Germany struggles with surge in arson attacks against refugees

BERLIN (Reuters) - Hardly a day has passed this year in Germany without an attack on refugee shelters as the country struggles to cope with a record-breaking number of asylum-seekers fleeing wars and violence abroad.

A total of 150 arson or other attacks have been recorded in the first six months of 2015, damaging or destroying newly renovated shelters for the 450,000 asylum-seekers expected to reach Germany this year, according to government data.

The attacks, often erupting from local protests against the shelters before refugees arrive, have tarnished the image of a country that has done so much to atone for its Nazi past. They have also caused tensions as many Germans support the refugees.

“I feel shame for the hatred of foreigners out there on the streets of Germany,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said on Tuesday after the Interior Ministry reported a near doubling of attacks on shelters to 150 in the first half of this year. There were 170 attacks in all of 2014.

Before dawn on Saturday, arsonists torched a shelter in the southwestern town of Remchingen, causing 70,000 euros in damages, just hours before assailants fired guns at the windows of another shelter in the eastern town of Boehlen near Leipzig.

In the Bavarian town of Vorra, an empty shelter was set on fire last week and swastikas were found painted on the wall.

There have been similar attacks in the eastern towns of Freital, Meissen and Troeglitz that prevented refugees from moving in.

In the northeastern city of Rostock on Sunday, police had to resort to tear gas to fight off right-wing extremists who had attacked a group of refugees from Albania and Egypt during a village festival.

Justice Minister Maas told Bild newspaper that aside from the “irrational fears and violence” against refugees in Germany, he has also seen an outpouring of compassion for their plight as well. An opinion poll in April showed 50 percent of Germans want their country to take in even more refugees.

Germany struggled with racist violence for several years during the economic upheaval that followed unification in 1990. Some 186 foreigners were killed.

Then, as now, critics assailed the government for failing to move quickly and decisively enough against the violence, and of indirectly encouraging attacks through inaction or, worse, populist comments against foreigners who abused asylum policies.

“The government doesn’t have a coherent strategy and some politicians, especially on the right, are making the situation worse with incendiary comments and actions,” Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, told Reuters.

Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer and his Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), have called this week for quick deportations of people from Balkan countries that Germany no longer dangerous enough to warrant asylum.

“The right’s populist ideas are spreading like wildfire in the CSU and it’s extremely dangerous,” Funke said, noting that lethal fire bombings in the early 1990s often followed provocative rhetoric by anti-immigrant politicians that Germans call “geistige Brandstiftung” (“mental arson”).

More than twice as many refugees are expected in Germany this year than the 200,000 who sought shelter here last year. Of the 85,394 arrivals in the first quarter alone, most came from Kosovo, Syria, Serbia, Albania, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In poor regions of Germany, fears of competition from refugees for state resources are high. In well-off areas, fears of falling property values or a rise in crime also fuel protests and resistance to new shelters being created.

In a recent speech in Berlin, President Joachim Gauck departed from his prepared text to condemn the attacks in unusually strong language. “These vile attacks on refugee shelters ... it’s unbearable,” he said.

Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Tom Heneghan