BERLIN (AFP) – Recent weekly protests by far-right populists against immigrants, asylum seekers and the “Islamisation” of Germany “bring shame” on the country, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said Monday.
Ahead of the latest marches planned by the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident” (PEGIDA) group, Maas told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Germans should stand up to racism and xenophobia.
He warned that Germany, amid a record influx of asylum seekers from countries stricken by war and poverty, is experiencing an “escalation of agitation against immigrants and refugees”.
Among the enraged citizens who had taken to the streets were people expressing hostility against foreigners, he said, calling the trend “repugnant and abhorrent”.
The centre-left Social Democrats called for “a broad counter-alliance of civil society and all political parties” against PEGIDA, whose positions Maas said were “preposterous”.
The PEGIDA movement started with a few hundred people in October in Dresden, a city which until a quarter-century ago was part of communist East Germany, and had swelled to draw a crowd of 10,000 last Monday.
It has also spawned half a dozen smaller clone groups, including in the western cities of Duesseldorf, Wuerzburg and Bonn.
Organisers in Dresden sought to rally even greater numbers this Monday evening, while anti-fascist counter demonstrators were set to march under the banner “Dresden for all – for a cosmopolitan Dresden”.
Since the protests have grown in size, the topic of immigration and refugees has dominated Germany, a country whose Nazi past makes expressions of xenophobia especially troubling.
Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has become the continent’s biggest destination for asylum seekers and the world’s number two destination for migrants after the United States.
The influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and several African and Balkans countries has strained local governments, which have scrambled to house the newcomers in old schools, office blocks and army barracks.
Some asylum homes have been targeted by protesters, vandals and arsonists, while elsewhere local residents have sought to welcome refugees with neighbourhood support services, gifts and donations.
While some politicians have argued the government needs to better listen to the concerns of citizens about immigration, others have pointed out that the fast-greying country needs immigrants.
“Refugees are good for our country,” the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, Thomas Oppermann, told the Focus news weekly.
“We Germans received a lot of support after World War II, and these people deserve our protection. And besides, many Syrian refugees have qualifications that we desperately need in this country.”