Asylum-seekers 'abused' in German refugee centres

Frank Zeller

Berlin (AFP) - German police Monday started an investigation into six private security guards at a refugee centre accused of assaulting and humiliating asylum seekers in ways that drew comparisons to abuse against Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Police also questioned hundreds of refugees after disturbing photo and video footage emerged at the weekend, including an image showing a security guard pinning a handcuffed Algerian man to the floor with his boot on the man's neck.

Police said they launched their investigation after a journalist passed on to them cellphone video footage that showed security guards forcing an elderly man to lie on a mattress covered in vomit while threatening to beat him.

North Rhine-Westphalia state Interior Minister Ralf Jaeger pledged to pursue "with utmost determination" the case in the refugee centre in Burbach, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) southeast of Cologne, vowing to ensure "that this never happens again".

"These are images of the kind we've seen from Guantanamo Bay," said Frank Richter, police chief of the nearby city of Hagen, referring to the controversial US military detention facility in Cuba.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said that if investigations confirm that "refugees were abused and humiliated, then these would be repulsive acts".

"We are a humane country. In Germany, the dignity of man is respected... and that must be true in asylum centres and refugee camps," said Steffen Seibert.

- 'Appalling racism' -

Local authorities at Burbach said they had ended the contract with the private security company Ski, a subsidiary of European Homecare which runs the facility, while police have begun questioning all of the roughly 700 people living in the centre.

"It's terrible to imagine that people who have already suffered violence in other countries and come here looking for protection are then exposed to such a situation," said the chief prosecutor of the nearby city of Siegen, Johannes Daheim. "This only reinforces their trauma."

Refugee rights group Pro Asyl said the brutal attacks were signs of "appalling racism" committed by unqualified guards.

It accused the state agencies of outsourcing the accommodation of refugees -- whose numbers have spiked this year in Germany -- to the "lowest bidder".

"There is no control on whether contractors employ personnel that are qualified and trained in intercultural communication, or violent thugs," the group said, condemning that "the plight of refugees is turned into a business for profit".

As outrage grew among lawmakers and in the media, more allegations have emerged in North Rhine-Westphalia, including in the city of Essen, where asylum seekers also said they had been beaten and verbally abused, reported local public broadcaster WDR.

And in a third refugee centre in the western state, in the town of Bad Berleburg, two guards from a separate company were also being investigated for assaulting a refugee about two weeks ago, the national news agency DPA reported.

For two years now, Germany has been Europe's leading destination for asylum seekers, especially from war-torn Syria and Iraq as well as the Balkans.

Last year asylum requests jumped 64 percent to over 127,000, according to German government data, making up 29 percent of the EU total. This year Germany expects the arrival of 200,000 refugees.

The influx has strained the resources of many state and local governments, some of which employ private contractors such as European Homecare which runs about 40 centres across Germany.

The German Police Union called for changes in privacy laws to allow for full background checks of private security guards employed at the centres.

"Current laws prevent police from adequately checking the employees of security companies. This must change quickly," union deputy leader Ulf Kuech told the daily Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.

Opposition Greens party leader Simone Peter questioned whether private security companies should be employed at all at refugee centres, and said about the alleged cases: "I hope that they aren't the tip of the iceberg."