World | Europe

August 26, 2015

Angela Merkel to Visit Asylum Shelter After Wave of Far-Right Attacks

German chancellor, who has been under pressure to take public stand against protests, will meet volunteers and refugees at shelter in Heidenau

Angela Merkel is to strongly condemn a recent wave of attacks on refugees in Germany when she makes her first visit to an asylum seekers’ shelter today that is under round-the-clock police protection following violent far-right protests.

The German chancellor is travelling to Heidenau, in Saxony, to meet police, volunteers and refugees at the emergency shelter in a disused DIY store, days after the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, announced that Germany could expect around 800,000 asylum seekers this year.

There has been growing pressure on Merkel to take a more public stand against the protests.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning a planned shelter for asylum seekers in Nauen, near Berlin, was destroyed in a fire that police said was very likely to have been an arson attack.

The shelter, in a gymnasium attached to a vocational school, was due to house around 130 asylum seekers from next month. The mayor of Nauen, Detlef Fleischmann, said there had been an angry campaign by extremists on social media who were against the shelter, and attacks on the offices of several local politicians. “If this was caused by arsonists, as far as I’m concerned they’re criminals,” he said.

Dietmar Woike, prime minister of the state of Brandenburg, where Nauen is located, condemned the attack and appealed to citizens to “distance yourself from the racist mob”. He called the recent attacks “shameful and unworthy of Germany”.

Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, described the violence as “embarrassing for our country”. There have been more than 200 similar attacks this year.

Merkel has been criticised for being slow to respond to repeated calls for her to engage with the debate, currently the most talked about issue in Germany. The trip to Heidenau is the first such visit of her 10-year chancellorship.

She finally broke her silence over the attacks on Monday, at a joint press conference with the French president, François Hollande, in Berlin following discussions on the refugee crisis. Merkel said it was “appalling the way in which rightwing extremists and neo-Nazis are trying to spread their empty messages of hate and it’s disgraceful how people, even families with children, support this horror by joining in.”

On Tuesday Merkel visited the district of Marxloh in the western city of Duisburg, an area considered the most impoverished and crime-ridden in Germany, where 50% of residents are non-German. Last week it hit the headlines when Arab youths clashed with police.

The German president, Joachim Gauck, also visited a refugee shelter in Berlin on Wednesday, where he praised volunteers helping migrants across the country.

They want to help, they want to show that there’s a bright Germany full of light, as opposed to the impression we get of a dark Germany when we hear about attacks on asylum seekers,” Gauck said, AP reported.

Merkel’s deputy and economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, and the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, both of the Social Democrats, a junior partner in Germany’s coalition government, have proposed a 10-point plan for Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. The pair called for a unified EU-wide response including fair distribution of refugees across Europe.

“As Europeans we owe it to ourselves and to the world to rise to the great challenge posed by these people looking for help,” they wrote. “We must pursue a European asylum, refugee and migration policy that is founded on the principle of solidarity and our shared values of humanity.”

Crucially, the Gabriel-Steinmeier paper stresses Germany’s need for an immigration law that would help distinguish between asylum seekers and migrant workers. Currently all the migrants arriving in Germany are treated as asylum seekers, meaning those who do not qualify for asylum are sent back and no attention is paid to any useful qualifications they may have at a time of a chronic skills shortage.

The government has announced a relaxing of the Dublin agreement, under which refugees are supposed to be sent back to the country in which they entered the EU to apply for asylum. Many war refugees, particularly from Syria, were being sent back to Italy and Greece. Germany has now said it will process the majority of such claims.

To address the issue of the huge number of refugees – about 40-50% of the total – from the western Balkans who have been travelling to Germany in the hope of receiving asylum, Merkel will travel to Vienna on Thursday to meet Balkan leaders. “She will hope to find out why so many thousands of people are coming from these countries,” said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

As reports of the rightwing extremist demonstrations in Heidenau spread among refugees, at least 150 of them demonstrated in Leipzig on Monday evening against their imminent transfer, saying they feared for their lives. Authorities were seeking alternative accommodation arrangements for them. The same refugees had initially been taken to Leipzig after a tent city erected in the eastern city of Chemnitz had to be closed following heavy rainfall.

In the light of the xenophobic attacks, the Bundestag president Lammert said it was important to stress the huge effort being made by volunteers across Germany to help care for refugee newcomers, as many had shown willingness to provide everything from food and accommodation to language lessons. Lammert told the Westdeutschen Allgemeinen Zeitung that the good deeds outweighed xenophobic attacks “by about 20 to one”.

“In Germany there is a touching, spontaneous and broad willingness to help refugees,” he said. “The marches and acts of violence stem from a tiny group that often has the support of rent-a-mob hooligans.”

Much attention was given on Tuesday to the first birth of a baby on board a German naval frigate on a mission to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. The girl was delivered to a 33-year-old woman from Somalia by two military personnel on the Schleswig Holstein at 4.15am on Monday. She weighed in at 6.6lb and was named Sophia.

Text by Guardian
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