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Germany

Attempted murder of homeless Berlin man stirs anti-migrant sentiment

On Christmas Day, seven young asylum seekers tried to light a homeless man on fire. The incident has shocked people in Berlin, including DW's Jefferson Chase, who lives near the scene of the crime.

Germany's policy toward migrants is once again being slammed after it emerged that six of the seven young males suspected of trying to immolate a sleeping homeless man in the Schönleinstrasse subway station in the wee hours of December 25 were asylum seekers from Syria, while the other was of Libyan background.

The attack was notable both for its timing and its brutality, and online forums were immediately full of users calling for the suspects, who range in age from 15 to 21 and are currently being charged with attempted murder, to be deported as soon as possible. Exacerbating the outrage was the fact that some of the suspects already had criminal records.

The anti-migrant, right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) immediately sought to make political capital out of the identity of the suspects. But many people from the traditional political center were also appalled and called for the perpetrators to be expelled from Germany.

"The suspects will hopefully be put on trial and then found guilty," Barbara John -  a conservative who served as Berlin's commissioner for migrants and foreigners for more than 20 years - told the "Berliner Zeitung" newspaper. "It would be good if we could then get rid of them. Once this sort of thing starts, where does it end?"

The deputy chairman of one of Germany's main police unions also described the incident as "a despicable act" and called for the suspects, if convicted, to be thrown out of Germany.

German law prohibits the deportation of people to countries where their lives might be endangered, a category that usually includes Syria, though each case has to be assessed on an individual basis. But the attempted subway atrocity and the terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market on December 19 have many people in the mainstream questioning whether Germany should afford migrants who commit brutal crimes any protection at all.

What do residents of Berlin and the area around Schönleinstrasse think? I didn't have to go far from home to find out.

Deutschland Berlin - Schönleistraße (DW/J. Chase)

The damage from the attack is still visible in the station

A stunned neighborhood

I've lived in the northern part of the district of Neukölln for more than 17 years, and Schönleinstrasse is my nearest public transport stop. If you go down to the platform, you can still see the burn marks on the bench where the attack took place. It is an unsettling, angering, sickening sight - for me and everyone else who lives in the neighborhood.

But should the attack, which was luckily flouted when an alert subway train driver and some passersby doused the flames on the homeless man's clothes, change Germany's stance toward asylum seekers?

At a kebab shop just outside the subway station, the owner says that those responsible should be expelled even if their own lives are endangered. A customer disagrees, saying that, if convicted, the suspects should serve time in German prisons - German law provides for that anyway, even if criminals are candidates for eventual deportation.

Northern Neukölln has traditionally been a heavily working class and Turkish area, but it has also undergone considerable gentrification recently. There are now as many whole-food grocery stores as betting shops, and the twice weekly open-air market nearby, known to Berliners as the "Turkish market," has become both a tourist attraction and a symbol of the modern, multicultural German capital. In any case, this is not the sort of area in which the AfD could normally expect to attract many supporters.

At a newspaper shop, a well-dressed woman who had been out of town over Christmas expresses her horror at what took place on December 25. The shop owner, a Berlin native with the unmistakable local accent, also seems stunned. Perhaps the seven young men in question were traumatized and desensitized by events in their own home countries, she says. Otherwise, the attack on a helpless target leaves her speechless. I feel that way as well.

Idiots the problem, not migrants

The station itself is a reflection of both sides of the neighborhood. On Wednesday morning, at the northern end of the platform, an intoxicated man inhales fumes emanating from a piece of aluminum foil; at the other end there is a kiosk that sells onigiri and cappuccino to commuters. It is not unusual to see groups of non-German-looking young people here, but acts of violence are hardly the order of the day either.

At the southern station entrance, a man in his sixties named Peter stands holding out a paper cup in a bid for some spare change. Of course, he's heard about the Christmas Day attack, he says. But he adds that it doesn't matter to him whether the attackers were migrants or not.

"These people are just idiots," he tells me. "I don't care whether they were Syrians, Turks or Germans. There are simply a lot of idiots around."

Peter does say that he sometimes feels afraid and that subway stations were safer when they were manned by attendants. Budget concerns mean that mass transit employees with uniforms and whistles no longer monitor most Berlin subway stops. That task has largely been turned over to surveillance cameras.

Berlin U-Bahnhof Hermannstraße (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken)

Berlin's transit authority says that subway crime is actually down

Two senseless acts of violence

Schönleinstrasse is part of the U8 subway line, which Berliners sometimes jokingly call the "ghetto liner" because it connects Neukölln with Wedding, another district with a heavily Muslim and lower-income population. It's been in the news a lot lately. In late November, five stations further south from Schönleinstrasse, a Bulgarian man kicked a woman down a flight of stairs, breaking her arm.

The Berlin mass transit authority, the BVG, says that the two headline-grabbing crimes are atypical.

"These two incidents have attracted a lot of media attention," BVG press spokesman Markus Falkner tells me. "But statistically, there's no negative development in terms of crime in the Berlin subway system, and that's true of the U8 as well."

Falkner goes on to point out, correctly, that the BVG is a transport and not a law-enforcement organization. As such it has no position on larger issues like what Germany should do about criminal migrants. He too is shocked by the brutality of the recent attacks, but says the BVG has been working for years to improve security.

That squares with my own experience. I do not feel threatened by migrants on the subway - at Schönleinstrasse or anywhere else. Nonetheless, there's no denying the media impact that the recent incidents - precisely because they are so senselessly inhumane - have generated. With the governing grand coalition in Germany facing an election year in which it will have to defend its welcoming stance toward refugees, reports of this kind are the very worst sort of publicity.

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