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Heidenau braces for anti-refugee protests

Ben Knight, HeidenauAugust 24, 2015

Heidenau has become the latest flashpoint for anti-asylum seeker violence in the eastern German state of Saxony. Ben Knight reports as the small town braces itself for a fourth night of far-right protests.

Deutschland, Unterkunft für Flüchtlinge in Heidenau
Image: DW/B. Knight

Anything is better than another tent city, was the rationale. So for two days a DIY store, disused for the two years, has been home to about 250 refugees - as designated by the local authorities in the small town of Heidenau.

"It's a very bad camp," said Sami, from Aleppo, Syria. "The camp near Munich was much better. Five-star." He laughed. "Here, no shower, no new clothes."

And no information either. Neither Sami nor his friend Gazwan (from Basra, Iraq), knew the name Heidenau - the most infamous town in Germany since the weekend - until I told them. Nor did they know how long they would be there for, or what facet of the German asylum procedure they still had to complete. "I ask everyone," said Gazwan. "They say, 'I don't know, I don't know.' "

In fact, refugees in Germany rarely know where they're being taken from one day to the next, much less why. Sami said he was brought here in a bus from a camp outside the city of Chemnitz on Saturday, and four days before that he was at the central migration office, in Spandau, Berlin. And as the weekend's violence showed, in many places the local authorities don't seem to be much better prepared.

Noise at night

The noise and chanting and violence outside their temporary home at Heidenau left the two young men confused as much as frightened. "They hate us, I don't know why," said Gazwan. The private security guards at the gate advised them not to go out alone, or after dark, but otherwise there was little in the way of help except for a leaflet in Arabic that explained Germany's asylum process. A policewoman standing outside only said, "They don't speak German, so what can we do?"

Asylum seekers Sami und Gazwan
Asylum applicants Sami and Gazwan knew nothing about the town they were sent toImage: DW/B. Knight

Now Gazwan and Sami have found themselves in the middle of what is considered the stronghold of Germany's political far-right. Dresden and the small towns surrounding it - Freital, Meissen, and now Heidenau - have become synonymous with a new and increasingly unashamed far-right movement. The violence on Friday and Saturday was a new low, and on Monday there was still some tension in the little car park outside the tarpaulin-covered fence. In the day time, however, a couple of neo-Nazis confined themselves to driving past and shouting slogans, or swearing at the scattered journalists. The locals, meanwhile, even if they did not define themselves as far-right, also seemed to be confused and misinformed as much as racist. "Why do they always send young men? We wouldn't mind if it was families," they asked, even though there are many families among the 250 people coming in and out of the shelter.

But those people aren't all there is to Saxony. Dirk Mende, a mechanic wearing a bright yellow "Refugees Welcome" T-shirt, came out of the local mall with some extra shopping - three sunflowers. On his way to drop them off at the camp, he explained his reasoning: "One for the refugees, to say welcome, one for the police, because they do all the work, and one for the skinheads who are coming tonight. Because we all come from the same planet."

Then there's Lars, a Heidenau resident who has rolled up on his bike to chat to the refugees. After Freital, he said, he knew there was going to be trouble in his home town. "Even my friends say things like, 'You wait till your sister gets raped.' Stupid prejudices. They just didn't pay attention in history class." By this time, with the evening closing in, it has become considerably more busy. The police have set up extra fences, while a cluster of leftists has gathered around the refugees.

Meanwhile, a handful of neo-Nazis are looking out over a bush across the road from the camp. They are shouting and giving the finger to anyone who happens to look at them. "I didn't come to the protests," said Lars, deliberately keeping his back to them. "I wouldn't trust myself not to wade in, and I can't handle them all on my own."

Lars doesn't just blame the locals though. "The politicians have failed completely. All the parties. They haven't offered any explanation to the people, no effort. And it's the same here. Why don't they give the people here German lessons? None of them speak German. They're just sitting around with nothing to do."

More than a subculture

There has been plenty of criticism of the political reaction to what many German leaders and newspapers still call "asylum critics." Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which governs Saxony, did not react until after the second night of riots, when State Premier Stanislaw Tillich said, "A minority here is violating the values and laws of Germany. This is not our Saxony."

Deutschland Protest In this Aug. 21, 2015 photo police stand beside demonstrators outside a former DYI market that has been converted into a shelter for asylum seekers in Heidenau, south of Dresden, eastern Germany, as dozens of people block the road to stop the migrants from moving in. Photo: Arno Burgi/dpa via AP
Violent anti-refugee protests broke out over the weekendImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

But conservative politicians in the state know this is not quite true. According to the local "Sächsische Zeitung" newspaper, the far-right has long since become more than a subculture here, and center-right politicians have to measure how strongly they can criticize clear xenophobia. If they condemn too hard, will they lose voters to the extremists? The CDU's interior policy spokesman Christian Hartmann released a statement on Sunday that began in a typically stern tone: "The violent clashes in Heidenau are unjustifiable and must be condemned in the toughest possible way," he said, only then to add, "anyone who has questions about the accommodation of refugees or asylum seekers can and must ask them."