BAUTZEN, Germany — Standing on a hillside near this ancient town in eastern Germany, Firas al-Habbal winces as he explains why he doesn’t go “there” anymore.
“There” is the center of Bautzen with its cobblestone streets, centuries-old churches and cozy cafes. In particular, it’s the town square where residents recently clashed with a group of young refugees in a burst of violence that made headlines around the world, sparking days of anti-migrant protests by both far-right groups and locals.
“Over the past two years, I personally didn’t have a single case where I felt people hated me or foreigners,” said al-Habbal, who came to Germany in 2014 as part of the first big wave of refugees from Syria. “Life was great.”
Since last week’s violence, however, the 24-year-old is afraid of going into town lest anyone mistake him for one of the migrants involved in the trouble.
“Now I’m really scared,” he said. “The last week was very, very tense.”
Police said the violence began when one refugee threw a bottle at a group of locals. Authorities reacted by imposing a curfew and an alcohol ban on the migrants, to the consternation of left-wing activists who blamed the fighting on neo-Nazi thugs.
While such incidents are rare and most of those who have sought asylum in Germany in recent years have caused little or no problem, violence of the kind seen in Bautzen stokes anti-migrant feelings among the wider population and is driving voters into the arms of nationalist parties such as Alternative for Germany. The party swept into five state parliaments this year, boosted by anger over a string of thefts and sexual assaults by foreigners in Cologne at New Year’s and two bloody attacks carried out by migrants in July.
The situation is particularly frustrating for people like Peter Rausch, one of many Germans who have worked hard to help integrate the hundreds of thousands of newcomers seeking safety and a better life in Europe.
Rausch manages a hotel on the outskirts of Bautzen that was converted into a home for 300 asylum-seekers. A native of Germany’s Black Forest who moved to the city 14 years ago, he has an outsider’s eye for far-right activities to which locals are sometimes oblivious.
A fire at another refugee shelter and the booing of Germany’s president by a neo-Nazi mob in the city earlier this year were clear signs of the trouble to come, he said.
Yet Rausch has harsh words, too, for those who automatically defend all migrants and blame far-right extremists for the violence.
“On the one hand, there’s rich ground for right-wing violence and resentment. On the other hand, we’ve got a few do-gooders who are wandering around the place with such rose-colored glasses that they’re making the same mistakes as the right,” he said.
“It should be possible to say there are a few asylum-seekers, a few kids or youths, who need to be caught and disciplined,” said Rausch, acknowledging that two of the migrant troublemakers lived at his hotel. “It’s not about putting them in jail or cuffs. But I think our democracy and state of law has ways to discipline these kids, just as it has ways to discipline German youths.”
Back in the town, a crowd gathered Sunday on Kornmarkt Square, which was the setting for last week’s violence. It’s the day when stores are closed and low-hanging clouds threatened to burst open at any moment, but scores of people had come to hear far-right activists rail against migrants and the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom they hold responsible for the surge of asylum-seekers to Germany over the past year.
Engelbert Merz, a local businessman, is angry at what he considers to be a soft attitude toward criminal foreigners.
“Put these boys on a boat and send them back where they came from, because they’re not worthy of staying in this country since they aren’t abiding by the law,” says Merz.
His dim view of migrants doesn’t stop at the troublemakers, though. Merz believes Germany should be helping those closer to home before taking in refugees from Africa or the Middle East.
“We have 24 million jobless young people in Europe but no money to pay for German lessons in those countries,” he says. “We’ve got enough problems of our own.”
Such talk worries Sven Scheidemantel, a local politician and chairman of a pro-refugee group, Welcome to Bautzen.
“There’s a siege-like mood in the city,” he says, warily watching the protest from a distance.
Scheidemantel says the problems in Bautzen won’t be solved unless the authorities acknowledge that far-right extremists are exploiting a fairly minor incident involving a handful of refugees to make this city of 40,000 a symbol for failed integration.
“The problem we have is that we always ask where the criminals are from. That shouldn’t be so. Criminals are criminals, wherever they’re from,” Scheidemantel said.
Firas Al-Habbal agrees. Having learned to speak German and worked as a translator for the past two years, he is hoping to soon start training to become a medical technician.
“There are a few of my fellow Syrians, one has to be honest and not ignore this, who didn’t behave themselves. And this was the result,” he said of the clashes. “What I’m sad about is that these few bad people are sullying the image of all refugees in Bautzen.”
Al-Habbal thinks the troublemakers should be split up and distributed across the country. “Then we’ve solved the problem. Because this is dangerous for us too. I don’t want to have to leave Bautzen.”
On Wednesday, a 72-year-old Algerian-born man with German citizenship was knocked to the ground in the city by two youths who shouted “Foreigners out!” before running away. The victim had been living in Germany for four decades, police said Thursday.
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