Germany scrambled Tuesday to quell a wave of anti-foreigner violence, as a new case of suspected arson hit a planned refugee shelter just hours after Chancellor Angela Merkel described xenophobic protests as “vile.”
A week before 130 refugees are due to move into a temporary shelter in a sports hall in Nauen, a town near Berlin, the building went up in flames.
Police said the speed of the flames ripping through the site suggested arson was the cause, as authorities vowed tough action against perpetrators if the fire was targeted at refugees.
“With regards to xenophobic violence, there can only be one answer: police, justice and, if possible for those we catch, prison as well,” said Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.
Dietmar Woidke, the state president of Brandenburg, where Nauen is located, urged residents to "distance yourself from xenophobic mobs.”
"Be it agitations against foreigners or attacks against people in need in Heidenau or the hindering of the arrival of refugees in Nauen by arson, such action is shameful and unworthy of Germany," he said in a statement.
Germany expects to receive 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, a record number and four times more than in 2014.
The sudden surge in people coming from war zones such as Syria as well as countries that are not at war like Albania and Kosovo has left authorities struggling to cope with the influx.
It has also exposed anti-refugee sentiment, particularly in eastern Germany, which still lags behind the western part of the country in terms of jobs and opportunities 25 years after reunification.
The latest case of suspected arson came after a weekend of violent protests by far-right extremists and neo-Nazis at a refugee shelter in the eastern town of Heidenau.
More than 1,000 people turned up at the demonstration, which turned violent as far-right demonstrators flung stones, bottles and firecrackers at police.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday said those responsible for the violence “have no place in the street but before the courts.”
He excluded setting up security barricades around refugee shelters, telling ARD television: “I don't want to live in a country (where such measures have to be taken) for people to feel secure.”
Merkel also had strong words on Monday for others who march alongside in support of the anti-refugee cause.
“It is vile for far-right extremists and neo-Nazis to try to spread their hollow, hateful propaganda, but it is just as shameful for citizens including families with children to join them” in the protests, said Merkel in her strongest statement about the issue.
Merkel heads to the site on Wednesday to meet refugees, volunteers and security forces.
While most of the violence, including several arson attacks at refugee homes and assaults against Red Cross volunteers pitching tents for asylum-seekers, occurred in the east, public opinion has mobilized strongly for a warm welcome to those fleeing war and persecution.
The influential Bild tabloid headlined its Tuesday's edition with “Help refugees!” and devoted two full pages on “What politicians must now do” and “What I can do?” to help.
The newspaper urged politicians to take “tough action against far-right rabble rousers” and called on people to open their homes to refugees or donate money and other daily necessities.
Police union chief Rainer Wendt said discussions are ongoing to boost police presence at refugee shelters.
Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse