Berlin’s New Year’s Eve riots rekindle immigration debate

Dozens of people were injured as young men lobbed firecrackers and started fires in the streets of Berlin on New Year's Eve. PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN - Youth riots that erupted in Berlin on New Year’s Eve have rekindled a debate over immigration to Europe’s largest economy.

Dozens of police officers, firefighters, rescue workers, pedestrians and journalists were injured during attacks as young men lobbed firecrackers and started fires in the streets of the German capital at the turn of the year.

Police detained 145 people, including 45 Germans, 27 Afghans and 21 Syrians, and are still investigating whether the riots were organised or spontaneous.

The majority of the incidents were in neighbourhoods with a higher immigrant population and two-thirds of those detained were foreigners, and a national debate has started up again in newspapers and on television talk shows over how well migrants are integrating into German life.

The riots brought to mind the public anger over sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in 2015, blamed predominantly on migrants, which sharpened a national debate about the open-door refugee policy adopted by former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Migration” has topped Twitter’s most popular search words in the past two weeks in Germany, where a quarter of the population has an immigrant background.

“Germany has become an immigration society and how well integration works is still an important issue,” Dr Thomas Hestermann, a media researcher at Macromedia University in Hamburg, told Reuters.

The debate has resurfaced at a time when Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government is preparing to liberalise the immigration system with easier visas and a faster naturalisation track in an attempt to fill around 1.8 million work vacancies.

According to a draft law reported by RND network, Berlin aims to bring in around 50,000 extra skilled foreign workers per year.

Germany needs to plug worker shortages that have widened with an ageing population - a potential demographic time bomb for the public pension system and a risk to economic growth.

The renewed discussion also coincides with the start of campaigning for Berlin’s local elections in February, where the conservative CDU has been polling better than Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats, who currently hold power in the region.

“The debate was opened by some political parties... before any police statement, coinciding with the launch of the election campaign by various parties,” Mr Tareq Alaows, the refugee policy spokesman at Pro Asyl refugee rights group, told Reuters.

Critics accused the CDU of dog-whistle politics after its politicians asked the regional senate to provide information about the first names of the German nationals detained in the riots, to try to establish their ethnic origins.

“We have to judge things on the basis of actions not on peoples’ first names,” said Ms Reem Alabali-Radovan, Germany’s state secretary for integration.

Federal interior minister Nancy Faeser said it was important to state that the riot’s perpetrators were people with a migration background but that the incidents should not be misused for political gain.

But politicians from the CDU said the riots were an opportunity for discussion.

“New Year’s Eve has broken out with its violent excesses and now is the time to really tackle the issue,” CDU candidate Kai Wegner said on a visit to a boxing club, where he discussed integrating migrants through sport with its trainer.

“These young Berliners who were born here are the third generation living here, have a German passport, we must win them over to our society,” Mr Wegner added.

A Civey poll for the Tagesspiegel newspaper suggests the CDU has so far failed to capitalise on the issue. Its rating dropped 3 percentage points after the riots compared with a month earlier.

“The CDU was unable to benefit from the debate about the New Year’s Eve riots,” Civey CEO Janina Muetze told Reuters.

Housing, fighting crime and education are currently the most important issues for Berliners in this election, Civey showed.

Media coverage of incidents such as the Berlin riots, often with a focus on the ethnic origin of the perpetrators, fuelled an inaccurate perception of migrants, Dr Hestermann said.

Since 2007, him and his team have been studying German media reporting on crime. They found that broadcast media’s focus on the origins of a criminal suspect increased more than six-fold after the 2015 Cologne attacks.

In around 90 per cent of the cases when the media mentions the origins of criminal suspects, it is connected to foreigners, their research found.

“These are numbers that paint a completely different picture than what police statistics show,” Dr Hestermann said.

Over the same period however, Germany’s integration climate index, a nationwide survey of 15,005 people’s assessment of migration and integration in the country, has risen to its highest level since it started in 2015.

Over 90 per cent of people rated their personal contact with people of different origins as extremely positive, the survey found.

“Integration is not a one-way street,” said Mr Alaows, who came to the country as a refugee in 2015 and had to drop his candidacy for the German Parliament over racist threats in 2021.

“Migrants should accept this society’s values and adapt to them, but inclusion of these new citizens is also the responsibility of the society,” he added. REUTERS

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