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World|opinion & analysis|July 20, 2016 / 02:11 PM
German train attack underscores risk of extremism among migrant youths

AKIPRESS.COM - 29906170001_5041398496001_5041398338001-vs.jpg A 17-year-old asylum seeker’s rampage on a German train has thrown the spotlight on a subset of migrants seen as particularly susceptible to crime or radical extremism: unaccompanied minors, says The Wall Street Journal.

Investigators on Tuesday were still piecing together what drove the teenager identified as an Afghan refugee to stage the ax attack that injured five people the night before. The young man, who arrived in Germany on his own and sought asylum more than a year ago, appeared to have radicalized rapidly and only recently, authorities said.

But the attacker’s age hits directly at concerns recently voiced by German officials and youth workers: that lone-traveling teenagers are especially prone to extremist ideology or recruitment by criminal gangs or fanatics.

“Someone who fled bombs back home is under immense emotional pressure to finally reach a stable situation. We know there are people who try to use this,” said Ulrike Schwarz, who works at the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees. “It’s a very vulnerable group.”

Germany is grappling with the mammoth task of integrating the more than 1 million migrants who poured into the country last year alone. But with minors, the situation is especially complex. Under law, they must be given a legal guardian before they can even apply for asylum. The process can take months as authorities – short-staffed and overwhelmed by the deluge of cases – often need to verify the age of the teenagers, few of whom carry documents.

With a lack of space in schools and shelters in some large cities such as Berlin, underage asylum seekers have often found themselves living in hostels and drifting with limited surveillance.

Germany is currently home to some 52,232 unaccompanied refugees under the age of 18, according to the family ministry. Last year alone, between 25,000 and 35,000 unaccompanied foreign children were taken in by youth services, Schwarz said. Not all of them register for asylum. Germany’s migration agency said they received 14,439 requests for asylum from unaccompanied children last year, roughly a third of them Afghans. Most of them live in group homes, though some are selected to live with foster families.

By those standards, the teen who carried out Monday’s attack appeared to have lived in relatively good conditions. After leaving a shelter for unaccompanied children, he was sent to a foster family two weeks ago. Though police found a hand-drawn Islamic State flag in his room and the extremist group claimed responsibility, investigators say the young man wasn’t known previously to authorities and didn’t appear to have any links to radical networks.

Authorities warn that migrant minors can fall prey to recruitment by local Islamists. Germany’s domestic intelligence registered some 320 attempts since September by known radicals to approach refugees in and around shelters, mosques or charities, according to a spokeswoman. In Bavaria, underage refugees had been spotted attending known radical mosques, a spokesman for the state’s domestic intelligence agency said.

“I am particularly worried about the many unaccompanied minor refugees. This group is a particular target for recruiters,” Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s federal domestic intelligence agency, said in an interview earlier this year.

A group called “Islamic youth in Aschaffenburg” – a small town in northwest Bavaria – has also approached refugees, particularly youths, with offers to assist them. The same group, though, has hosted events with known fundamentalist Islamic preachers in the town and is being monitored by security officials, Bavarian intelligence authorities said.

Delinquent Afghan youths, in particular, have also become a fixture of German local crime reports. In February, three young Afghans were filmed harassing a group of passengers on the Munich subway. They were detained and handed suspended sentences.

In April 2015, a 17-year-old Afghan stabbed to death another Afghan minor in a German classroom in Hamburg. The young man was sentenced to five years in prison, a spokesman for the Hamburg prosecutor’s office said. The motive behind the attack remained unclear.

Late last month in Passau, three underage asylum seekers, including two 17-year-old Afghans, attacked the janitor of a hotel and threw him into a river. The three were later detained and remain in custody pending charges.

In recent months, officials say they have also become increasingly concerned about attacks by minors – refugees or not. In the city of Essen, two teenagers whom police described as Islamic State sympathizers threw a homemade bomb at a Sikh temple in April, injuring three people. And in February, an apparently radicalized 15-year-old German-Moroccan girl stabbed a police officer in Hanover with a kitchen knife.

Officials have also warned that unaccompanied minors are being targeted by criminal gangs. The European Union’s criminal intelligence agency Europol warned early this year that some 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children had disappeared since arriving in Europe and that they suspect some might have fallen into the hands of criminal gangs.

In Germany, underage refugees have been involved in petty crime in cities from Hamburg to Berlin, lured by criminal gangs with the promise of easy money, according to Berlin prosecutor Sjors Kamstra.

“Many of the young people have lived some special sort of trauma so they might also be suffering from some serious instability,” said Rainer Wendt, head of one of Germany’s two main police unions. “We need to watch them closely and take care of their psychological stability – as they might become victims or perpetrators.”

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