Germany battles anti-refugee violence as new attack hits shelter

Lucie Aubourg
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Police secure the new centre for refugees on August 21, 2015 in Heidenau from attacks by far-right opponents of asylum accommodation

Police secure the new centre for refugees on August 21, 2015 in Heidenau from attacks by far-right opponents of asylum accommodation (AFP Photo/Arno Burgi)

Berlin (AFP) - Germany scrambled Tuesday to quell a wave of anti-migrant violence, as a suspected arson attack hit a planned refugee shelter just hours after Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced xenophobic protests as "vile".

Vowing to take tough action against perpetrators of such attacks, top politicians sought to reassure the unprecedented number of migrants arriving in the country that far-right extremists did not represent Germany.

"With regards to xenophobic violence, there can only be one answer: police, justice and, if possible for those we catch, prison as well," said Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.

Merkel, who has been criticised for failing to forcefully address the wave of anti-migrant sentiment until this week, will on Wednesday visit a refugee centre targeted by far-right extremists and neo-Nazis in the eastern town of Heidenau.

President Joachim Gauck will make a trip to a refugee centre in Berlin, also on Wednesday.

"Despite the scale of the challenge, there are many instances in which things are working well," said Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, at a refugee centre on Tuesday, according to German news agency DPA.

Germany is expecting to receive a record number of 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, four times higher than the number in 2014.

The sudden surge in people coming from war zones such as Syria as well as countries that are not at war like Albania and Kosovo has left the authorities struggling to cope.

It has also exposed anti-migrant sentiment, particularly in eastern Germany, which still lags behind the western part of the country in terms of jobs and opportunities 25 years after reunification.


-'Shameful'-


The latest case of suspected arson hit a temporary shelter in a sports hall in Nauen, a town near Berlin, just a week before 130 refugees are due to move in.

Police said the speed of the flames ripping through the site early Tuesday suggested arson was the cause.

The state president of Brandenburg, where Nauen is located, Dietmar Woidke urged residents to "distance yourself from xenophobic mobs".

"Be it agitations against foreigners or attacks against people in need in Heidenau or the hindering of the arrival of refugees in Nauen by arson, such action is shameful and unworthy of Germany," he said in a statement.

Over the weekend violent protests broke out as far-right extremists and neo-Nazis demonstrated against a refugee shelter in Heidenau.

Merkel also had strong words on Monday for those marching alongside in support of the anti-migrant cause.

"It is vile for far-right extremists and neo-Nazis to try to spread their hollow, hateful propaganda but it is just as shameful for citizens including families with children to join them" in their protests, she said in her strongest statement to date about a wave of anti-refugee protests in eastern Germany.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday said the extremists "have no place in the street but before the courts".

But he ruled out the establishment of security barricades around refugee shelters, telling ARD television: "I don't want to live in a country (where such measures have to be taken) for people to feel secure".


- A flood of threats -


As Europe's top economy braces to receive an unprecedented number of asylum seekers this year, the number of migrant hate crimes appear to have increased in tandem.

Arson has hit refugee homes and Red Cross volunteers pitching tents for asylum-seekers have been attacked.

On Monday, police said two neo-Nazis had been arrested for urinating on two children onboard a Berlin train because they were foreigners.

"Asylum-seeker scum," one of them was reported as saying by the Bild tabloid.

The Social Democrats evacuated its headquarters after receiving a bomb threat -- apparently linked to party chief Gabriel's comments against the far-right, although police said the threat was not serious.

Since Gabriel's visit to the Heidenau refugee centre, the party has received "a flood of threats linked to xenophobic agitators", general secretary Yasmin Fahimi said.

German filmstar Til Schweiger -- who has been openly supportive of asylum-seekers -- is under police protection after a fire was reported within the grounds of his house and intruders were apparently seen in his garden.