'Dead Syrian' Facebook hoax spotlights genuine fears among Germany's refugees

Agence France-Presse
Supporters of anti-immigration right-wing movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) take part in in demonstration rally, in reaction to alleged mass assaults on women on New Year's Eve, in Cologne, Germany on January 9, 2016.
Wolfgang Rattay

A Facebook post about a Syrian refugee's death in Germany sparked a social media storm this week, only for the author to admit making it up, highlighting a rash of online rumors fuelled by a record asylum seeker influx.

At first glance, it was all too credible: a 24-year-old Syrian had been queuing for days in the cold at Berlin's notoriously chaotic refugee registration centre Lageso even though he was ill.

Homeless and penniless, he finally went into cardiac arrest on the way to hospital and died, according to the account posted on Wednesday by kind-hearted volunteer Dirk Voltz, who had taken the man in.

But Voltz in fact fabricated the tale, duping not just national media and the authorities but also Moabit Hilft, the neighborhood aid group that he volunteers with.

"I acted out of a relationship based on trust," said a dismayed Diana Henniges, from the aid group, who had confirmed the purported death to national media before Voltz finally admitted he had invented it.

In a gripping "live" text-message style exchange with a friend published online, Voltz said he rang for an ambulance as the man was suffering from a high "fever, chills and could no longer speak."

He told his friend to find an Arabic speaker quickly to communicate with the refugee, but after his friend gave him a number, he said it was too late and the Syrian had died.

Moabit Hilft went to town with the "exchange," even publishing an obituary on Twitter: "You survived so much. You did not survive Lageso. You caught a fever, chills and cardiac arrest. You died last night. We are crying."

But as national media began reporting on the "tragedy," emergency services said there was no trace of such a case.

Finally, Voltz confessed to police he had, in a drunken stupor, lied.

In an apology posted on Facebook Thursday, Voltz said he had only realised the extent of the damage he had wrought the following afternoon.

"I wanted to shake people up, change something but in the mix of drunkenness and nervous breakdown, I picked the wrong method," he wrote, adding that months of volunteer work had brought him "more and more to the limit of psychological and physical strain."

Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel said in an editorial: "It is indicative of this overly excited, sometimes hysterical time, but also of the state of Lageso, that so many people have immediately believed such a death."

 'Official cover-up'

After all, Moabit Hilft were the good guys — one of the key volunteer groups credited with averting disaster so far at Lageso by handing out clothes, hot drinks and food to asylum seekers huddling in the cold.

Berlin authorities on the other hand have come under fire repeatedly for failing to improve conditions at Lageso, where thousands of newcomers wait, often for days, in an unsheltered courtyard to get an appointment with an overwhelmed bureaucrat.

While this purported death was seized on as seeming to lay bare how Germany was failing many of the 1.1 million asylum seekers who arrived last year, other rumors, often surrounding "crimes" committed by foreigners, are also doing the rounds on the Internet.

Many are promoted by angry far-right groups, feeding on fears that have arisen over the spate of sexual assaults during New Year's festivities in Cologne, which were blamed on migrants.

"Most rumors are sexual offences. You can plot the map of Germany with the locations where women and girls were allegedly raped by asylum seekers," said daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

As an example of the kind of wild stories circulating in the current febrile atmosphere, it cited the rumor of a female cleaner at a refugee shelter who was supposedly gang-raped and then killed, her body found in the toilet.

Although many of these claims are shrugged off by the wider public, other allegations have taken a graver turn, even transforming into diplomatic affairs.

Take the recent mysterious case of a 13-year-old Russian-German, whose claims that she had been kidnapped and raped by immigrants were rejected by German police following an investigation.

The authorities' conclusions did not appear to convince hundreds of German-Russians, who staged protests in several German cities last weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also weighed in on Tuesday, seeking to lend credence to the girl's account and charging that her disappearance had been "hidden" by German authorities.

But Berlin angrily hit back at the charge, with foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer saying: "The truth will always come out in the end."