Germany, no dreamland for the huddled masses

Germany, no dreamland for the huddled masses
Analysis: Germany receives more asylum applications than anywhere else in the world. But for some refugees, the reality is far from their hopes of safety, says Sibylle Bandler.
4 min read
11 Jun, 2015
Germany received a third of all EU asylum claims last year [Getty]
Germany has become the go-to destination for many asylum seekers, and receives more applications than any other country. But for those who arrive, the daily reality is often far from rosy.

The country has a generous welfare system by EU standards, and is by far the most popular destination for refugees from crisis regions in the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

In 2014, asylum claims in the EU reached 626,065, a 44 percent increase on the previous year. The majority are Syrians and one-third of the total came to Germany.

According to the most recent UN data, Germany received more asylum applications than any other country in the world in the first half of last year - 42 percent more than received by the US.

The sharp increase in immigration is pressing German local authorities, both in cities and rural areas, and the influx of strangers is fueling fear, prejudice and right-wing sentiment among an often xenophobic population. It has also led to violence.

A recent example brings back grim memories of the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture by US soldiers in Iraq. Federal police officers in the western city of Hanover bragged on WhatsApp about violently abusing and humiliating Middle Eastern immigrants in their custody.

The brutal treatment of a young Moroccan man was captured on photos. One shows the man handcuffed and curled up in pain on a tiled floor, his upper body and head pressed against the wall by a police officer, and one leg at an odd angle. The tips of a pair of boots can be seen on the upper edge of the photo, suggesting the presence of a second officer.

The text message accompanying the photo read: "That's the Moroccan. I put him out. [The officer in charge] upstairs said he heard him squeal like a pig. After that we gave the bastard rotten pork and made him eat it off the floor."

The Moroccan man had been arrested for travelling without a valid train ticket.

A second officer texted the following message: "I messed him up. An Afghan without [an] entry permit. I stuck my fingers up his nose and strangled him. Was funny.  Dragged him on his leg irons through the precinct. That was so good. Squealed like a pig. A present from Allah."

The Afghan man had been arrested for not carrying an ID card.

These are not isolated incidents of what ProAsylum called "appalling racism and human rights violations". A police officer, speaking anonymously, told the German broadcaster NDR of another abuse case involving the same 39-year-old Hanover police officer.  Prosecutors are investigating who at the precinct was aware of or even participated in the attacks.

Earlier this year an African man reported that he was arrested by police in Dortmund, brought to the precinct in handcuffs and beaten repeatedly. In November 2014, Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung reported a refugee had been kept naked and tied up in a police cell for hours after being arrested.

And in September last year, security personnel at a shelter for asylum-seekers in Burbach, North Rhine-Westphalia, were accused of systematically abusing the very people they were meant to protect. Prosecutors are currently investigation about 50 staff who worked at the shelter.

While these cases may not be sufficient to make the claim that German authorities systematically mistreat immigrants and refugees, advocacy groups claim that practices such as racial profiling - the arrest of individuals based on their physical appearance - are widespread and an indication of institutional racism.

Worse yet, these incidents merely represent the tip of anti-immigration sentiment growing among Germans. Late last year saw huge demonstrations mostly in eastern cities against the "islamisation of Europe", calling for stricter immigration rules, in particular for Muslims.  However, counter demonstrations gained the upper hand in the first half of this year, and the leader of the "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West" (Pegida) movement resigned.

Germany's rural regions and smaller towns most often carry the brunt of the influx in migrants and the backlash there is often underreported. However, in May a nightclub in Ingolstadt, a small town in the conservative southern state of Bavaria, captured the headlines when it imposed an outright ban on immigrants.

The owner claimed that asylum-seekers from a nearby shelter had harassed female guests, stolen coats and tried to get free drinks.

In an interview with Germany's largest national daily Suddeutsche Zeitung the owner made no attempt to conceal his decision as anything but racist. "Blacks have a problem with women and Arabs have a problem with aggression," he told the paper.

While German law permits private business owners to ban anyone they please from their premises, refugee advocates quickly pointed out that the nightclub violated German laws on equality, which prohibit any form of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

Yet Ingolstadt's local authority managed to find a way to pour fuel onto fire. In an ill-conceived attempt to mediate the situation, it proposed to hand out fliers to asylum seekers with detailed instructions on "how to behave in German nightclubs".