Refugees and asylum seekers stand on the square by the Kornmarkt shopping center in Bautzen, Germany, on Wednesday. (XCITEPRESS/DPA via AP)

The city of Bautzen in eastern Germany has been at the center of tensions between refugees and anti-immigration protesters in recent months. In February, Germans applauded as a refugee accommodation burned down, allegedly after an arson attack.

But on Wednesday evening, those tensions reached a new peak when 20 refugees were involved in violent clashes with 80 German nationals, according to police. The incident occurred nearly exactly one year after the influx of refugees into Germany reached its climax, with thousands arriving in the country every day.

There have been attacks on refugee residences nearly every day since then. But frustration among migrants and newcomers with their increasingly unwelcoming host nation has also caused stirs, and has raised worries among counter-terrorism experts and officials.

[Finding refuge, still seeking peace]

Initial reports alleged that the violence Wednesday was started by refugees, following verbal anti-refugee attacks and provocations by mostly German protesters. Multiple media reports also specified that at least some of the protesters had a right-wing extremist background. Two refugees were injured in the clashes.

About 100 police officers responded and guarded multiple accommodation centers overnight. They also had to intervene when protesters started to attack an ambulance that was on its way to help one of the injured foreigners.

Wednesday's clashes were only the latest signs of rising tensions between refugees and locals in Germany. Eastern Germany has been particularly affected by the increase in attacks — although it is the area with the fewest refugees.


The recent violence has also come as a warning sign to terrorism experts, who draw connections between the growing frustration and the ability of groups such as the Islamic State to cause havoc. In a handbook released last year, the Islamic State imagined a scenario that has resembled some of the recent violence.

"When Muslims and Mosques will be attacked by neo-Nazis in protests, Muslims will do counter-protests alongside with antifascist groups," the propaganda book's authors speculated.

"This is how the future Jihad in Europe will begin," the handbook went on to explain, urging its sympathizers to mix with Muslim protesters to fuel the violence. "If these violent protests and battles happen at a national level — there will be too less police to control the populations in every town and a war will happen between Muslims and their neo-Nazis enemies. People in between will be caught in crossfire and will have to pick sides."

Such predictions have worried German authorities. In April this year, German federal police warned that anti-refugee sentiments could easily escalate: "Apart from physical harm, one has to reckon with murders," authorities concluded. They also argued that neo-Nazis had fueled a "climate of fear," which had targeted journalists, pro-refugee volunteers and politicians, in particular.

Despite this, it remains unlikely that Bautzen could become a role model for right-wing extremists all across Germany in the near future.

Bautzen and its surroundings have for years been considered a bastion for the right-wing extremist party NPD, and anti-refugee sentiments in the city are more prevalent than in most other German towns. In western Germany, that party has rarely had any influence and neo-Nazi protests were frequently stopped by large counter-demonstrations.

German officials have also disputed claims by right-wing commentators that crime levels have increased because of the refugee influx last year. In an unusual move, Germany's Interior Ministry and the Federal Criminal Police Office released crime data for 2015 and the first quarter of 2016 in June. "Immigrants are not more criminal than Germans," a ministry spokesman was quoted as saying. Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans committed fewer crimes than refugees from other countries.

Since early 2015, some forms of crime have been on the rise, while others have decreased: There has been an increase in crimes motivated by religion or ethnicity — those numbers include brawls among asylum seekers and terrorism-related offenses. There has been a sharp rise in extremism, and there have been worrying incidents of mass sexual assaults.

 

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Finding refuge, still seeking peace