In Europe - East

By Joanna Slater, Globe and Mail, Aug 26, 2015

NAUEN, GERMANY — As the wind blew from the east, an acrid smell drifted off the still-smouldering sports centre. Before the blaze broke out, the building was slated to serve as housing for a group of 100 asylum seekers, the first to arrive in Nauen, a small town west of Berlin. No longer: The charred shell, burned down to its steel girders, was fit only for demolition.

Gymnasium building intended as refugee housing center burned to the ground in Nauen, Germany on Aug. 25, 2015

Gymnasium building intended as refugee housing center burned to the ground in Nauen, Germany on Aug. 25, 2015

The police believe the fire, which started early Tuesday, was a deliberate act of destruction. Such attacks on accommodation for refugees are becoming depressingly frequent in Germany – authorities say there were 200 criminal incidents targeting shelters in the first half of this year, more than for all of 2014.

Across the street, Attila Koro stood outside the school where he is the vice-principal, visibly agitated by the sight of the burnt wreck in front of him. “I’m angry, I’m embarrassed, I’m disgusted,” he said. “I’m really ashamed. It’s a strange time in Germany.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits refugee center in Heidenau, Germany on Aug. 26, 2015 (Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits refugee center in Heidenau, Germany on Aug. 26, 2015 (Reuters)

As Germany prepares to accept the largest number of annual refugees since the Second World War, each day brings new signs of a growing divide in the country. The majority of Germans want to welcome asylum seekers, but a small minority of people vehemently oppose their arrival. The result is an increasingly dramatic contrast between Germany’s best side and its worst, where acts of spontaneous generosity and organized efforts to assist the newcomers unfold at the same time as ugly displays of intolerance.

The conflict has taken on new urgency in recent weeks. Last weekend, dozens of police officers were injured in two nights of clashes with right-wing and neo-Nazi protesters at a housing facility for refugees in Heidenau, near Dresden. German political leaders condemned the demonstrations in the strongest possible terms, with Chancellor Angela Merkel calling them “shameful and repulsive.”

On Wednesday, both Ms. Merkel and President Joachim Gauck visited housing centres for refugees to underline their support for those living there. Ms. Merkel travelled to the facility at the centre of the violence in Heidenau, where she faced boos and jeers from assembled right-wing protesters.

Mr. Gauck, meanwhile, visited a centre for 570 refugees in Berlin. He said Germany should take inspiration from the many thousands of its citizens who are helping asylum seekers, whose actions offer a fitting response to “the agitators and arsonists who are ruining the image of our country.”

Germany is a favoured destination for refugees fleeing conflict or repressive regimes in such places as Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The German government estimates that 800,000 people will seek asylum in the country this year, a postwar record that would be quadruple last year’s figure. (By contrast, 13,500 people applied in Canada for asylum in 2014.)

The right to asylum is enshrined in Germany’s constitution, and many Germans believe the country has both the moral obligation and the financial resources to help those seeking safe haven. That commitment is buttressed by a desire to make amends for its Nazi past.

At the same time, the current surge in refugees represents an enormous challenge. At the European level, Ms. Merkel has urged mandatory quotas so countries share the refugee burden more equitably, an idea that remains unimplemented. Closer to home, she has moved to double funding for municipalities, which have responsibility for housing the new arrivals.

Meanwhile, the public debate is growing more heated. Earlier this month, Anja Reschke, a television anchor, made a pointed two-minute statement in which she urged her fellow citizens to engage in a “rebellion of the decent” and forcefully reject xenophobia. “If you’re not of the opinion that all refugees are freeloaders who should be hunted down, burned or gassed, then you should make that known,” she said. The video rapidly went viral, with more than six million views on Facebook alone.

Some prominent Germans have sought to lead by example. Til Schweiger, a leading filmmaker and actor, has begun raising money to convert an abandoned military barracks into a home for refugees. Martin Patzelt, a member of parliament, invited two young asylum seekers from Eritrea to live with him and his family at their home an hour outside Berlin. The gesture led to death threats, according to a report from German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“I don’t take the threats seriously in the sense of fearing for my own safety,” Mr. Patzelt said in the interview. “But I take them very seriously as an indication of how some Germans still have a long way to go until they leave racism behind.”

Some experts pointed to the weekly anti-migration protests that erupted last year under the banner of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA after its German acronym. While the demonstrations have since fizzled out, they provided “fertile ground” for those with the inclination to act on their xenophobic views, said Hajo Funke, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Free University in Berlin.

Still, Prof. Funke noted that the current situation is very different from the last time Germany faced a bout of anti-foreigner violence in the early 1990s. In the intervening years, the attitude of Germans toward asylum seekers has undergone “a full-scale change,” he said. Polls now show that a majority of Germans support helping refugees with their own time and money, he said.

Back in Nauen, where the sports centre burned, the response was immediate. By evening on Tuesday, the same day the fire started, more than 300 people gathered nearby to voice their support for refugees. There were local mayors, families with children and elderly people who arrived on bikes, along with representatives of all the major political parties.

Lisa Mews, a 24-year old student, said she felt compelled to attend the demonstration, though her family was shocked and told her not to go. “They’re really afraid that refugees will steal their bikes and cars,” she said with an incredulous laugh. “It’s hard to talk to them about it.”

After the speeches, the crowd marched toward the centre of town, shouting slogans such as “Refugees are welcome here” and “No person is illegal.” As they walked, residents of the surrounding apartment blocks looked down on the march from their windows and balconies, impassive and silent.

Olaf Kosater, a track and field coach in Nauen, gestured at the buildings. “The people who live in this area are in favour of the burning,” he said. A moment later, he noticed a man standing at a top-floor window displaying his middle finger to the marchers below. “This is a Nazi,” Mr. Kosater said bitterly. “This is Germany. This is our problem.”

Read also:
Germany rocked by anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi violence, from Deutsche Welle, Aug 25, 2015

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