Experts say that collecting official data on hate crimes could help in the fight against violence motivated by prejudice. Recent studies suggest that anti-Semitism and xenophobia are on the rise in Germany.
Before being attacked, Nasr Abdelaoui had been looking forward to a short vacation with a dash of art, culture and wellness. But soon after his arrival at Dresden's main train station, neo-Nazis targeted the 42-year-old nurse from Cologne. Abdelaoui's dark, curly hair and skin tone led his young assailants to identify him correctly as a foreigner.
"I heard shouting and loud taunts, turned around and suddenly a beer bottle was flying toward me," Abdelaoui recalls.
The violence seemed about to escalate, but police were able to intervene fast enough to protect Abdelaoui. It's an experience, he says, that he hasn't forgotten.
Research on hate crimes like these began in the US in the 1960s. In Germany, punishable hate crimes range from defamation, intimidation or incitement of public hatred (called Volksverhetzung in German) all the way to capital offenses. The victims are typically taken to represent certain social groups, such as immigrants, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, the homeless, the disabled or specific subcultures, like punks.
"Attacks on bankers or particularly wealthy people can also be considered hate crimes if they are motivated by prejudice," says Michael Fingerle, a researcher on hate crimes at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt.
Germany doesn't keep an official tally of hate crimes, trackig only the category of "politically motivated violence" instead. But several recent studies, including research conducted by the non-profit Bertelsmann Foundation and sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer, point to rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the country. The studies, however, have not reached a conclusion as to whether hate crimes are also increasing.
Loss of trust in government institutions
In the US and some EU countries, authorities keep an official record of the number of crimes motivated by hate.
"In England, police records can classify an offense as a hate crime, so they name the assailant's motive," notes Caroline Bonnes, a researcher with Fingerle's team. British judges can also issue more severe sentences for those who commit hate crimes.
As part of the research project "When Law and Hate Collide," Fingerle and his team surveyed potential victims of hate crimes.
"It's of interest to us what those who face such crimes feel they need - what they would expect from laws, institutions and society," explains Bonnes. The surveys, she adds, clearly show the next form of trauma after a hate-based attack often comes by way of dealing with the police.
"The reception given to victims by officers on the ground is often rather cool and inscrutable," notes Fingerle. He says many victims reported feeling as though they were not taken seriously and, as such, faced a second form of discrimination.
The now widely-publicized case of a string of neo-Nazi murders committed by the NSU terror group in Germany have traumatized not only those immediately affected, but many other immigrants in Germany as well.
"Apparently, German intelligence does not have the sort of privileged or exclusive information needed to get a case like this under control," says Fingerle, adding that trust in the police and justice officials diminished in light of the handling of the NSU murders.
Increased data collection
To combat hate crimes, Fingerle believes Germany needs to introduce a system for systematically recording incidences of hate crimes, with the goal of raising awareness to such acts. "We need a database in which the crimes can be entered according to their targets and frequency," he says.
The EU's Fundamental Rights Conference in Vilnius last week focused on fighting hate crimes in Europe. That means recognizing the rights of victims and raising awareness of the issue, says Karim Moustafa, who represented the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) at the event.
"Islamophobia needs to be included as a crime," says Moustafa. "Germany can't continue to be stuck in the middle of the field in the European Union when it comes to data collection."
Moustafa sees hate crimes as just the tip of the iceberg, explaining: "We have a massive problem in terms of everyday discrimination, particularly in the area of education, with apartment hunting or in the work force."
Recognizing these problems and looking for solutions should be among Germany's key goals, argues Moustafa.