“Gitmo in Germany?” and “German Abu Ghraib” were two of the headlines across news wires in late September after photos and a video documenting the abuse of Algerian asylum seekers by security officers in an asylum center had circulated. The photo shows a guard standing next to an asylum seeker who is lying on the floor with his hands tied behind his back; the guard put his foot on the asylum seeker’s head, as if to keep the man down. A video showed a man lying in his own vomit, while he was verbally attacked by the guards.
With the escalation of war in Syria, the number of asylum seekers in Germany reached a 20-year high, and Germany expects to receive a total of over 200,000 new asylum seekers this year. But German cities are not prepared to receive that many people, and, as has become clear once more, they resort to cost-saving measures that backfire. The asylum center in which the abuse occurred (Burbach in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia) is managed by a private company, and the security officers charged with the abuse were from a sub-contractor, a private security firm that apparently did not put much effort into careful selection and training of the officers. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, some of the officers had links to the neo-Nazi scene.
Officials promised rapid documentation and clarification of the events, as well as prosecution of the perpetrators. They fired the sub-contractor and vowed to tighten background checks of security personnel. But German civil society actors and media outlets kept asking what is being done to address and solve the underlying issues: overcrowded asylum centers, the lack of resources to build new facilities, the privatization of security in these centers, and the dubious background of security officers and their links to right-wing parties. “The plight of refugees is used for business,” the NGO ProAsyl (pro asylum) criticized. Opposition leaders called for a “national refugee summit.”
Indeed, the latest abuses are not isolated incidents. In 2002, state security identified four Neonazis working for security firms in facilities in Brandenburg. In 2013, journalists, based on official reports, estimated that ten percent of the 1150 active Neonazis in Brandenburg worked in the security sector. As some point out, part of the problem of the lack of response to these incidence is that only when the security service identifies such right-wing tendencies, politicians listen; there is much less reaction when civil society initiatives point to instances of discrimination and abuse by right-leaning officers.
The general trend has been to make immigration more difficult, rather than improving the conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. Conservative politicians even make it their explicit goal to keep conditions precarious in order to send a message to “Africa” that coming to Germany as a refugee is difficult and burdensome. None of the 16 states requires shelter operators to hire social workers. When numbers of asylum seekers were relatively low, at around 20,000 between 2006-2009, municipalities—that are responsible for providing shelter—blocked attempts at renovating asylum centers, and the tendency was to close as many “superfluous” facilities as possible. As a consequence, the city of Duisburg announced in August that the city would shelter asylum seekers in tents.
More fundamentally, even at a time when Germany is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and exodus of East German refugees who had gathered at the West German embassy in Prague, few people think back and compare their own situation with that of the asylum seekers and refugees in Germany today. Media reports looking back at the situation 25 years ago celebrated the high level of solidarity with which West Germans welcomed those who had fled from the GDR. Today, asylum shelters are surrounded by anti-refugee rallies organized by far-right groups. And when a member of parliament from the Christian Democratic Party recently suggested to settle asylum seekers in families instead of anonymous shelters, he received outraged responses.
The photos and video of the abuses will surely change how Germans think about refugees among them, but not for long—a couple of weeks after the publication of the photos, few still talk about them. What’s needed is a much more thorough change in attitude towards migrants and solidarity for their situation.