19th Jul 2019

Germany grapples with attitudes to asylum seekers

First mayor Markus Nierth resigned amid threats from right-wing extremists. Then the planned asylum accommodation in Troeglitz, a small town of 2,800 people, was set on fire.

Anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments have taken hold in the town in the eastern German region of Saxony-Anhalt where parts of the population, together with the right-wing extremist NPD party, rallied for weeks against giving accommodation to 40 asylum seekers.

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  • The inscription at the entrance to the school of Troeglitz reads: 'We teach, learn, and fight for peace'. (Photo: Groundhopping Merseburg)

While the perpetrators of the arson remain unknown, it is widely considered to be a politically-motivated crime. The resignation and then the attack, in February, led to deep soul-searching in Germany.

"This is a national problem," Reiner Haseloff, the governor of Saxony-Anhalt, told German daily Die Welt at that time. "We need to address these unspeakable acts at the national political level."

Christine Lueders, the director of Germany's Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, said that what happened in Troeglitz is "happening everywhere", even if it is not so obvious.

The Troeglitz incident is still being discussed almost daily. This week the issue was highlighted again.

On Monday evening (20 April) fire broke out in two asylum homes in Saxony. It has not been confirmed if the incidents were the result of deliberate attacks, but the 60 inhabitants of the Schmiedeberg accommodation and some asylum seekers living in the Chemnitz facility had to be housed elsewhere.

Extremism expert Olaf Sundermeyer said that giving in to fear of right-wing extremism only makes things worse.

‟If local politicians are afraid of their voters, the far-right win terrain and go to the next level which is setting the asylum hostel on fire.“

Arson attacks on refugee camps and asylum homes, as well as attacks on asylum seekers in Germany have increased in recent years.

Official figures show there were 150 crimes directed at asylum-seeker hostels in 2014. This was three times more than in 2013.

This year has seen at least three arson attacks on refugee homes and 22 other cases where stones or firecrackers were used to attack asylum seekers' accommodation.

Official numbers are still unavailable for this year, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) told this website, so it is NGOs like the Amadeu Antonio Foundation and Pro Asyl that keep track of violent displays of right wing extremists.

Experts agree that there is a dark figure of unreported cases, as not every asylum seekers dares to turn to the authorities.

Apart from attacks on asylum homes, the NGOs also registered 25 cases of assault and physical injury against refugees during the first quarter of this year.

While many remember the Moelln and Hoyerswerda riots against asylum seekers at the beginning of the 1990s, Sundermeyer notes that the recent attacks are different to those of 20 years ago.

He says that the actions are not meant to kill people but to “deliver a message” and that message is that migrants are not welcome in Germany.

Anti-immigration sentiment has risen in Germany together with the increase in the number of asylum seekers. Over 75,000 asylum requests were filed in the first quarter of this year, more than twice as many as in the same period last year.

While in 2014 about 200,000 asylum seekers arrived in Germany, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees expects this number to rise to 300,000 by the end of 2015.

Apart from refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, poverty in some Balkan countries accounts for the surge in numbers.

Thousands arrived from Kosovo, Albania, and Serbia during winter and made the headlines for weeks. But few Germans are aware that - except for the sick - virtually no Kosovars are granted asylum in the country.

Lack of housing

The infrastructure to handle migrants is also proving inadequate. Reception centres have difficulty housing everyone waiting for a decision on their asylum application.

Over-crowded gyms, containers-turned-shelters, and even the barracks of a former concentration camp site in Schwerte serve as temporary lodging.

Eastern Germany, where unemployment is higher than the national average, is proving fertile territory for anti-immigrant sentiment.

According to a study by the University of Leipzig earlier this year, respondents from Saxony-Anhalt emerged as the most anti-immigrant of Germany's regions, with 42.2 percent making xenophobic statements in interviews conducted for the study.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania - also in East Germany - was third, with 32.8 percent.

Earlier this year, in Dresden, following protests by residents, the owner of a former hotel eventually abandoned his attempt to rent the building to local authorities, which had intended to use it to house 94 asylum seekers.

At the political level, anti-immigration sentiment is gaining traction too. The AfD, an openly anti-immigrant party, is now represented in four regional parliaments.

Grassroots movements such as the anti-Islamist Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) or the HoGeSa (Hooligans Against Salafists) have also sprung up.


Sundermeyer believes the AfD is playing to xenophobic sentiment: “The right-wing populists from AfD are clearly responsible for the division in society.”

Local politicians are seen as vital to ease tension in areas where anti-foreigner feeling runs high.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees told EUobserver that it's essential to inform and involve the local population before setting up asylum hostels.

In the meantime, Troeglitz has a elected a new mayor and donations are being sought in the surrounding community to restore the damaged asylum home.

Ulrich Goetz, the chief administrative officer in the district, is determined that asylum seekers should be housed as planned in the small town.

As a consequence, he has received death threats and is now living under police protection.

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