Photo Gallery: Violence against Asylum Seekers

Foto: Daniel Karmann/ dpa

German Asylum Attacks on Refugee Hostels a Growing Problem

The recent arson attack against a refugee hostel in Tröglitz has made headlines around the world. But it is far from the exception in Germany. Even as most asylum-seekers in the country are left in peace, there has been a disturbing rise in anti-refugee violence. By SPIEGEL Staff

Four months after the night when peace went up in flames between the half-timbered houses of Vorra, the police posters are still hanging on the trees. They are hanging along the walking paths next to the Pegnitz River, which winds its way through the small town near Nuremberg. They are posted at playgrounds and at the train station. Everywhere really. Twenty thousand euros are being offered for clues that might help authorities find those behind the Dec. 12, 2014 arson attack, which saw three homes, newly renovated for refugees, set on fire. Police are still waiting in vain today for the decisive tip.

Indeed, attention these days could be focused on Vorra instead of Tröglitz, where a similar arson attack  made international headlines this week. Or on Escheburg, near Hamburg. Or Germering, located next to Munich. Or Sanitz, in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Or on Berlin, the allegedly cosmopolitan capital of Germany. All of these places have seen arson attacks perpetrated recently against refugee facilities; all of these places have seen animosity escalate dangerously. There are such places in the western part of the country and in the eastern part; they include villages and cities; and they are both well-off and poor.

It would, of course, be inaccurate to say that Germany is in flames. And, contrary to what some have been saying, Tröglitz is not "everywhere." Most asylum-seekers in Germany live in peace and are left largely alone, aside from the thousands of volunteers who ensure that the newcomers have all they need. Normality is the standard in Germany's refugee homes. And yet, Tröglitz is far from being an exception either. Last year, in fact, there were almost three times as many attacks on refugee hostels in Germany as there were in 2013.

Often, the cases are never solved and in many instances, those behind the attacks achieve what they set out to: spreading fear, creating a disturbance and preventing refugees from moving into their town by destroying their shelters. Sometimes, though, the arsonists achieve the exact opposite. It isn't seldom that such attacks bring communities together and increase a sense of solidarity with the refugees. How a town deals with such an attack depends to a large degree on the politicians and on the residents -- whether fear wins out or courage, whether there is silent agreement or a loud outcry.

Vorra: No Clues

Protestant parish pastor Björn Schukat was one of the first to notice the fire. Just as he was getting ready for bed, he saw flames shooting out of the Gasthaus Zur Goldenen Krone.

The fire almost completely burned out the interior of the former hotel -- which had just been repainted and outfitted for the arrival of 70 asylum-seekers -- along with two neighboring buildings. The roof was heavily damaged as well. On the wall of a house not far away, the arsonists spray-painted two swastikas and the message "no asylum-seekers in Vorra."

Graphic: Attacks on refugee shelters in Germany in 2014.

Graphic: Attacks on refugee shelters in Germany in 2014.


"On that night," Schukat says, "everyone in Vorra was shocked. Nobody thought such a thing could be possible. There were no prior indications, no demonstration, no anti-refugee slogans."

Schukat says the community had actually been looking forward to the arrival of the refugees. City hall had held an information evening and the mood was relaxed and welcoming, the pastor says. Furthermore, a volunteer group was organized to help the refugees as needed. In fact, the issue was hardly mentioned at all ahead of recent municipal council elections. The fire caught everyone off guard, Schukat says.

Instead of refugees, a special police task force arrived in town, moving into an office in city hall. They hoped to be able to find the arsonists by listening closely to what was being said in the local bars. They hoped that someone in the know might let something slip. They hoped that an anonymous note might end up in front of the task force's office door. But instead, nothing happened at all.

In fact, there are very few solid leads in the case. Investigators have only been able to assemble vague suspicions: one father accused his son of being involved; other clues led to a shack at the edge of the forest where, it was alleged, chanted Nazi slogans could often be heard.

One tip, which came long after the fire, at least resulted in a composite sketch of a possible suspect. A witness claims to have seen a man leaving the Gasthaus Zur Goldenen Krone at 9:15 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 11. The witness described him as being between 1.70 and 1.80 meters (5' 7" to 5' 11") tall with a heavy build and curly hair. Seventeen callers subsequently claimed to know the person pictured on the sketch, but their information did not ultimately lead to the perpetrator.

