How Southeast Asians in Germany Suffer Abuse With the Rise of Racism and the Far Right
The town of Stahnsdorf, just outside Berlin, seemed idyllic to Arianna Feldmann when she and her German husband, Werner, arrived in the 1990s. Home to a population of about 15,000, the sleepy area offered the couple an ideal environment in which to raise their daughter and son. Or so they thought.
“When my son was in high school, other children mocked him for the colour of his skin,” recalls Feldmann, who was born in the Philippines and asks to use a false name to conceal her identity.
“One time, they grabbed him by the collar and only released him when one of the kids in the group recognised him and told the others he was German.”
The abuse became a regular occurrence, however, to the point where Feldmann began to collect her son from school at night because she didn’t want him to make the journey alone.
Now, 20 years later, she is more concerned than ever about a resurgence of racism across Germany.
Feldmann says there has been a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. “I have become worried, especially for my kids,” she says.
Berlin prides itself on being multicultural, but the re-emergence and apparent growth of the far-right-wing in Germany has both Southeast Asian migrants and Germans with Southeast Asian ancestry fearing for their safety.
In 2017, AfD (the Alternative for Germany), a far-right populist political party, won 94 seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. Critics say the party garnered support by deliberately stoking racial resentment and Islamophobia.
For Susanne Kaiser, a writer and expert on Islam in Germany, there is a direct connection between the growth of Alternative for Germany and the refugee policy announced in 2015 by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed into the country nearly one million refugees and migrants, most of whom were fleeing civil war in Syria.
While Germans initially supported Merkel’s stance, far-right politicians exploited crimes committed by foreign gangs to demonise immigrants.
“The refugee issue is so emotional because we, as Europeans, bear a joint responsibility, but at the same time we do not want to face any threats to our prosperity and ‘culture’ – whatever that means,” Kaiser says. “AfD politicians never tire of saying that ‘Islam does not belong in Germany’.”
Germans, Kaiser adds, used to be cautious about issues such as anti-foreigner sentiment because of the rise of Nazism in the 1930s that led to World War II and the Holocaust. Officials from the Alternative for Germany party, including co-founder Alexander Gauland, however, have sought to play down the significance of Nazism in the country’s history.
Though Alternative for Germany is known in particular for its anti-Islam stance, violence against a broad swathe of minority groups in the country has risen in recent years.
According to ReachOut, a counselling centre for victims of racist violence in the capital, Berlin, the number of extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic attacks in the city increased by 8 per cent over the past year; 42 acts of race-related violence have been recorded in the city since 2017.
Berlin resident Hai-Dang Phan has witnessed his fair share of racism in Germany. The 1990s saw a spate of racist attacks on Vietnamese migrants in eastern Germany, and being a mixed-race Asian teenager, Phan found himself in street fights with neo-Nazis.
“Face-to-face confrontations would get out of hand and turn into full-blown fights against three, even six people at a time,” he says.
Phan was born in Berlin in 1976 to a Vietnamese father and a South Korean mother. Now 43 and an IT recruitment consultant, he believes the situation for migrants is even more perilous today. Tensions are particularly high in the east of the country, he says, where Alternative for Germany has become one of the strongest parties.
“In some areas, I’m aware that people look at and treat me differently. It makes me uncomfortable and I worry about the future. While I am doing fine at the moment, the basic mood has changed,” he says.
According to Kaiser, while Alternative for Germany emphasises its antipathy towards Islam, the party’s stance puts other minorities at risk.
“There is a clear differentiation by AfD between Muslims and other migrants, but only for exploitative reasons,” Kaiser says.
“Migrants from Asia or Southeast Asia are held up as the paramount example of integration. Politicians are ‘defending women’s rights’ against Islam in the German parliament, while 20 years ago the same people voted against a change in law that would have criminalised marital rape. In reality, these far-right politicians don’t really support women’s rights, and they are not less racist towards Germans of Asian descent.”
For Hannah, an arts student in Berlin who grew up in a strict Muslim family in Bandung, Indonesia, Germany’s political situation has placed her between what she perceives as two cultural extremes.
As a child whose parents were actively involved in the Islamic community, Hannah (who requests anonymity to protect her privacy) knew that once she had her first period, it would be time for her to wear a hijab.
“I didn’t question it at the time, the 29-year-old recalls. “That’s just the way it was. My uncle told me it would keep me safe.”
While wearing her hijab as a university student in Bandung, however, she was sexually assaulted – an experience that altered the way she viewed the world. “I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, but I realised that my family had been lying to me. The hijab did not make me safe,” she says.
As time passed, her resentment grew. A trip to Munich in July 2016 coincided with a mass shooting in the city, in which an 18-year-old gunman shot nine people dead and then turned the gun on himself. Many people jumped to the mistaken conclusion that the attack had been carried out by radical Islamists.
“I was on the metro when two men, independently of one another, yelled racial slurs at me and pointed at my hijab,” Hannah recalls.
It was the final straw for Hannah: she stopped wearing the hijab and, in the months that followed, began turning away from Islam.
Now, having left her former life behind, she observes Germany’s relationship with both migrants and Islam with real concern.
“Any extremism is, to me, a form of terror. I am very worried about these latest developments,” she says. “In my eyes, white extremism is not much different to radical Islam.”
Yet despite these fears, many Southeast Asian migrants in Germany find the country offers liberty and opportunity.
Thirty-year-old Rangga Eka Saputra, from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, visited Germany last year as part of a study tour to observe the life of Muslims in the country, organised by the German cultural institution the Goethe-Institut.
“I was impressed by the harmony among religious communities, which became most evident in House of One, in Berlin, a place of worship that will consist of a church, a mosque and a synagogue,” Rangga says. “Projects like this contribute to the strengthening of religious harmony in society.”
For Rangga, the tour was an entry point to continue his postgraduate studies, and he has since applied successfully to study Southeast Asian studies at the University of Hamburg.
While aware that this means he will become part of a minority group in Germany, Rangga says he has faith in the country’s approach to multiculturalism.
“The state treats all citizens equally without giving special supremacy to a certain religion,” he says. “Based on my visit last year, I observed that Muslims can freely express and conduct their religious beliefs.” That said, Rangga adds that his experience might have been different if he had been born a woman.
“My identity as a Muslim cannot instantly be seen and recognised in public. It may be different for Muslim women, who wear the hijab.”
This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on July 2, 2019.