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German refugee center burns amid shift in public mood on migrants

Latest in series of suspicious fires comes as support wanes for Merkel's promise to welcome 800,000 refugees

A refugee shelter in Flensburg, Germany, was burned out early Friday morning, the local daily Frankfurter Neue Presse reported, amid concerns that German public support for a big surge in refugees is waning.

The fire was the latest in a series of suspected arson attacks against reception centers slated to house refugees in Germany. Several occupants have been injured in past months, and last week a 29-year-old Eritrean man was killed in a blaze, German news website Deutsche Welle reported.

Earlier this week the far-right organization PEGIDA, an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, staged a new round of anti-immigrant protests in the city of Dresden. PEGIDA members carried a mock gallows marked for German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, in a protest against her government’s migration policies.

About 800,000 people are expected to request asylum in the country this year, with most of them fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, according to the EU border agency Frontex. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has received international praise for letting in hundreds of thousands of people passing through Austria and Hungary.

During much of this summer, the German public was largely with her. Thousands of volunteers flocked to train stations in August and September to welcome arriving refugees.

But that is starting to change, as German towns scramble to provide housing, education and employment for the more than 450,000 people who had entered the country by September.

An opinion poll published this week by German media has highlighted growing unease with the refugee crisis and Merkel's handling of it. In July, before German officials revised this year's total refugee estimate to up to 800,000, nearly one in two respondents said they feared relations with newcomers would turn sour if Germany agreed to resettle more people. A similar proportion of respondents said they believed anti-immigrant actions would increase.

Public opinion may be influenced by a shift in local media coverage about refugees, said Olaf Kleist, research fellow at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center. “The [media] reporting is focusing more on what’s happening now that people arrived,” Kleist said. “And it’s true, there are many challenges when it comes to housing, for example.”

Perhaps in response to changing public sentiment, Merkel — who in August called anti-foreigner protests “shameful” — has muted her criticism of such demonstrations, Kleist said.

“We don’t hear the condemnation anymore, and that I think is a huge problem,” he said.

German lawmakers have also recently passed legislation that takes a tougher line on refugees. On Thursday, the German parliament passed a law that would facilitate returning people to their home countries if their asylum applications are denied. Other measures have lengthened legal processing periods to up to six months.

“Rather than help people who try to welcome refugees, they mostly focus on [appeasing] the opponents, and I think that is really dangerous; it strengthens their positions,” Kleist said.

Large numbers of volunteers have stepped up to provide food, shelter, and Arabic translation services since the beginning of the crisis. Refugee aid organizations have reported an up to 70 percent increase in volunteers, Naika Foroutan, a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University and an immigration expert, told German newspaper Der Spiegel.

But a perceived lack of government support might create frustration among volunteers, Kleist said. “It undermines the positive attitude that we’ve seen before,” he said. “The actions of the government don’t fit the rhetoric that we’ve heard from Merkel before."

With Reuters

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