Still, after weeks of investigation, the police task force did manage to arrive at one conclusion: Not nearly as many people in Vorra were happy about the refugees' arrival as Pastor Schukat seems to believe.

Escheburg: Danger from the Center

Brigitte Mirow is sitting in room number 18 in the municipal offices of Hohe Elbgeest, a 30-minute drive outside of Hamburg. On the desk in front of her is a thick folder titled "Arson in Escheburg." The town, population 3,300, is one of 10 villages that belong to the municipality of which Mirow is chief of administration. Escheburg is also proof of the fact that hatred for refugees doesn't just come from the extreme right. It can also come from the bourgeois center.

The calamity got its start on the morning of Feb. 9. Mirow was holding a meeting in her office when 15 enraged Escheburgers stormed into her corner office on the first floor. They were furious that the municipality had bought a duplex right in the middle of their idyllic neighborhood, which borders a golf course. The next day, six asylum-seekers from Iraq were to be settled there.

Mirow still shudders when recalling the things they said: "We moved here so that our children can grow up in a sheltered environment." -- "We are worried about our wives." -- "Why next to us?" Hardly an hour later, an incendiary device was hurled into the red, wooden duplex that had been allotted to the refugees; it was only by chance that the resulting blaze only damaged the floor. The perpetrator was quickly apprehended. It wasn't a skinhead or anyone from the right-wing scene. It was one of the neighbors, a tax officer.

The damage in the red house next to the golf course has since been repaired and just a few days ago, asylum-seekers moved into one half of the duplex: a Muslim family from Chechnya with five children. The parents were handed a folder with useful addresses and telephone numbers and some Escheburg residents helped them with their shopping. But, says Brigitte Mirow, it is impossible to simply gloss over what happened in February. "It must be clearly confronted," she says.

In addition to the trial of the suspected arsonist, which begins in May, there is also to be a mediation process in Escheburg, organized by the local pastor and moderated by an external professional conflict management team. A kind of family therapy for an entire village.

Germering: Back to Normal

Germering has always been proud of its multicultural population: People from more than 120 countries live in the small town just west of Munich. In summer 2012, the city council unanimously adopted a plan to help integrate foreigners and refugees into the community, with the town's mayor, from the conservative Christian Social Union --the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats -- writing in the preamble that Germering was diverse and had to remain open "for a tolerant and a positive mutual future."

But Jan. 9, 2014 put the concept to the test. That night, an arsonist set fire to an asylum-seeker hostel in the town. The flames quickly climbed up the wooden façade all the way to the roof. Ten refugees were living in that part of the home. One of them noticed the fire and woke the others. They were lucky. There were no injuries.

Police began searching for a suspicious man that witnesses had seen that night, but they didn't get very far. They posted a reward and pursued various leads, but were able to identify neither the perpetrator nor a possible motive.

Andreas Haas, the mayor who evoked Germering's diversity just three years ago, bemoans the lack of success. The arsonist, he points out, put people's lives in danger. But Germering quickly returned to normality. Refugees remain welcome, Haas says, and notes that more are coming soon. Currently, 61 asylum-seekers are living in the shelter -- and traces from the fire can no longer be seen.

Berlin: Where Cosmopolitanism Ends

A week after the fire, Napuli Goerlich is standing in front of the remains of the refugee meeting point on Oranienplatz square in the Kreuzberg quarter of Berlin. Goerlich, an asylum-seeker from Sudan, points to the pile of charred bits and ash. "This fire was no accident," she says.

The "House of the 28 Doors" was an art installation by a Berlin-Dresden artist group and was meant to voice criticism of the restrictive immigration policies  pursued by the 28-member European Union. Goerlich and other immigrants, who have been demonstrating in Berlin for more than two years for a more humane asylum policy, used the wooden pavilion as a place for gatherings and parties. In January, Goerlich even celebrated her wedding there.

Police are investigating on suspicion of arson. In western Germany, right-wing extremism is largely associated with the eastern German countryside and it surprises no one when a refuge home is set ablaze in Saxony-Anhalt. But in presumably cosmopolitan, liberal Berlin?

