A dramatic increase in the number of attacks against asylum seekers in Germany in recent months has raised concerns that a new wave of racism and xenophobia could sweep the country.
Human rights organization ProAsyl said earlier this week that 47 attacks against asylum seekers were recorded in the first four months of the year, which indicated a dramatic increase in growing far-right populist sentiment in society.
Suspected neo-Nazis also set fire to a new refugee shelter in the eastern town of Troeglitz on April 4, almost three months after a similar attack against asylum homes in southeastern German town of Vorra.
German Social Democrat lawmaker Eva Hoegl warned the developments may lead to the return of early 1990s-style xenophobia.
“I am concerned that the atmosphere in Germany could be like early 90’s again,” Hoegl told local media, referring to dozens of xenophobic riots and arson attacks which took place in the country between 1991 and 1996 and claimed the lives of at least 18 asylum seekers and immigrants, and injured dozens more.
– ‘Grave concern’
Far-right extremists carried out 162 attacks against asylum seekers and their houses in 2014, according to police records, almost three times higher than in 2012 when police recorded 24 attacks by far-right extremists against refugees and their shelters.
There were 58 such attacks in 2013.
Hajo Funke, a professor of political science and a far-right expert at Berlin’s Free University, expressed grave concern over the increase in an interview with The Anadolu Agency on Friday.
He said: “I have similar concerns. There are similarities to the early 90’s.”
“But there are also stark differences to that situation. The public and politicians are today more aware of the problems, of the challenges.”
– Plans blocked
The latest arson attack against a refugee shelter in Troeglitz, a small town in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, came after weeks-long protests organized by far-right demonstrators to block plans for housing about 40 asylum seekers in the town.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government and opposition parties immediately condemned the attack and various public demonstrations were held in the town in favor of housing refugees.
But the implementation of the original plan to host refugees in May had to be postponed due to the amount of damage the refugee shelter has suffered at the hands of the arsonists and amid security concerns in the town.
Professor Funke said that the anti-refugee campaign and demonstrations conducted by the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD, in Troeglitz and various other towns had played a major role in recent attacks.
He said it was important for the authorities in Troeglitz not to retreat from sheltering refugees.
Funke said: “I think first of all refugees have to be in a secure environment … that’s the highest priority.”
“Once the authorities of Troeglitz decided to invite the asylum seekers, they should not retreat. This is a test of the strength of our civil state, the rule of law.”
“It’s a fight about decency, a fight about tolerance and mutual acknowledgement,” he said.
– ‘Concrete support’
Goetz Ulrich, chief executive of the district of Burgenlandkreis, who has been a strong supporter of plans for sheltering refugees in Troeglitz, was placed under special police protection this week following death threats made against him by far-right extremists.
The town’s former mayor, Markus Nierth, had to resign last month due to security concerns as far-right groups announced protests near his home.
Professor Funke said the German federal government should show stronger political and financial support for local authorities to address the current challenges, fighting the far-right ideology and allocating money for the costs of hosting a growing number of asylum seekers.
“Words are not enough, towns and municipalities need concrete support,” he said.
In Germany, local authorities and municipalities bear the main responsibility for accommodating asylum seekers.
– Anti-foreigner propaganda
As Germany began to receive a record number of asylum applications in recent years, local authorities started to face problems in covering costs.
Far-right groups oppose allocating money for the centers and argue the money should be used for the needs of local residents or German homeless people.
Professor Funke said that the recent increase in racist and anti-refugee sentiments has been fuelled by the anti-foreigner propaganda of newly formed political movements and parties like PEGIDA and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
A survey conducted by Leipzig University last year revealed xenophobic tendencies have been high in the former eastern states, including Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thueringen, where Islamophobic PEGIDA and anti-immigration AfD drew their largest support.
In Saxony-Anhalt, 42.2 percent of those polled responded positively to questions which included xenophobic views.
In Saxony, 25 percent of those polled showed xenophobic tendencies. In Thueringen it was 30.9.
– ‘Great danger’
Professor Funke warned that the democratic conservative parties on the center should refrain from drifting into right-wing populism.
“It is not only PEGIDA. Also from some politicians of the democratic parties, especially from Chancellor Merkel’s coalition partner CSU, we hear right-wing populist statements of resentment. This is a danger, even a great danger,” he said.
The CSU has long been critical of immigration and accused many asylum seekers coming from the Balkans and immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania of exploiting social benefits available in Germany.
Germany received 202,834 asylum applications last year – 47,000 of them from Syrians – an increase of 60 percent compared with the same period in 2013, according to the German Interior Ministry.
After Syria, the main countries of origin for asylum seekers were Serbia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo and Somalia.
The German Interior Ministry expects a record number of asylum applications this year and estimates that the number will reach 300,000.