Arsonists Increasingly Target Refugee Shelters in Germany

Manasi Gopalakrishnan, DW, September 12, 2016

State prosecutors in the city of Hagen held two men responsible for the arson attack on a refugee home in nearby Altena in October last year. The 26-year-old firefighter was sentenced to six years in prison, while his accomplice was handed a five-year-term.

Both men admitted that they had set fire to the attic of a refugee home in Altena, in the state of North Rhine Westphalia, last October. The judges found both men guilty of aggravated arson, but rejected charges to punish the two men for attempted murder. The court said that there was no evidence that the men intended to kill any refugees, despite setting fire to the building.

This year until now

The Hagen case is one of nearly 1,047 attacks on refugee homes in Germany last year. That figure could climb even higher in 2016, German Federal Police Office’s (BKA) chief Holger Münch told journalists earlier this month.

From the beginning of this year until the end of August, police have recorded 705 attacks on asylum shelters. Of these, 57 were cases of arson and 67 included other kinds of attacks.

One case in particular garnered worldwide attention. In February, a refugee home in Bautzen, in the eastern German state of Saxony, was set on fire. Residents and onlookers gathered at the scene and applauded, while some others chanted right-wing slogans from a nearby street. Two people, who reportedly hindered firefighters, were arrested.

Almost three times as many attacks took place in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the same time period last year, the BKA said. However, according to the asylum rights organization Pro Asyl, every third day, arsonists attacked a refugee shelter in Germany. Pro Asyl and its partner organization, the Amadeus Antonio Foundation, pegged the number of arson attacks on refugee homes at 101 since January.

Compared to the same period in 2014, the numbers this year were almost ten times higher, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that included data up to May 2016. The total number of attacks in 2014 was around 200.

Trials and punishment

A verdict for the accused in the Altena case is more the exception than the rule. According to a report released by Pro Asyl earlier this year, chances of finding the guilty are lower than 25 percent. In other words, police manage to find the culprits only in one out of every four cases.

Research by Germany’s two public broadcasters, NDR and WDR, and the “Süddeutsche” newspaper has shown that the success of police investigations was far lower in 2015 when only one in ten cases of arson was successfully investigated.

According to BKA chief Münch, who spoke about attacks on refugee homes last week said, finding the culprit was tough because more than 75 percent of the accused in these incidents did not have any police record as extremists. The number indicated that a new group of politically motivated criminals was developing, Münch said, adding that police had observed the formation of local groups that met to plan attacks on refugee homes.

Nipping terror in the bud

These groups could also develop into terrorist organizations, the police chief told German newspaper “Tagesspiegel,” suggesting that “this could be the early stages of a development like that of the NSU.” The NSU, or National Socialist Underground, was a Neo-Nazi group active between 2001 and 2010. Its members are accused of killing 10 people of foreign – mostly Turkish – origin during that decade.

Meanwhile, police have been trying to prevent the creation of such groups, Münch said, adding that officers were trying to “react as soon as possible to break” terrorist structures when they are formed. According to the police chief, this strategy worked well with the “Old School Society,” a neo-Nazi group that was formed in May 2015 and was planning to attack refugee shelters.

The BKA chief said the rhetoric from right-wing party Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) was one reason why anti-foreigner feelings had become “socially acceptable” in Germany. The group has begun attracting more voters in recent polls and even driven out established parties like the Greens from some state legislatures.

Last year, one of its leaders, Beatrix von Storch, spoke about shooting refugees at Germany’s border if they tried to cross the border illegally. The AfD chief, Frauke Petry, also stirred controversy this week after reviving the politically-charged, Nazi-era word, “völkisch,” which, during the Third Reich, referred to the exclusivity of the ethnic German race.

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