In Germany, Police Seek to Protect Asylum Seekers

Jacob Kushner
July 20, 2017

Last week I wrote about an attack on a refugee housing complex in Altenburg, Germany, in which two baby carriages were set aflame. It occurred just two days after members of a right-wing, anti-immigrant movement called PEGIDA marched through the town. That piece grappled with the question of how Germany—a nation with an unparalleled record of confronting its past—has found itself once again home to a small but active collection of xenophobes willing to resort to hate speech or even violence against newly arrived refugees.

But what is Germany doing to protect asylum seekers from right-wing terrorism? In 2015, the newspaper Die Zeit counted 220 violent attacks against refugees but only four convictions. Last year, the number of attacks (including ones that did not result in violence) exploded to 3,500.

How to stop this proliferation? When an asylum seeker from Tunisia drove his car into a crowded Christmas Market in Berlin this December killing 12 and injuring 57, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, suggested that such attacks might be prevented if the law were amended to allow different German intelligence agencies to work in cooperation with one another under a centralized authority. (By saying so he incited fears that Germany could slip back into a police state akin to what East Germans endured under the Stasi.)

If de Maizière believes that the occasional foreign terrorist might be stopped by a more robust network of intelligence sharing and preventive policing, there’s a unit of police officers in Berlin who believe that the far larger number of incidents that target immigrants might be prevented by something of the same.

One drizzly morning at the Kreuzberg Police Department in Berlin, I met Lynn Kickbusch, a member of the Department for Intercultural Tasks, a special unit founded in the 1970s to identify and deport foreigners back to whence they came. Its mission has evolved dramatically: Its jurisdiction is now home to immigrants and their descendants from 163 different nations. Turkish guest workers who stayed, immigrants from eastern Europe who fled war or economic strife, Palestinians as well as people who fled the Lebanon War—all these and more settled in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood that offered cheap rent and shops owned by people who spoke their languages. Refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are now following in their footsteps.

Speaking with Kickbusch and her colleague on the unit, Kay Bremermann, I began to understand how radically a police department’s approach toward refugees can determine its ability to protect them. The department’s methods are distinct from many of its counterparts across Germany.

Kickbusch and her officers sit down to sip tea with Kurdish community leaders, or visit mosques to meet with Imams. When a crime occurs, she and her colleagues have contacts to whom they can immediately reach out for information. Often, those contacts are the ones who report crimes in the first place. If someone surfaces in the neighborhood espousing extremist rhetoric, Kickbusch says police would likely hear about it first from local religious leaders themselves.

To be sure, Kreuzberg is a liberal neighborhood that doesn’t see anywhere near the rate of anti-immigrant violence that occurs elsewhere in Germany. Still, “There are demonstrations against shelters, demonstrations against new buildings that should be used for refugees,” said Bremermann. “And they can get violent not in a physical way but in a verbal way.”

In 2015 after gunmen opened fire in office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in retaliation for the paper’s publishing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed, a right-wing movement called Pro-Deutschland began demonstrating in different cities in Germany with posters replicating the cartoons.

“Pro-Deutschland wanted to get any reaction so they could say, see, they are all violent—Islam is bad,” said Bremermann. So before the group arrived in Kreuzberg, the police visited Muslim leaders to prepare them for what was coming. “They weren’t happy with the pictures…but they also understood that showing that they behave violently against it isn’t going to help them in any way.”

On occasions where free speech escalates into hate speech, he said incidents are often reported quickly to the police. “Last week there was an incident at a bridge—someone attacked a black man, shouted Zeig hail! (a victory salut used by the Nazis) and shouted racist things,” said Bremermann during our interview last May. “That is clearly a hate crime [and] completely linked, because we know from witnesses he was attacked because he was black.”

“We had an incident on the city train where there was a Roma family with little children and a man attacked them verbally and even urinated on them,” said Bremermann. “He shouted as well that ‘you do not belong here, refugees (go) home.’ These are obviously hate crimes.” The man was swiftly prosecuted.

I asked Bremermann where he thinks such sentiments originate. “You always fear what you do not know as a citizen. And that’s probably why it doesn’t happen in Berlin that much,” said Bremermann of the frequency of anti-immigrant crimes: Living in Kreuzberg it would be nearly impossible not to come to know people of migrant background. Indeed, much of the unit’s work involves describing to a diverse array of immigrants what German’s brand of policing entails.

“People from Syria, Arabic countries and all that, have a certain experience with their police. Our way of policing is completely different,” said Kickbusch. She says refugees here “must realize police are not a force to be feared, but to be there to help them.”

Kreuzberg may seem like a model for how German authorities can adapt to protect refugees and Germans alike, creating a network of allies that quickly informs them of any suspicious activity, thus helping them identify and stop any terrorist plots before they occur. But left-wing critics say such tactics border dangerously on racial profiling and risk invading the privacy of people living in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.

“What you call community policing, I call infiltrating minority communities,” said Volker Eick, a political scientist who studies right-wing crime against immigrants and the way in which authorities respond. Eick says the type of policing Kickbusch describes can cause authorities to become overly reliant upon informants—a tool of law enforcement with a history of abuse in Germany dating back to the Stasi.

Eick questioned the merits of using funds for community outreach that could otherwise be used more directly to prevent and solve crimes.

“How many unsolved cases are in this area?” said Eick. “Why isn't every last resource going into solving crimes such as the Bektas case?”

By Bektas he meant Burak Bektas, a 22-year-old Turkish immigrant who in March 2012 was sitting with some friends on a park bench, listening to music, smoking a cigarette, when a white man on a motorbike passed by and shot him dead. The attack took place within the Kreuzberg police department’s jurisdiction, and it still hasn’t been solved. Police told local news media that they’ve been unable to identify any link between the victim and potential suspects, and that the motive wasn’t clear.

“The police say they’ve followed all leads and they led to nowhere. But when I look into the files, I don’t see any indications of neo-Nazi scenes, I don’t see that they’ve spoken with secret service agents,” Mehmet Daimagüler, an attorney for Bektas’s family, told me. “There’s little emphasis on the crime’s political background. The files are really thin.”

Could Bektas’s murder have been one of the more extreme examples of the hundreds or thousands of attacks that have targeted immigrants here in recent years? “The way Burak was killed was very similar to what Neo-Nazi strategy books are recommending: establishing very small cells, committing murder, not leaving any letters or declaration,” said Daimagüler. “I’m not saying this is a political case. I’m saying we need to take this idea more seriously.” To Daimagüler, who has earned a reputation as a prolific defender of people of migrant background, the lack of clarity as to who murdered Burak Bektas sounds familiar. “I have cases like this all over Germany.”

This is the second part of a short series on refugees in Germany.

Jacob Kushner is the author of China’s Congo Plan and writes about migration, development, and foreign aid issues in Africa, the Caribbean and Germany.

Reporting for this story was funded by a fellowship from the American Council on Germany.

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