refugee influx In Attacks on Refugee Housing, Arsonists Rarely Caught

The rising tide of anti-immigrant violence including vandalism, arson and attacks on refugees continues unabated, raising questions about how seriously German police and prosecutors are pursuing these racist crimes.
A fire in Rossbach at the end of last year meant refugees couldn't move into the accommodation in January as planned.

This year has seen an unprecedented number of refugees settle in Germany, fleeing war and poverty. There has been also been a rise in the number of attacks committed against accommodation for asylum-seekers.

Only a few of the people committing arson attacks are caught, according to an investigation by German weekly newspaper Die Zeit and Die Zeit Online.

For example, a gymnasium housing 400 refugees was torched in the fall in Wertheim, a picturesque town in southwestern Germany. With a population of 22,000, you'd think the police would have found the person who did it.

Officers started work immediately and doubled the size of the team investigating once the signs pointed to arson. They found evidence of a break-in and witnesses reported seeing someone in dark clothing drive away. But three months later, no arrests have been made.

On the news we see reports about apartments for refugees being set on fire or flooded, or of gangs beating up asylum seekers with baseball bats. It's surprising no one has been killed yet.

In the last few months there have been scenes of asylum-seekers arriving at train stations to be greeted by crowds waving and offering chocolate. Those same refugees are now seeking safety from xenophobic attacks, whether it's people throwing stones or Molotov cocktails.

On the news we see reports about apartments for refugees being set on fire or flooded, or of gangs beating up asylum seekers with baseball bats. It's surprising no one has been killed yet.

These attacks on refugee housing aren't isolated incidents, but a growing phenomenon. The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation found 505 criminal acts against asylum seeker housing ranging from simple vandalism to attempted murder between January and October this year. At the end of November, the Interior Ministry listed 747 cases. The figures are bad enough, but hardly any of the perpetrators have been arrested, much less convicted.

Often, these cases are poorly handled. The investigation by Die Zeit and Zeit Online analyzed data from all of the federal states in Germany concerning attacks intended to damage or destroy asylum seeker accommodation and/or kill or injure refugees. It didn't include crimes such as racist graffiti or anti-refugee demonstrations but did include stone-throwing.

The conclusion? Between January 1 and November 30, 2015, there were at least 222 acts of violence against asylum seekers and their housing, including 93 arson attacks, 93 acts of vandalism, eight incidents of water damage (which legally counts as vandalism, but are included in these statistics because they can effectively make a residence uninhabitable) and 28 physical assaults.

Of the attacks, 119 were directed against inhabited buildings and 85 against empty structures. For the remaining cases, no information was available as to whether the buildings were in use at the time.

No state has been immune from these attacks, but the worst is Saxony, both in terms of the numbers and in proportion to total population.

Politicians have responded with strong words. Justice Minister Heiko Maas called the incidents an "attack on our democracy," while Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said that, "anyone who behaves in this way will face the full force of the law." This talk has yet to be backed by action.

Police have identified suspects in only 53 of the 222 recorded acts of violence, or less than 25 percent. Charges were filed in only 12 cases and, so far, a judgment has been rendered in just four cases. By contrast, the judiciary has already dropped proceedings in 24 cases due to lack of evidence.

Even the prosecution of the worst arson attacks has been unsuccessful. Forty of these attacks -- almost half of the 93 cases of arson -- have been on occupied buildings and 50 on uninhabited accommodation. The remaining three cases are unclear. So far, charges have been brought in only three cases with just one conviction.

Why do police and prosecutors seem to be groping in the dark? If the same number of Molotov cocktails were thrown at Deutsche Bank branches instead of refugees, imagine the investigative machinery that would be put in motion. How many extra police would be mobilized, how much money would be poured into investigating and prosecuting those responsible? Is the apparent lack of enthusiasm due to the targets of these attacks? Is it a lack of will? Or is the justice system blind in one eye? The right eye?

Brandenburg State Attorney Erardo Rautenber insists things have improved dramatically since the the 90s, when a spate of attacks directed against foreigners rocked post-reunification Germany.

Back then, Mr. Rautenberg, Brandenburg's top prosecutor since 1996, had been in office just a few months. He was the first to label xenophobia and a youth culture leaning towards the far right as a serious problem.

At the time, Mr. Rautenberg made it a priority to prosecute racially motivated crime despite criticism of his approach. Police and the judiciary set up special units, administrative pathways were shortened and investigation times speeded up. Mr. Rautenberg's determination delivered visible results. The number of racially motivated attacks was halved between 1998 and 2005.

And yet today, Mr. Rautenberg faces the same problems as his colleagues in the other states. Attacks on asylum centers are rising dramatically, but few criminals are being caught.

In Saxony, where the situation is especially grim, Leipzig's police commissioner, Bernd Merbitz, described two typical cases. In Dippoldiswalde, 20 containers set up as refugee accommodation went up in flames. And in Freital, a homemade bomb exploded outside the bedroom window of a 26-year-old Syrian, leaving his forehead lacerated by glass shards. Both cases are being investigated by the Saxony Operative Response Centre (OAZ).

Nationwide, Bernd Merbitz leads a special unit with more than 100 staff investigating politically motivated violence. With his bull neck and unruly hair, Mr. Merbitz, 59, doesn’t look like a typical career public servant. He comes across as gruff and headstrong. For the last 25 years, he's been Saxony's champion against right-wing extremists and his investigators boast a 70 percent success rate. But when it comes to attacks on refugee centers, it falls to just 30 percent.

