This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Rostock riots – the most disturbing resurgence of anti-immigrant violence in Germany since the rise of Nazism.
In the quarter of a century since, many foreigners arriving in Germany have experienced the warmest of welcomes – but a few have experienced chilling acts of hatred. This series explores how a small minority of ultra-xenophobic Germans tarnished their nation‘s reputation as a haven for the world‘s displaced masses. These stories are primarily told through the experiences of immigrants and asylum seekers who survived xenophobic harassment or attacks.
Their stories are the exception to the norm: incidents of violent xenophobia are rare in Germany compared with other countries. Indeed, Germany has welcomed more asylum seekers in recent years than any other European nation – the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and magnitudes more than the far more populous United States. W hen faced with the largest exodus of people since World War II, none of these nations welcomed refugees as unconditionally as Germany did. It‘s precisely because of this reputation that Al Jazeera is taking a hard look at what happens when that welcome culture goes awry.
This is the third story in a seven-part series.
Just three years ago, Germany seemed an unlikely destination for Middle Eastern and African refugees. The European Union’s Dublin Regulation demanded that refugees seek asylum in the first EU country in which they step foot, and Germany doesn’t border any of the seas that refugees began traversing on overloaded dinghies in the summer of 2014. In fact, depending on one’s route, Germany is located two, three, or as many as six countries away from those waters.
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But coastal countries such as Greece and Italy were struggling with downtrodden economies and limited jobs, and the eastern European countries through which many refugees passed by land either refused them entry or shuttled them quickly onwards. In contrast, Germany was a prosperous nation, the economic heart of the EU, and it had become so just two decades after tearing down the Berlin Wall – one of the most famous borders of all.
In July 2015, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, made headlines when she tried to comfort a Pakistani teenage girl whose family faced deportation after telling a group of immigrants in the city of Rostock that “if we were to say you can all come … we just can’t manage it”.
But Merkel had a change of heart. Though her party, the centre-right-leaning Christian Democratic Union, was by no means Germany’s foremost political ally of immigrants, the next month Merkel uttered the phrase that established Germany’s reputation as a haven for the world’s displaced masses: “We’ll manage it.”
In retrospect, Merkel’s gesture seems inevitable. “She had to accept immigrants,” said Margaret Heckel, a prominent biographer of the Chancellor. “A woman coming from eastern Germany who defined herself by walls falling? Building walls was not an option.”
A woman coming from eastern Germany who defined herself by walls falling? Building walls was not an option.
One month after Merkel’s pronouncement, Germany’s interior minister declared that Germany could handle 500,000 asylum seekers a year. In fact, in 2015 Germany would go on to accept nearly one million. Eventually the refugees would be parceled out to different parts of the country. Municipalities that had more people and received more government tax revenue would be required to take more of them.
But before the wheels of Germany’s asylum system were fully turning, hundreds of thousands of newly arrived refugees were piling up in cities throughout the country. In Berlin, tens of thousands were forced to sleep on the streets at night and fight for their place in line by day at the now-infamous Lageso , the State Office of Health and Social Affairs, while they waited to apply for asylum.
Arduous wait for registration
Situated across a park on the north side of Berlin not far from the Spree River, Lageso resembles a college campus, with numerous buildings of different styles and sizes separated by small courtyards. Pushed back from the street, the campus is nearly invisible to a passerby, but in 2015, refugees standing in line at Lageso became an iconic image.
One NGO worker who was employed there agreed to speak with Al Jazeera on the condition that his real name and the name of his employer be withheld. An immigrant himself, nine years ago Adnan left Damascus for Berlin to do a master’s and later a PhD in refugee protection. He was conducting research in Turkey when the exodus of Syrians to Europe began. He immediately flew back to Germany to volunteer to help.
On his first day back, his mobile phone rang – an NGO where he had applied to work years earlier was calling to offer him a job at Lageso. He started immediately.
“Germany was shocked with the amount of people coming here,” said Adnan of those days. “They were unprepared.
“People stand here for two, three days in a row – or else they lose their place. We’re talking about a massive number of people – 3,000 standing here. Some people wait there for 30 days, 40 days in a row.”
Adnan said German authorities seemed uncharacteristically overwhelmed.
“When they started distributing food, they were throwing the food,” said Adnan. “You have 500 people standing in that little square, and they take sandwiches and throw it like this,” he said, demonstrating. “I know it’s very difficult to distribute food, but this shows that they had really no knowledge, no training, knew nothing about it.”
