and in most instances – 169 attacks – no suspect has been identified as yet.
The study also reveals a sharp increase in the number of cases of arson against refugee housing, from two cases in January to 20 in October and 16 in November. Of 93 cases of arson all over Germany in 2015, about half were directed against populated refugee residences and the rest against empty buildings.
“The main instances of arson against buildings took place before refugees moved to these houses, in order to prevent them from coming to live in the neighborhood,” says Robert Luedecke, the spokesperson for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which also collects data about attacks throughout Germany. “Slowly but surely this is changing and there’s an increase in attacks against buildings where refugees are already living, and we’re very worried.”
The figures show that the phenomenon has spread throughout the country and the attacks are not limited to the former East Germany.
“This year we’re seeing new cities where we weren’t aware of attacks,” says Martin Vessily, from the Opferperspektive organization, which records cases of violence in Brandenburg and advises victims of right-wing violence.
“From the figures that we are gathering in the state of Brandenburg, in addition to arson there are also refugees who are attacked in the street. Those who we advise following an attack say that it happened to them randomly, for example in a supermarket or on a train – in other words, not in a specific spot.”
He describes a series of violent actions by right-wing groups and residents after the opening of an absorption center for refugees in Cottbus, Brandenburg.
“It lasted for several weeks and one night on a weekend in October, after such a demonstration, far-right groups marched throughout the city all night long and rioted. That night there were eight attacks. An international group of students was attacked only because the students looked foreign, and others were attacked after asking right-wing activists not to give the Nazi salute.”
Vessily adds that “the police were informed that night, but apparently they didn’t act to stop the attacks. In Brandenburg it was a new level of attacks that we hadn’t experienced previously. For us these are the first signs that violence is on the increase, but we still haven’t reached the levels of violence that took place in the early 1990s against refugees from the Balkans, which is our point of comparison as pro-refugee activists.”
Luedecke backed these statements and says that “we identify that the attacks are become more dangerous and the anger is growing. Attacks on refugees in public are also increasing and becoming more aggressive and violent. We encountered a number of instances in which refugees were attacked in the street with glass bottles.”
The number of attacks is greatest in Saxony, a former East German state, especially in the big cities – the capital Dresden and Leipzig. Yoav Lewy, an Israeli living in Leipzig who is a pro-refugee activist, adds that “the numbers are very frightening, they’re talking about cases of arson almost every other day. Legida, the Leipzig offshoot of [the extremist right-wing organization] Pegida, is considered the most violent and dangerous in Germany and they organize hate demonstrations in the city every Monday. At every demonstration they beat journalists, they call them ‘a lying press.’ Refugees don’t come near those areas, and the recommendations to those who come to demonstrate against them is not to go home alone.”
However, he says that “just as there are neo-Nazis in Germany, there are also many opponents. The feeling in the air is still that they are outcasts, and that’s a good thing.”
Last week the local Saxony newspaper Saxonische Zeitung published a report to the effect that the municipality is examining how to limit Pegida demonstrations in the city following an inciting speech by the head of the movement at one of the demonstrations.
Luedecke blames the authorities in Germany for deficient and insufficiently assertive handling of the growing racism.
“The government, both on the national and the local level, can do more to prevent such events,” he says. “There is a need for better protection for the refugees and their homes.”
Luedecke adds that “the local politicians must explain to the residents why the refugees are coming – they have to mobilize the community. We have instances where, for example in Freital, the mayor himself opposed the arrival of refugees, and that influences the public.”
But not only refugees are attacked. According to Vessily there has also been an increase in violence against activists who help them.
“We had one case in a small town in western Brandenburg in which two cars of pro-refugee activists that were parked near their homes were set on fire at night. It was clear to everyone that the reason for the arson was that they are supporters of refugees. One of the cars that was set on fire was a minibus that was used to transport refugees. The police never caught any suspects. We met with people who told us that they’re afraid to continue speaking in public in favor of refugees, for fear of being harmed.”
Susanne Dyhr, a social worker who works with refugees in Berlin, added that “in Germany I feel that racism is hiding beneath the surface, that despite the efforts made by the government, asylum seekers feel that they aren’t Germans and don’t belong to Germany, and that they should be grateful for everything that Germany is doing for them. On the one hand Germany does a lot to deal with racism, but on the other hand it’s a conservative country, and therefore people think that the government has done enough and there’s no need to make any more effort to stop the increasing racism.”