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German Anger Toward Migrants Is Directed At North Africans

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German ire about illegal immigration is focused on North African asylum seekers these days, as police investigate dozens of suspects from that region in mass incidents of groping and theft and several cases of rape that occurred on New Year's Eve in Cologne and other cities.

Members of Germany's ruling coalition have vowed to speed up the review of North Africans' asylum applications, especially since the number of migrants from that region is rising.

North African countries account for a relatively small percentage of the more than 1 million migrants registered in Germany last year, nearly half of whom were from Syria. The Interior Ministry says the combined number of migrants from Algeria and Morocco was less than 1,000 in June, but in December, there were more than 5,000.

The government is expected to add those countries and Tunisia to the list of "safe" countries whose citizens don't qualify as refugees under German law. Germany already rejects most asylum applicants from Balkan countries, also designated safe. And Chancellor Angela Merkel warned recently that even some Afghans expecting asylum should expect instead to be sent back home.

For a variety of legal and logistical reasons, kicking anyone out of the country is something German politicians talk about more than they actually do. German police, on the other hand, are detaining more and more North Africans lately.

Authorities arrested a 26-year-old Algerian asylum seeker in a refugee shelter near Cologne and charged him with groping and the theft of a phone. He was the first suspect to be arrested in connection with the city's New Year's Eve attacks.

In the nearby city of Duesseldorf, 300 police officers conducted a raid Saturday in the city's so-called "Maghreb Quarter" — named for the northwestern region of Africa that includes Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

"Operation Casablanca" was part of an investigation that had been underway for several years into gangs whose members were stealing and pickpocketing near the city's main train station, police spokesman Andreas Czogalla says. More recently, these groups came under investigation for groping incidents and other sexual assaults on New Year's Eve.

Last weekend's six-hour raid led to the arrests of 40 people, most on suspicion of being in Germany illegally. Most turned out to be asylum seekers, and once they showed their documents, they were released.

Within this largely Moroccan neighborhood, many longtime residents say they feel their reputations were destroyed in one night.

One of them is Husaian Fannoua, a 75-year-old travel agency owner and community elder who boasts of having a good relationship with local police. But the Moroccan native — who immigrated to Germany 57 years ago and whose children and grandchildren were born here — says the raid was badly handled and tarnished his community.

"They pulled people out of cafes or stores like animals and made such a scene," he says. "It was so bad. What are our German neighbors going to think about us?"

As for the German politicians who speak critically of North Africans, Fannoua says, "They forget most of us here are German citizens who can vote."

At the neighborhood's popular La Grilladine restaurant, Moroccan-born owner Badr Haddad says he also is feeling the backlash.

Haddad, 32, who moved here 13 years ago from the Moroccan city of Fez to attend university, says he was out last weekend at a bar in the city's old town, where he began chatting with a young German woman. She asked him where he was from and when he told her, Haddad says she became frightened and stepped back.

"And I told her, 'Listen, that's just not acceptable,'" he said. " 'I'm a Moroccan and I'm proud of that and I love my country. I support Germany in every way imaginable.' "

The worry about stigma has led Maghreb Quarter's business owners and community leaders to make an extra effort to reach out to city and police officials as well as the German media to change their approach. The community is also planning to set up a booth in the neighborhood this weekend to teach foreign newcomers about German culture and laws — especially how to interact with women.

"It's normal for a German woman and Moroccan like me to stand together and just talk," Haddad says. "But there are boundaries, and some of the new migrants unfortunately don't get that you don't grab and touch."

Birgit Kessel, co-founder of a volunteer network called Refugees Welcome in Duesseldorf, whose office is next to the Maghreb Quarter, says she sympathizes with the North African community.

"I know their neighborhood, which is great for shopping," she says. "It has a great fish store and a great fruit store and I shop there."

She predicts business could suffer because of last weekend's raid and the resulting media coverage. Beyond this, she says the irrational fear of migrants has held would-be volunteers back.

Despite the neighborhood's outrage, Duesseldorf police defend their tough approach. Czogalla, the spokesman, says 69 women came forward to accuse men they described as looking North African of groping them here on New Year's Eve.

But Haddad, the restaurant owner says, "What a few bad apples do shouldn't taint the whole North African community."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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