Goerlich shrugs her shoulders. She is wearing skin-tight jeans and bright-red nail polish and her hair is braided. Refugees in Berlin, she says, have repeatedly been attacked in the past two years. In February 2014, unknown arsonists set fire to the refugees' portable restroom trailer on Oranienplatz and, a short time later, a further attack resulted in a tent burning up. A man from Algeria only barely managed to escape.

The city of Berlin touts the openness of its people, but its acceptance of foreigners is not unlimited. Foreign engineers and start-up founders are welcome, but asylum-seekers often aren't.

Activist Goerlich and others like her refuse to be cowed and are preparing further demonstrations. They have planned a solidarity event for the middle of April where Berlin musician Peter Fox is to play, among others. "Our fight continues," Goerlich says, "despite everything."

Sanitz: Pushing the Nazis to the Fringe

Local officials did everything right in Sanitz, a municipality in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. They invited locals to visit the former workers' home in the Gross Lüsewitz district where the refugees would be housed. They showed local residents how simple the furniture was, how small the rooms were and how minimally equipped the kitchen was. They also attempted to show people that the oft-heard complaint that refugees have it easy simply isn't true.

When the refugees arrived -- 18 adults and 22 children from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Bosnia and Chechnya -- they made sure that the children had spots in local daycare facilities or schools. There were German courses twice a week for the adults and children were taught to greet people on the streets. On the weekends, the municipality organized trips to thle nearby seaside. "We established a culture of welcoming," says Barbara Kirchhainer, a Left Party politician who is on the district council and a member of the board of a volunteer network. "We thought we were on the right track." But then the Molotov cocktails began to fly.

She received a call even before the police did, with the caller saying: "Barbara. Rockets." It was 12:40 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 12 and she sped to the refugee hostel. The two beer bottles filled with gasoline had only just barely missed their target. One of the window frames was in flames and the outside wall was blackened, but nobody was hurt. "We were forced to realize that we don't actually live in paradise," Kirchhainer says.

Six months after the incident, she is sitting in her living room, a 65-year-old woman who laughs and talks a great deal. She is holding pictures of her "grandchildren," as she refers to the kids living in the refugee hostel; she sees them almost every day. The photos show happy faces at the circus, in the cinema or eating French fries.

Public prosecutors have posted a reward of €3,000 for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, but they still haven't been caught. Kirchhainer says she doesn't particularly care about the perpetrators; she is more concerned about their potential victims. And she is encouraged by what has happened since the attack. People have become even more helpful and more supportive. "It was important for the people here to demonstrate that: We aren't like that," Kirchhainer says. Indeed, they initially did what they could to keep reporters away, loathe to become another in the list of anti-immigrant horrors like Rostock-Lichtenhagen , Hoyerswerda  or Mölln.

They also didn't arrange for candle-light demonstrations of solidarity, with only the municipal council issuing a quiet note of protest. Instead, she sought out new supporters, particularly among local seniors. At one senior citizen event, she held a brief address in which she talked about activities arranged for their "new neighbors," as Kirchhainer calls the refugees. But she also reminded them of their own experiences as refugees following World War II. "Think about what it was like for you," she said. Kirchhainer says she saw tears in the eyes of many of those present -- and she won over many new helpers. Now, every Wednesday, they read aloud to the refugee children in the community center; the kids love it.

"We became much more sensitive that night," Kirchhainer says. When the neo-Nazi party NPD calls on its followers to attend town meetings, then she tells the refugees to stay away on that evening. She doesn't want to make people afraid, but she does want to raise awareness. "We can't give the Nazis any room to operate," she says.

In April, an additional 40 asylum-seekers are to be settled in Gross Lüsewitz, which would make for a population of 80 refugees out of a total population of 800. Last Tuesday, the mayor held a town meeting near the refugee home. The hall was full and there was some disagreement when it came to issues such as daycare, road repairs and community fees. But when it came to the asylum-seekers, nobody had anything to say. Indeed, the so-called refugee problem would seem to be one problem that Gross Lüsewitz no longer has.

By Björn Hengst, Martin Knobbe, Conny Neumann, Maximilian Popp and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt