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Germany

Remembering Lessons on Racism from Rostock

Germany marked the 10th anniversary of a gruesome racially-motivated mob attack against a refugee home in the eastern city of Rostock with peace marches and demonstrations.

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Punished - the three accused responsible for the racial riots in Rostock at a courtroom in June

On the same spot where ten years ago a crowd of East Germans cheered on as a refugee home with 100 Vietnamese refugees was set afire in the city of Rostock, tens of thousands of people participated in peace marches and programmes against violence and racism on Saturday.

Around 80 organisations and initiatives organised the programme along with residents of different nationalities under the motto "colourful instead of brown".

The palette ranged from political discussions with local politicians and demonstrations to Vietnamese dance performances, Russian songs and African folklore to documentaries and readings.

East Germany averse to foreigners

Such an event would have been inconceivable ten years ago.

In 1992, the number of people seeking asylum in Germany soared to 438,000. The majority were sent to asylum centers in the former East Germany, which was still struggling with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the accession to the capitalist west.

Foreigners often became scapegoats for post-communist ills and loss of social identity. In the Baltic port city of Rostock, mounting anger about asylum seekers erupted into ugly violence on the night of August 24, 1992.

Racism incident stains Rostock's reputation

Earlier on August 22, youths shouting Nazi slogans pelted the reception centre of the city’s main refugee home with stones. The rioting escalated and two days later, hundreds of young east Germans applauded by cheering residents firebombed the tower block housing some 100 Vietnamese men, women and children.

The refugees managed to escape the blaze in the nick of time, but the assault, broadcast live on television, shocked the international community.

Ever since the city of Rostock has been associated with memories of one of the worst hate-filled crimes in post-war Germany.

In June this year a court found three former skinheads guilty of attempted murder for the attack, handing down suspended jail sentences of 12 to 18 months.

Low acceptance of foreigners in Germany?

Wolfgang Richter, Rostock’s representative for foreigner affairs, told Reuters that a lot of efforts have been made to facilitate the integration of foreigners in the city since then and the number of foreigners, while still a tiny proportion of the population, had doubled to 5,000.

"I don’t think what happened in Rostock in 1992 can be repeated but what could be repeated is manipulating people to stir up a hostile atmosphere towards foreigners that made this incident possible," he said.

While many believe that Germans have developed a more positive approach to foreigners in the decade since the Rostock incident, several others believe that in the face of high unemployment and a weak economy, mistrust against foreigners still exists, albeit at a subtle level.

Nguyen do Thinh, among those trapped in the burning refugee home in Rostock in 1992 told Reuters, "what has changed has been the sensitivity of the authorities and politicians towards right-wing attacks and the integration work that didn’t exist ten years ago. But what has hardly improved at all is the atmosphere in the population. The acceptance of foreigners is still low," he said.

Immigration law could be overturned

Though sporadic incidents of violence against foreigners and xenophobia are reported in Germany, foreigner issues have not played a major role in the election campaign so far.

The present social democratic government has drafted a much-needed immigration law to regulate the immigration and asylum of foreigners and better integration, but the conservative opposition has threatened to review the law thoroughly if they come to power.

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