BERLIN (AFP) - Growing xenophobia and right-wing extremism could threaten peace in eastern Germany, the government warned on Wednesday (Sept 21), voicing fears over the impact of a series of attacks on refugees in the region.
In a report urging mainstream society to take a stronger stand against anti-migrant action, it highlighted a worrying trend - that in many demonstrations against asylum seekers, the line between popular protest and far-right agitation was becoming blurred.
"Right-wing extremism in all forms poses a very serious threat to the societal and economic development" of eastern Germany, said Iris Gleicke, who is the government's point person for national unity.
"Determined action from the government, the states, communes and civil societies is necessary to ensure peace in eastern Germany," she told reporters as she presented the latest report examining progress since German reunification in 1990.
The annual report had in previous years been largely focused on industrial regeneration for the region, which has lagged behind the west economically, and experienced a wave of depopulation as mostly younger people left for the west for jobs.
But rising xenophobia has emerged as a key concern this year, as anger over the arrival of around a million asylum seekers in Germany in 2015 is running high in many eastern states such as Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
It has also fuelled a surge in support for the rightwing populist AfD party, which has run an anti-migrant and Islamophobic campaign.
Eastern states have been required to take in relatively few new arrivals compared to western states, under a quota system calculated by the size of the state's population and income.
But arson attacks on accommodation for asylum seekers and assaults on refugees have shot up dramatically in the region, Gleicke said.
"I am disturbed by this rising far-right and xenophobic violence. It is more than an alarm bell if the attacks and violence are backed by or quietly accepted by mainstream society," she said, noting that the incidents had sparked global outrage.
Former communist eastern Germany has been the scene of several ugly incidents in which far-right extremists have targeted asylum seekers.
Clashes broke out last week between dozens of asylum seekers and far-right extremists in the eastern city of Bautzen, forcing police to call in reinforcements to quell the violence.
In February, a cheering crowd was seen outside a burning asylum shelter in the same town, clapping and shouting: "Good, that's up in flames."
That same weekend, a video emerged of far-right thugs intimidating refugees - including crying children - and preventing them from getting off a bus to enter another shelter in the eastern town of Clausnitz.
Gleicke insisted it was not only up to churches or politicians to take a stand against such violence.
"Mainstream society must also do its part. It's definitely uncomfortable. I know what it is to have to fight against neo-Nazis. But I expect companies, too, to give greater support to civil society on this front," she said.
Beyond the potential toll at home, the poisoned atmosphere also risks tarnishing the region's reputation abroad, hurting prospects not just for tourism but also for investment.
Gleicke said that on recent trips to the United States and Japan where she sought to promote eastern Germany as a location for business start-ups, she was asked: "What is the situation when an engineer, who is of colour, wants to come?"
"It's extremely clear that a place that is not open to the world or which is not open to immigration will be disadvantaged economically," she warned.
Germany's top economists echoed the concerns.
Marcel Fratzscher, who heads German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), told Handelsblatt business daily that the lurch towards the far-right could drive away companies or highly-qualified workers from the region.
"The increasing radicalisation and intolerance will severely weaken parts of eastern Germany's economy," he said.