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Refugee homes on fire

Carla Bleiker
July 20, 2015

Germany has seen an alarmingly high number of arson attacks on housing for asylum seekers recently. Communities all across the country are affected. It's a sign of an increasingly heated atmosphere.

Firefighter on a roof. (Photo: SDMG/Dettenmeyer/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/SDMG/Dettenmeyer

They come from Syria, Eritrea or Kosovo: refugees who leave their war-torn home countries, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs, hoping to find a safer life in Germany. Up to June this year alone, 179,037 people applied for asylum in Germany.

More and more often, though, locals in cities all over Germany are making it very clear that they don't want refugee homes in their neighborhood. And they don't just display their animosity at town hall meetings or protest marches - they use fire. This year, Germany has seen at least 13 arson attacks on prospective refugee housing or on buildings where asylum applicants already live. That's an average of almost two per month.

Not giving in

Most recently, a fire in an empty house in Remchingen, close to the southern German city of Karlsruhe, resulted in damage to the tune of 70,000 euros ($75 964). The building was to be used as a home for asylum applicants before it was ravaged by flames in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Policeman in front of a burnt out house. (Photo: Peter Kneffel/dpa)
The house in Reichertshofen is to be repaired by September 1.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

Last Thursday, different state, same scene: in the small town of Reichertshofen in Bavaria, unknown suspects believed to be xenophobes set on fire a guesthouse that's supposed to house 67 refugees starting in September. The town's mayor, Michael Franken, was shocked and published a statement that culminated in a resounding "Jetzt erst recht!"

This German phrase expresses determination to go through with a plan in the face of adversity, fighting even harder than before to make things happen. The message: refugees will still come to Reichertshofen on September 1.

Graph showing locations of arson attacks on refugee homes. (Graph: DW/ Peter Steinmetz, Carla Bleiker)

The arson attacks aren't confined to one region of Germany. In the eastern town of Zossen, two men who belong to the right-wing extremist scene allegedly set fire to a planned refugee home, and in the western town of Coesfeld, a tent on the grounds of a school that housed refugees was set ablaze. In Escheburg in northern Germany, a 38-year-old family man threw a burning gas canister into a house to prevent Iraqi refugees moving in and in the Bavarian town of Hepberg, unknown suspects tried to burn a metal container meant to house asylum applicants.

Most of these attacks were aimed at facilities that were still in the process of being prepared for refugees. Some houses were torched months before the planned arrivals, some only weeks or days ahead of the move-in date.

"The perpetrators reject the German 'welcoming culture' and hope to scare refugees off instead," Robert Lüdecke, spokesman for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told DW.

The Foundation fights all forms of right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism in Germany. Lüdecke believes that the arsonists are part of Germany's right-wing extremist scene.

From marches to matches

"These acts show us that right-wing extremist groups are on the rise," Andreas Zick, director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict & Violence at Bielefeld University, told DW. "The arsonists want to make clear that after all the protests against refugee homes, they are actually doing something and taking matters into their own hands."

Lüdecke emphasizes that the worst thing to do in a situation like this would be for local government to send refugees to a different location then originally planned.

Robert Lüdecke. (Photo: private)
Lüdecke: crucial to keep residents in the loopImage: Privat

"Backing down would be a disaster," Lüdecke said. "Instead, those in charge have to make clear that they won't let the right-wing minority tell them what to do."

Information is key

But how to prevent the attacks in a society that seems to be showing less and less understanding for and acceptance of refugees?

"City authorities have to make sure they keep residents in the loop from the beginning," Lüdecke said. "They need to tell people why refugees are coming, what kind of horrors they are fleeing. And they need qualified personnel to pass information on to the residents during the entire process."

Zick, too, said that communities needed trained men and women that go down the path of integration together with residents and refugees, and that leading national politicians should show their support for struggling communities by showing up.

But for now, the atmosphere in Germany remains tense. The growing number of people applying for asylum doesn't seem likely to stagnate any time soon. And as long as there are residents who protest against refugee homes in their "backyards" by creating maps that show the (prospective) homes' locations, setting one on fire seems to be alarmingly simple.

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