'Dead Syrian' Facebook post spotlights German refugee fears

Refugees waiting in front of the State Office for Health and Social Affairs (Lageso) in Berlin on Jan 28, 2016.
Refugees waiting in front of the State Office for Health and Social Affairs (Lageso) in Berlin on Jan 28, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

BERLIN (AFP) - A Facebook post about the death of a Syrian refugee in Germany sparked a storm of reaction this week, only for the author to admit making it up, highlighting a rash of online rumours fuelled by a record asylum seeker influx.

At first glance, it was all too credible: a 24-year-old Syrian had been queuing for days in the cold at Berlin's notoriously chaotic refugee registration centre Lageso even though he was ill.

Homeless and penniless, he finally went into cardiac arrest on the way to hospital and died, according to the account posted on Wednesday by kind-hearted volunteer Dirk Voltz, who had taken the man in.

But Voltz in fact fabricated the tale, duping not just national media and authorities but also Moabit Hilft, the neighbourhood aid group that he volunteers with.

"I acted out of a relationship based on trust," said a dismayed Diana Henniges, from the aid group, who had confirmed the purported death to national media before Voltz finally admitted he had invented it.

In a gripping "live" text-message style exchange with a friend published online, Voltz said he rang for an ambulance as the man was suffering from a "39.4 degree fever, chills and could no longer speak".

He told his friend to find an Arabic speaker quickly to communicate with the refugee, but after his friend gave him a number, he said it was too late and the Syrian had died.

Moabit Hilft went to town with the "exchange", even publishing an obituary on Twitter: "You survived so much. You did not survive Lageso. You caught a fever, chills and cardiac arrest. You died last night. We are crying."

But as national media began reporting on the "tragedy", emergency services said there was no trace of such a case.

Finally, Voltz confessed to police he had, in a drunken stupor, lied.

"It is indicative of this overly excited, sometimes hysterical time, but also of the state of Lageso, that so many people have immediately believed such a death," Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel said in an editorial.

After all, Moabit Hilft were the good guys - one of the key volunteer groups credited with averting disaster so far at Lageso by handing out clothes, warm drinks and food to asylum seekers huddling in the cold.

Berlin authorities on the other hand have come under fire repeatedly for failing to improve conditions at Lageso, where thousands of newcomers wait, often for days, in an unsheltered courtyard to get an appointment with an overwhelmed bureaucrat.

While this purported death was seized on as seeming to lay bare how Germany was failing the 1.1 million asylum seekers who arrived last year, other rumours, often surrounding "crimes" committed by foreigners, are also doing the rounds on the Internet.

Many are promoted by angry far-right groups, feeding on fears that have arisen over the spate of sexual assaults during New Year's festivities in Cologne, which were blamed on migrants.

"Most rumours are sexual offences. You can plot the map of Germany with the locations where women and girls were allegedly raped by asylum seekers," said daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

As an example of the kind of wild rumours circulating in the current febrile atmosphere, it cited the case of a female cleaner at a refugee shelter who was supposedly gang-raped and then killed, her body found in the toilet.

Although many of these claims are shrugged off by the wider public, other allegations have taken a graver turn, even transforming into diplomatic affairs.

Take the recent mysterious case of a 13-year-old Russian-German, whose claims that she had been kidnapped and raped by immigrants were rejected by German police following an investigation.

The authorities' conclusions did not appear to convince hundreds of German-Russians, who staged protests in several German cities last weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also weighed in on Tuesday, seeking to lend credence to the girl's account and charging that her disappearance had been "hidden" by German authorities.

But Berlin angrily hit back at the charge, with foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer saying: "The truth will always come out in the end."