“Arson cases are very difficult to solve,” criminologist Thomas Feltes at the University of Bochum said. “There you really have to use every trick in the book.”

Mr. Merbitz says it's “a big criminal puzzle” that can be solved only with outstanding personnel, the best technology and investigative skill.

Mr. Rautenberg says arson is complicated because the crime usually occurs under cover of darkness and there are seldom witnesses. There's no direct relationship between the perpetrator and their victims. The hatred driving these attacks is not at a personal level. Refugees often don't want to testify because they came from countries where the police are not trusted.

Another factor hindering investigations isn’t mentioned: There aren't enough arson specialists to immediately send to a crime scene. Mr. Merbitz has just six arson specialists on his team. Often, valuable time elapses before it's known whether it was an arsonist using an accelerant or if a technical fault is to blame.

Additionally, refugee centers are not well protected. There's a shortage of watchmen, lighting and video cameras. In Wertheim for example, there was no video surveillance and, therefore, no images of the person in dark clothing witnesses later claimed to have seen.

The main problem though, is a lack of police. In western German states, the number of police officers has remained stable over the last few years, but in eastern states, they've been reduced and dramatically so in some areas. In Saxony, for example, 1,500 jobs were cut in the last few years. The 2015 budget allowed for 12,300 police officers, but this year, the number is just 10,800.

“There's a bitterness over these staff cuts,” Mr. Merbitz said. “For a long time we've been at our limit and we constantly have to decide which cases take priority.”

In 2000, Brandenburg had 10,300 police officers. Now, it’s less than 8,000.

“If the right-wingers knew how short-staffed we are, they'd be dancing under our noses,” said an employee of the Brandenburg Special Commission on Rightwing Extremism, who requested anonymity.

Another problem is most xenophobic criminals are not easily identified and not known as right-wing extremists. They come from the neighborhood, from the community.

Take the case of Dirk D. – he cannot be identified by his surname under German law – from the Sauerland. No one would have suspected he was capable of setting a fire in the attic of a house where Syrian refugees were staying. The 25-year-old was a professional fireman, a government employee in his probation period and involved with the volunteer fire brigade, just like his father and his siblings.

Dirk D. doesn't fit the picture of a violent xenophobe. The son of a forestry worker, he took a keen interest in his small-town community. He had a secure job, was interested in cars and often played sports. No security official would view him as a potential threat. A report from the Federal Criminal Investigation Agency reveals at least 70 percent of the attacks on refugee shelters are committed by similar people, who appear to be completely normal members of the community. It was different from the 1990s, when the arsonists were usually radicals.

“Today we have perpetrators who reflect the full spectrum of the population,” Mr. Merbitz said. “And with the massive hate marches on the street, the situation has got worse.”

Dirk D. was caught only because his accomplice informed the police. His case is extremely rare because he admitted his crime and showed remorse. He said he did it because of “personal aggravation” and fear of the foreigners moving into his neighborhood.

The state attorney in Hagen, the nearby town in Westphalia, said after Dirk D.'s arrest that he was not connected to the right-wing scene and there was no “political motivation.” He was charged with serious arson, not attempted murder, based on that argument that as a professional firefighter, he had the knowledge to set a more effective blaze if he wanted to kill. Since he was deemed not to be a flight risk or likely to commit the crime again, he was allowed to await his trial at home instead of in custody.

Legally, that's okay, but morally, it's questionable – especially to the refugees in the house next door. The example is unlikely to deter others contemplating similar crimes.

An important question arising from Dirk D.'s case is how the police can better identify perpetrators before they can act?

Of course, there's a need for more police and special intelligence agents. They must find out in what direction right-wing extremists are steering anti-refugee protests. The president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Germany's domestic intelligence agency), Hans Georg Maassen, notes anti-refugee demonstrators are a mixture of social elements.

“The demonstrations mix indignant residents, people from criminal circles, subcultural right-wing extremists and right-wing extremists who belong to legal organizations,” he explained.

The inflammatory slogans of legal political parties like the NPD are lowering the inhibition threshold of demonstrators. “When we're verbally called upon to commit acts of violence and to active self-defense against refugees, then the distance between words and actions becomes shorter,” Mr. Maasen said.

The problem isn't solved with just more police. Robert Lüdecke of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a research institute which studies xenophobic violence, says that in addition to a shortage of security forces, there is also sometimes a lack of political will and enthusiasm from the police to effectively deal with those committing xenophobic crimes.

How else, he asked, would it be possible for a mob to riot unhindered for two days in front of a refugee center in Heidenau, Saxony?

And at another location, what made the police decide a welcoming festival for refugees would be a provocation to anti-refugee activists?

Maximilian Pichl, a lawyer at the Frankfurt-based independent human rights organization Pro Asyl said racist attacks on asylum seekers are often downplayed and justified as a result of “personal anxiety.” He recalls a case in Hanover, where a police officer mistreated a refugee. His superiors knew about it, but took no action. “There's a code of silence,” Mr. Pichl said.

Mr. Rautenberg said it's not enough to have 16 states and 16 different investigative processes.

What is needed, he said, is a nationwide effort, a “broad political union from left to right.” The Federal Ministry of the Interior needs to call for a national crisis summit with a clear political signal, forcing all states to address their shortcomings.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]