On 24th of August an uninhabited refugee hostel in Weissach (federal state Baden-Württemberg) burns down. © Benjamin Beytekin/action press

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The state, Chancellor Angela Merkel promised in September, will go after those who attack refugees "with all means available." Now, though, it has become apparent that her promise was an empty one. Hardly a day goes by anymore without a violent criminal attacking a refugee hostel. Sometimes they hurl paving stones or Molotov cocktails, while at others they simply set facilities on fire or flood them. In a distressing number of instances, investigators and the judiciary are helpless, and the perpetrators go unpunished.

A team of reporters from ZEIT ONLINE and DIE ZEIT looked into 222 violent attacks on refugee hostels from this year. Each of the attacks either resulted in injuries or were of an intensity that they could have done so. The result: Almost no cases have been resolved. There are only four instances in which courts have convicted a perpetrator and only eight additional cases in which charges have been filed. That represents a mere 5 percent of all attacks that took place. Furthermore, police have only been able to identify a suspect in just a quarter of all cases. Almost all of the crimes still remain unresolved. Indeed, 11 percent of the investigations have been discontinued entirely. And this despite the fact that 104 people have thus far been injured in the violence.

ZEIT ONLINE and DIE ZEIT examined the 747 punishable offenses committed against refugee hostels listed in the statistics of the Federal Criminal Police Office and removed those deemed minor, such as instances of graffiti, propaganda and verbal insults. The more serious incidents that remained were then individually examined. The outcome is the first authoritative look at how the German judiciary has reacted to the worst acts of violence. The results are shocking.

Arson attacks on refugee hostels in particular have become a widespread and dangerous phenomenon. From January to November, the number of such attacks has risen dramatically.

The perpetrators care little whether people might be injured or killed. Almost half of the 93 arson attacks committed this year targeted inhabited structures. It is purely by chance that no refugees have thus far lost their lives. At the same time, the number of arson offenses perpetrated against uninhabited hostels has also risen recently.

Our research also shows that the percentage of the crimes against refugee hostels that have been solved -- such was the situation at the end of November -- is far lower than for comparable infractions committed against other targets. In Germany, more than half of all cases of aggravated arson are normally resolved.

The attacks aren’t just taking place in the eastern half of Germany. It has long since become a nationwide plague, and their resolution is just as problematic in the west as in the east. In Baden-Württemberg, for example, not a single aggravated attack against a refugee hostel perpetrated this year has been solved. Still, the number of attacks is highest in Saxony, in both absolute terms and as a share of the state's population.

But why have the investigations been so unsuccessful? Some of the reasons have to do with the nature of the crimes themselves. Most of them are committed at night and the perpetrators often disappear quickly. Molotov cocktails are thrown out of passing cars, projectiles are fired at windows from afar and water faucets are turned on inside otherwise empty buildings. Fires are often set such that the resulting blaze destroys all clues.

Furthermore, many shelters are far away from city centers and residential areas, meaning that there are often no witnesses. In other instances, investigators are met with a wall of silence when they begin asking around. In cases where the hostels are still uninhabited, it appears that many neighbors approve of the attacks. If no one steps forward to claim responsibility and if the perpetrator refrains from bragging about his or her deed, investigators are left in the dark.

But not everything can be explained away by the difficulties associated with investigating attacks on refugee shelters. Successful investigations by police and public prosecutors were often the result of employing significant technical and personnel resources. But in many places in Germany, there is a lack of police personnel to pursue criminals. Recently, the number of police officers has steadily decreased, particularly in eastern Germany, where the highest share of anti-refugee attacks occur. 

State prosecutors also complain that there aren’t enough arson experts, making it even more difficult to catch those responsible. One thing, though, is clear: If the government really wants to pursue the criminals behind these attacks "with all means available," it would have to do vastly more than it is today.

Attacks on refugee hostels

Click on the individual dots to learn more about each case.

Our methodology:

How high is the number of violent acts committed against refugee shelters and how many of those crimes have been solved? A 15-person reporting team from ZEIT ONLINE and DIE ZEIT spent eight weeks examining all publicly available data to answer this question, and went into detail in specific instances.

As such, our research plugs a gap: Until now, nobody knew how well the police fared in investigating cases in which refugees in hostels were harmed or could have been harmed, because the aim of the perpetrators was the destruction of the shelter. The public had no precise oversight. Now, we have reliable numbers.

Initially, our reporters referred to data collected by the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, the Anti-Fascist Press Archive and Education Center Berlin (APABIZ), the Federal Criminal Police Office and the German federal government. The goal was that of obtaining as precise an overview as possible of all attacks perpetrated this year against refugee hostels that had the aim of destroying shelters or harming people.

As a consequence of our analysis, we classified 222 cases as aggravated. We examined all incidents that took place between January 1 and November 30 of this year.

The total of 222 cases is considerably higher than the figure reported by the Interior Ministry in November. The ministry officially lists 120 violent acts perpetrated against refugee hostels. In total, officials this year have registered 747 so-called "relevant infractions in the topic area ‘crimes against asylum shelters.’" That register, however, also lists simple property damage, propaganda infractions, graffiti and incidents of incitement.

Our reporters confronted police officers and public prosecutors across the country with numerous questions: Was anybody harmed in the attack? Are there any suspects? Have there been any charges filed? Convictions? The outcome is a data set showing for the first time how inadequate the results of the criminal investigations have been. You can find the entire data set here.

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