Thousands of protesters join German far-right rally
BERKASOVO, Serbia: Thousands of asylum-seekers defied heavy rain and tightened border controls to cross into the Balkans on Monday, as angry protesters massed in Germany’s Dresden to mark the anniversary of the anti-migrant PEGIDA movement.
An unprecedented number of people, mainly fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are traveling through Turkey, Greece and the western Balkans, seeking new lives in Germany and other EU states.
Tensions have built along the migrant trail after Hungary shut its key borders with razor wire — diverting the flow west to Slovenia, which in turn has also limited arrivals, along with Croatia.
On Monday thousands of refugees were battered for hours by chilly rain as they waited at a bottleneck on the Serbia-Croatia frontier, where families in plastic ponchos huddled around fires and children walked barefoot in the mud.
Aid workers warned of dire conditions for pregnant women and a situation threatening to get “out of control,” before Croatia opened the border to let in the 2,000-3,000 stranded migrants in the late afternoon.
Despite such hardships, there has been no let-up in the numbers of people heading to Europe.
Some 4,500 people were stuck at a Croatian border post with Slovenia, waiting for authorities to open the gates.
Slovenia had claimed to be limiting entries to 2,500 a day, but in fact allowed twice the number through on Monday.
More than 600,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year, a dangerous journey that has left more than 3,000 dead or missing.
The ultimate goal for many is the EU’s biggest economy Germany, which expects to take in around one million refugees this year, and where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy has sparked an angry backlash.
‘Hate in their hearts’
Two days after a man with a neo-Nazi background stabbed a pro-refugee politician in the neck, badly wounding her, thousands of people joined a mass rally marking the first anniversary of Germany’s anti-refugee PEGIDA movement.
One PEGIDA supporter was seriously injured in a brief clash with counter-demonstrators, police said.
“Politicians insult us, they distort us. We are threatened with murder but we are still here. We will stay on to win, and we will win,” declared PEGIDA co-founder Lutz Bachmann to cheers from the crowd, which he estimated at 39,000.
Independent estimates gave a smaller turnout, with local newspaper Saechische Zeitung saying 20,000 were present, while Durchgezaehlt, a university group specializing in rally estimates, said between 15,000 and 20,000 people were there.
One of them, Hannelore, told AFP: “We are here for our children and grandchildren… We are glad that people have the courage to speak out.
“Pegida is not a brown-shirt movement. Never,” insisted the protester in her sixties, referring to the Nazis, adding: “Frau Merkel is driving our country against the wall.”
PEGIDA — short for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” — attracted 25,000 people at its weekly gatherings in January before interest began to wane. But it has seen some revival in recent weeks over the record refugee influx.
Ahead of the rally, Merkel urged citizens to shun “those with hate in their hearts.”
Thousands of people also turned up in force at an anti-PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden, with one of them, Hans, 75, saying it was important “for the majority of the population to not join PEGIDA, and to show that they don’t agree with the movement.”
Anti-foreigner sentiment motivated the bloody attack in the western city of Cologne on Saturday against mayoral candidate Henriette Reker, 58, who has been active in helping refugees.
‘No concentration camp’
Although PEGIDA movement has so far failed to make headway in mainstream Germany, the migrant influx has boosted support for populist right-wing parties in other European countries, including Austria.
A Swiss populist party notorious for virulent campaigns against immigration, the EU and Islam won a record number of seats in parliamentary elections on Sunday.
The mayor of the French city of Calais meanwhile suggested Monday that the army could be brought in to watch over the so-called “New Jungle” camp, where some 6,000 migrants are camped out in slum conditions, hoping to make it to Britain.
In Germany, Merkel has faced a dip in opinion polls and a rebellion in her own conservative ranks.
Hoping for Turkey’s help in slowing the influx, she held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on Sunday.
The EU wants Turkey to tighten border security and house more refugees in return for billions in financial help, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens and an acceleration of its drive for EU membership.
But Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday his country would not host migrants permanently to appease the EU.
“We cannot accept an understanding like ‘give us the money and they stay in Turkey’,” he said. “Turkey is not a concentration camp.”