Germany foils anti-migrant arson plot as hostility mounts

Firefighters extinguishing a blaze at a refugee accommodation centre in the Suelldorf area of Hamburg, Germany.
Firefighters extinguishing a blaze at a refugee accommodation centre in the Suelldorf area of Hamburg, Germany.EPA

BERLIN (AFP) - German officials said on Thursday they had foiled an extremist plot to torch migrant shelters, adding to concerns over rising attacks on refugees in Europe as migrant arrivals hit new records.

Police in the southern German town of Bamberg arrested 13 members of a far-right movement suspected of planning to set fire to two homes for asylum seekers, prosecutors said.

The UN's rights chief, meanwhile, accused the Czech Republic of systematically detaining migrants in "degrading" conditions, as part of a policy to dissuade them from entering the central European country.

As hostility towards the migrants and refugees streaming into Europe grows, reports emerged of fresh assaults on boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Greece in the Aegan Sea.

Masked gunmen in speedboats rammed several rubber dinghies and stole their motor in early October, Human Rights Watch said Thursday, echoing similar incidents reported by migrants and rights groups in recent months.

Greece called on the European Union for an additional at least €330 million (S$500 million) next year to cope with the influx of newcomers fleeing war and poverty in places like Syria and Iraq.

Slovenia, which has become the latest hotspot in the crisis, reported a record number of arrivals over a 24-hour period. The EU's top migration official Dimitris Avramopoulos paid a visit there Thursday.

But Germany remains the preferred destination for many migrants and faces a backlash over Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy as it braces for up to a million asylum requests this year.

During July, August and September, there were 285 attacks on migrant centres across Germany - more than the entire number in 2014, which stood at 198 offences, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office said.

Police swooped on Bamberg late Wednesday, arresting 11 men and two women whom they said were members of both a far-right movement and a criminal gang that was planning attacks on migrants, prosecutors said.

And in Sweden, a masked man with reported far-right sympathies killed a teacher and a student in a sword attack on a school that hosts many newly-arrived migrants. It was not immediately clear whether he meant to target migrants.

Europe has been struggling to find a unified response on how to tackle its biggest migration crisis since World War II.

More than 600,000 people, mainly fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have braved the dangerous sea journey to Europe so far this year.

Of these, over 3,000 have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean.

'DUTY TO PROTECT'

Slovenia is now their main entry point into the passport-free Schengen zone, with tens of thousands pouring into the country after Hungary sealed its southern borders with razor-wire fences.

More than 12,600 people had arrived in the country of two million people within 24 hours, a daily record, police said Thursday.

This brought the total number of arrivals to over 38,580 since Saturday when Budapest shut its frontier with Croatia, just a month after closing its Serbian border.

In response to the crisis, Avramopoulos held talks with the Slovenian government on Thursday to discuss possible backup from police in other EU countries and financial assistance.

"We urgently need a common approach. Winter is already here. There's no question that all countries have a duty to protect and harbour these human beings in desperate need of help," Avramopoulos told journalists after the talks.

Neighbouring Austria announced on Thursday it would send a further 100 soldiers to reinforce the 500-strong army contingent at its Spielfeld border camp and help manage the migrants' transports.

Further south, long queues continued to form at Slovenia's border with Croatia.

Amid a heavy police presence, the exhausted travellers - some wearing sandals - slowly shuffled across the Dobova border crossing as an army helicopter circled overhead.

Many of the migrants' clothes were caked in mud after a wet and arduous journey through the Balkans and central Europe.

A 27-year-old Syrian said he and his wife had fled the spiralling conflict in Damascus 10 days ago, shortly after getting married.

"We sold everything, we don't have a life there anymore," he told AFP.

'UNFOLDING EMERGENCY'

In view of "the unfolding emergency" in the region, the European Commission has called a mini summit with Balkan leaders on Sunday, acknowledging there was "a need for much greater cooperation... and immediate operational action".

With at least 9,000 people landing on Europe's beaches every day, even wealthier bloc members insisted the influx is stretching reception capacities beyond limits.

Sweden said Thursday it expected up to 190,000 asylum applications this year and warned it already lacked housing for tens of thousands of recent arrivals.

Last month, the EU approved plans to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers from overstretched front-line states Italy and Greece through an EU-wide compulsory quota system that met with fierce resistance from some countries.

Member states have been slow to follow up with promised financial help - out of the €2.8 billion pledged at an emergency EU summit on Sept 23, only about €474 million has materialised.