Security and trauma
But by far, “the biggest problem here is security,” said Adnan. Most of the refugees were men, but now and then a woman could be heard shouting: “‘Someone is touching me!’ Everybody would start shouting, and security would come in and take everyone and forcefully throw them out.”
For many refugees, the stress of their predicament or the fear of being forced to return to the warzones or desperate conditions they fled caused great trauma.
“There are some people who threated to kill themselves,” said Adnan. “There were two guys who managed to make it up there to the roof and said they were going to throw themselves [off] because they didn’t have their documents ready.”
Sometimes, German criminals preyed upon the refugees at Lageso.
Adnan recalled one man who pretended to be a lawyer. He would take people’s documents, promising to help them, but instead he’d extort them in exchange for returning those documents – for money or even for sex. He said there was little the refugees could do to protect themselves.
“A lot of refugees know about human rights, but they don’t know exactly how it happens,” said Adnan. “They go to police and say, ‘You’re abusing my human rights.’ But they don’t have their documents or nothing, so the police always refuse to do any case for them.”
“The Germans … they didn’t have a mechanism for people who had no documents,” said Adnan. “This was a big, big problem.”
As time went on, political parties and coalitions that opposed Merkel’s welcoming policy toward refugees staged protests across the street from Lageso. They would use speakers to amplify their message to the refugees: Go Home.
Abduction and murder of a four-year-old boy
The climate of fear and tension at Lageso reached its climax one afternoon in October 2015 when a 32-year-old German man appeared at Lageso and, in the chaos of the crowds, enticed a four-year-old Bosnian boy named Mohamed away from his family and abducted him.
Police did a minor search of Lageso that night, but eventually called it off even though the child hadn’t been found.
Following a second fruitless search the next morning, three days went by before police resumed looking. It took three weeks for police to acquire CCTV footage from Lageso, which clearly showed the man abducting the boy. Only when police finally sent the footage to TV stations to solicit the public’s help in identifying the perpetrator did the man’s mother recognise him and turn him in. The man led police to the refugee boy’s body.
Beyond the horror of the murder itself and the fear it instilled upon the other refugees at Lageso, the failure of the police to find or even track down Mohamed for so many weeks raised serious questions about whether German authorities were willing to go to the same lengths to protect refugees as they do native Germans. That’s because the same man who abducted and murdered Mohamed had done the same to a six-year-old German boy named Elias a few months earlier. In contrast to authorities’ reaction when Mohamed disappeared, police had searched for Elias relentlessly.
“A police helicopter with a thermal imaging camera helps out of the air, the media [are] informed,” wrote the German news weekly Der Spiegel. “In the following days, policemen question hundreds of neighbours.”
Authorities even lowered the water level in a nearby river so that they could dredge the mud and search for Elias’ body. Some 1,800 authorities became involved in the search. In contrast, when Mohamed disappeared, police initially directed their suspicions toward his refugee relatives, according to Der Spiegel, which headlined its investigation into the matter “Second-class search“.
Did authorities care less about an immigrant’s fate than they did about a German’s? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. From 2000 to 2007, German authorities looked the other way as a group of neo-Nazis went around Germany murdering immigrant men and bombing migrant neighbourhoods. By the time Merkel made her famous speech vowing to welcome hundreds of thousands of the world’s refugees, had German authorities learned from the prejudicial mistakes of their past, and were they now ready to protect more than a million new immigrants?
Perhaps, say critics and admirers alike, Merkel overestimated her nation’s ability to protect these new immigrants from violence. She undoubtedly overestimated Germans’ comfort with opening their borders to unvetted foreigners from a world away. The same month that Germany’s interior minister announced that the country could accommodate an influx of half a million refugees a year, Germany announced new restrictions: checks on the border with Austria meant to curb the flow of immigrants.
Meanwhile, so-called “welcome alliances” sprung up around the country, with thousands of German volunteers offering refugees shelter in their homes. Be it owing to increased restrictions that stranded more refugees in countries such as Turkey, or to a decrease in the number of refugees attempting to make the journey, or to Germany’s success at speeding up the asylum process and finding shelter for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, by the time Al Jazeera met Adnan at Lageso last spring, there was virtually nobody left for the metal barricades to hold. Lageso was eerily empty. The refugees had been sent elsewhere.
This reporting was made possible by a McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany.