Berlin police have shot dead an Iraqi father of three after he attacked a man in custody accused of sexual abuse. The incident has underlined concerns over mass refugee shelters - though authorities say they are rare.
The mood at the emergency refugee shelter in Berlin was subdued by shock and sadness on Wednesday morning. Barely any of the 250 refugees living in the shelter - a temporary hangar erected on a sports field set apart from a quiet leafy road in the north of the city center - were in sight, and security staff had been warned neither to offer any information to reporters or allow them to talk to inhabitants.
Instead, Sascha Langenbach, a spokesman for the city authorities, was at the gate to field the trickle of journalists trying to find more details about a terrible incident that left a 29-year-old Iraqi father dead and a Pakistani man in police custody suspected of child abuse. "Thank you for your understanding - there is an enormous shock and sadness here," Langenbach told DW.
Berlin police summed up the facts in a statement issued just before noon:
"Yesterday evening, police officers shot a 29-year-old attacker in Moabit," it read. "A 27-year-old man against whom there is suspicion of sexual abuse was arrested and brought into a police vehicle. While he was sitting in the vehicle, the 29-year-old man carrying a knife stormed out of the shelter towards the man in the car. He ignored multiple calls to stop, after which several police officers shot at the man."
Three police officers are thought to have fired shots
The man was treated on the spot before being taken to hospital, where he died of his injuries several hours later. Martin Steltner, spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, confirmed to DW that the man being arrested was already in handcuffs when the attacker emerged from the home. Three officers opened fire on the attacker, Steltner said, but he could not confirm rumors in the local media that the dead man had previously attacked another man accused of sexual abuse.
As is automatic whenever German police officers discharge firearms, an investigation has been launched into the incident.
Concerns for families
Local media reported that the dead man was the father of the young girl allegedly abused by the arrested man, but Langenbach could not confirm this. "The dead man is a father of three children aged between three and eight," he told DW. "The family was taken to another shelter last night. We have made sure that the mother and children will be cared for psychologically and medically."
"Today, the family will be moved to another home, where we can guarantee that there will be continuing Arabic-language psychological therapy," he added.
The horrible incident has raised more uncomfortable questions about how Berlin is coping with its own influx of refugees. Last year, images of crowds of hundreds spending days standing in line in a muddy courtyard outside the chaotic LaGeSo authority went round the world, and resulted in the replacement of the LaGeSo chief.
Helpers are obliged to report any suspicion of child abuse in refugee shelters
On Wednesday, Langenbach became defensive when asked about keeping people in mass shelters, a practice that the Berlin Refugee Council and other refugee aid organizations believe hinders integration and breeds social problems. "I think there are conflicts when people aren't kept in mass shelters too," he said. "Considering the fact that last year a million people came to Germany, I think looking at the larger picture, there have been relatively few incidents."
Child protection measures
The spokesman was also keen to stress that there were "very clear" child protection regulations for all social care companies that operate refugee homes. "All employees, including volunteers, who have any sort of contact with children or young people, have to show a certificate of good conduct," he said. "In the case that workers see any inhabitants behaving in any way that does not adhere to our laws, they have to report it - to the child protection authority. And that is what happened in this case."
Though some refugee shelters in Berlin are specifically geared to cater for families, mass shelters do have to accommodate both families and single men. "Here there are two halls - one just for families, one just for men travelling alone - and the sanitary areas are also separated, so there is no overlapping between the two groups."
But it was logistically impossible, Langenbach argued, to keep families completely separate at all times, given that nearly 80,000 refugees arrived in the city last year (around 55,000 of whom stayed), and a further 17,000 have arrived in 2016.
Though more cheap social housing is being built in the city to accommodate new arrivals, and emergency shelters like the one in Moabit are operating well below capacity (less than 5,000 people are still living in sports halls, compared to over 10,000 at the beginning of the year, Langenbach said), the city is still struggling to house everyone adequately. "I hope you understand that this is not possible so quickly," he said. "We also have to add the 40,000 people who move to Berlin every year anyway - they're all looking for an apartment."