The refugee crisis in Germany turned ugly over the weekend, with far-right thugs clashing with police outside an asylum center in a small town in former east Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will meet on Monday afternoon to discuss Europe's escalating refugee crisis, after a weekend of violent clashes at the shelter for asylum seekers in the town of Heidenau, near Dresden.
For three nights starting Friday, right-wing radicals rampaged before an emergency refugee shelter. Masked men dressed in black threw fireworks and stones at police, injuring 31 officers by early Saturday and hurting two more Sunday morning.
On Monday, Ms. Merkel's spokesman addressed the violence in Heidenau.
"The chancellor and the whole government condemn in the strongest manner possible the violence and the aggressive atmosphere towards foreigners there," her spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a regular conference.
"It is disgusting how right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis attempt to spread their idiotic message of hatred around an asylum shelter," he said.
Ms. Merkel is due to make a statement on the issue of Heidenau and refugees later on Monday afternoon. The chancellor had come in for some criticism in recent days that she had not yet made a foreceful statement on the issue. On Twitter, the term #Merkelschweigt (Merkel says nothing) was trending in Germany for a time.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière had already sharply condemned the clashes and called for acts of xenophobic violence to be punished with “the full force of the rule of law.”
“All those applying for asylum and all refugees, regardless of whether or not they will stay, have the right to respectable shelter and a fair hearing,” Mr. de Maizière told public broadcaster ZDF. “Whoever prevents the authorities from doing this has left the democratic consensus.”
“At the same time as we see a wave of people wanting to help, we have a rise in hate, insults and violence against asylum seekers. That is obscene and unworthy of our country," he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Most of the 250 asylum seekers who are already housed in Heidenau are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The center will eventually hold around 600 people.
Right-wing extremists in Saxony and other states have been mobilizing against the growing number refugees for weeks.
Last Wednesday, Mr. de Maizière said that some 800,000 people were expected to seek asylum in Germany this year.
In an interview on Sunday, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who is also leader of the Social Democrats, Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partner, said that the massive increase in asylum requests was the country's "biggest challenge since reunification" in 1990.
All the violent excesses were foreseeable. [Yet] Nothing is prepared, everyone is surprised, shocked and outraged everyday by new outbreaks of violence. Rainer Wendt, German Police Union, national chairman
Mr. Gabriel has changed his summer travel plans and visited the refugee shelter in Heidenau on Monday morning.
Speaking to journalists after visiting with the refugees, Mr. Gabriel, strongly condemned the violence.
Surrounded by armed government security agents, Mr. Gabriel, addressed the right-wing rioters: “We have a message for you. You don’t belong to us and we don’t want you here.’’
Video: The riots in Heidenau during the weekend.
Meanwhile, Germany is pushing the European Union to agree to a list of “safe” countries to make it easier to deport those who are not deemed genuine refugees, including many Eastern European nations trying to join the bloc and some African states.
More than one third of asylum seekers in Germany are from southeastern European countries such as Albania and Serbia.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande will meet to try to find a joint approach to the refugee crisis later on Monday, before holding talks with the Ukrainian president in Berlin.
Germany and France want to help Greece and Italy set up reception centers, as well as push the European Union to come up with a unified asylum policy, including fixed quotas for taking in refugees, something the United Kingdom and Eastern European countries have blocked so far.
Under the current rules, refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in the first E.U. country they enter, but many nations are flaunting this rule, allowing people to travel on to other countries.
Germany and Sweden are attracting the bulk of the many hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe. Many refugees are taking incredibly dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece, before trying to go make their way to Northern Europe.
With the refugee numbers set to quadruple this year in Germany, towns and cities have warned that they don’t have the resources to deal with the influx.
And while most Germans have been welcoming, the far-right has sought to exploit the situation.
In the first half of the year alone, there have been some 150 arson or other attacks on refugee shelters in Germany.
In the early hours of Monday morning a building that had been slated to house refugees was destroyed by fire. The three-story empty building was in the town of Weissach im Tal, in the southern state of Baden-Würtemberg. The police said it was too early to say if the fire was the result of an arson attack.
Given the recent spike in right-wing violence, the opposition Greens had demanded decisive intervention by the chancellor.
“I warn of a new right-wing terrorism a la NSU,” Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Greens' parliamentary chief, said referring to the National Socialist Underground.
The NSU terrorist cell murdered nine people of Turkish and Greek origin as well as a police officer from 2000 to 2006. The authorities uncovered the cell by accident in 2011 when two of its members committed suicide and after a botched bank robbery.
“I cannot understand the hesitancy of Angela Merkel to find the right words here,” Ms. Göring-Eckardt said, ahead of the statement from the chancellery on Monday.
There had also been criticism from the SPD of Ms. Merkel’s silence. A lawmaker from the party, Lars Klingbeil, demanded more decisive action from the chancellor. “Merkel has to end her silence,” he said, saying that “clear words from the chancellor when it comes to right-wing attacks on refugees and volunteers,” he told Der Spiegel magazine. “The chancellor has to be at the forefront of those who say: There is no place for racism in Germany.”
There was also criticism of the Saxon government for not doing enough to prevent right-wing violence.
“Heidenau is a direct consequence of the Saxony state government's tolerance toward Pegida,” Ms. Göring-Eckardt said. Pegida is a right-wing political group that organized demonstrations last winter in Dresden against Muslim immigration. At their peak, the demonstrations attracted tens of thousands of people.
Saxony’s premier, Stanislaw Tillich, said that the demonstrations were not “our Saxony.”
“A minority here is contravening the values and laws of Germany,” he told Der Tagesspiegel daily.
Rainer Wendt, the national chairman of the German Police Union, criticized policymakers for reacting slowly to the stream of refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
“All the violent excesses were foreseeable,” Mr. Wendt said in a press release. “Nothing is prepared, everyone is surprised, shocked and outraged everyday by new outbreaks of violence,” he continued. Mr. Wendt went on to call for a general ban on demonstrations near refugee shelters.
The far-right National Democratic Party had called for demonstrations against the refugee shelter in Heidenau last Friday, which ended in clashes that night. On Saturday evening, around 150 left-wing demonstrators stood across from 250 right-wing extremists, separated by the police.
By late evening, right-wing radicals suddenly began throwing beer bottles and fireworks at police again. The police responded with clubs and pepper spray.
Amid fears of a recurrence, police on Sunday started to set up a security zone around the shelter, an empty hardware store, and checked the ID of those in the vicinity.
The situation remained tense, and police had to use tear gas to break up clashes between the far-right demonstrators and left-wing counter-demonstrators.