Germany's 'refugee hunters': The violent vigilantes striking fear into asylum seekers

'Refugee hunter’ gangs continue to seek out migrants, but who are they?

Protests took place against the Cologne sex attacks

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly 30 years ago, Germany has never been as divided as it is now.

The migrant crisis which has engulfed the country has brought ethnic tensions simmering to the surface, and fuelled a rising tide of islamophobia in a country which has prided itself on its tolerance in the post-Nazi era.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the gangs of "refugee hunters," amorphous mobs who are seeking to crack down on migrants with ever-increasing severity. Drawing bikers, football fans and metalheads, the groups are drawing strength from the spate of attacks by islamic extremists on German soil, rampaging through Germany with an often indiscriminate rage.

The vigilante trend really took root after the horrific sexual attacks of New Year's Eve 2015, which saw more than 1,200 women suffer assault in Cologne, Hamburg and other German cities. More than 2,000 men are believed to have been involved in the attack, many of them believed to be foreign nationals.

Following this event, people vowed to "clean up" cities in Germany, by going on manhunts for migrants. The spasm of fury which erupted across the country following the New Year's Eve attacks fostered a network of gangs, with nothing in common apart from their shared objective.

In January 2016 a mob of at least 20 people attacked 11 Pakistani men in Cologne. Nearby, a separate group targeted a Syrian refugee. This does not appear to be untypical: many groups target the same areas, but work separately.

There have been elements of semi-organisation. Before the mob attacks in Cologne, a Facebook page was set up by football hooligans and rockers, who called on supporters of their campaign to join in with the manhunt. Several other football-related groups have joined the crusade, notably the Hooligans Gegen Salafisten, which draws inspiration from the English Defence League and says it fights extremist Salafism in Europe.

Some of the social media groups have gained serious popularity. A Facebook page called Dusseldorf is Watching, set up after those New Year's Eve attacks, collected more than 8,000 members. The group's pledge, to make the streets of Germany safer, has had a potent impact.

When the mobs strike, their retribution can be fierce. Targets typically suffer beatings, and are pelted with stones as they attempt to flee. Occasionally it can be even more vicious: in the eastern city of Bautzen, an asylum-seeker shelter was set on fire last February, in front of a cheering crowd. In the West, meanwhile, four men have just gone on trial in the city of Waldbrol for allegedly beating a Kazakh man to death as they hunted for refugees, armed with baseball bats and knuckle dusters.

The brutality is often indiscriminate, groups going out and attacking any refugee they find in their way. But some groups are taking on more specific targets, identifying migrants and developing plans to attack them. 

Sadly, this tide shows no sign of abating. Politically motivated crime in Germany hit an all time high in April 2017, and German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere has said "a reduction in the number of politically-motivated crime is not expected." 

Germany has pursued an admirably progressive course since reunification, determined to present itself to the world as a modern, tolerant nation. Yet as demonstrated by last year's bombing of the Borussia Dortmund team bus, which was falsely blamed on islamic terrorists, Muslims have become a folk demon for many people, manna from heaven for rate-wing hate-mongers.

As German police continues to grapple with an ever-increasing terrorist threat, the other side of this particular coin presents a challenge every bit as great.