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Refugees live in fear of German far-right

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A Pegida demonstration in Dresden in May. Photo: DPA
08:11 CEST+02:00
It's an astonishing statement for a refugee from war-torn Syria, but Taher has had enough of the xenophobia he has experienced in Germany.

"I want to return to Syria -- very afraid here," he said this week, speaking outside a refugee centre in the small eastern town of Freital, which has gained national notoriety for ugly protests against asylum seekers.

Since arriving a month ago, after a long odyssey, the 27-year-old said he was attacked by a group that piled out of a car and hit him.

Speaking with AFP, he showed a letter, written in German and Arabic, in which he withdraws his application for political asylum.

"I come from Syria because I was afraid -- but here big afraid," said Taher, who did not want to give his full name, speaking in halting English.

Germany, struggling with a huge influx of refugees, has been gripped by a spate of anti-foreigners rallies, violence and arson attacks against refugee homes or would-be shelters.

The country now faces a paradox: a generous asylum system originally meant to help atone for its Nazi past has opened the gates to Europe's biggest influx of refugees -- sparking ugly reactions that recall Germany's darkest days.

This year has already seen about 200 arson and other attacks against refugee housing -- roughly the same as all of last year, when numbers were already up sharply.

In recent days Freital -- an economically depressed town of 40,000 in Saxony state in what was once communist East Germany -- has become a symbol of the upsurge in hostility.

In protests against the imminent arrival of 280 refugees outside a converted hotel, neo-Nazis raised their arms in Hitler salutes, mingling in larger crowds of people shouting "criminal foreigners" and "asylum seeker pigs".

Stickers on lampposts advise the refugees to "keep fleeing", with the English-language message "Refugees not welcome".

'Dark brown'

The newcomers are part of a wave of a record 500,000 refugees expected this year in Europe's largest economy, fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, African nations and recession-stricken Balkan countries.

Across Germany, volunteers have given food, clothes, toys and German lessons in over-crowded refugee camps, some of which house thousands in converted sports halls, former military bases and even tent cities.

But the unprecedented influx has also sparked a darker, xenophobic response -- marked by the rise of the "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident", or PEGIDA, movement in Dresden, where rallies peaked early this
year at 25,000.

Dresden -- a magnet for neo-Nazi groups embittered by the city's war-time destruction -- again made headlines last week when far-right thugs attacked Red Cross staff setting up a tent city for 800 mostly Syrian refugees.

Hundreds of pro-refugee activists on Friday clashed with supporters of the far-right NPD party, leaving three people injured.
Leading the charge in Freital, near Dresden, is one of PEGIDA's clone groups, which goes by the localised acronym of FRIGIDA and pledges online that "our town will stay clean -- Freital is free".

Freital has seen shouting matches and clashes between pro- and anti-asylum activists since June.

This week, tensions escalated when unknown assailants blew up the unoccupied car of a pro-refugee politician of the far-left Linke party, Michael Richter.

"The situation is becoming increasingly tense... Freital is deeply divided," said Steffi Brachtel, 40, who helps organise anti-FRIGIDA rallies.

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She said Freital had turned "brown" -- a reference to Nazi uniforms – after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but that it was now "turning dark brown".

'Racism and violence'

Several of Germany's 16 states, notably Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, have complained about carrying an unfair burden and demanded more federal funds for the food, housing and medical treatment of asylum seekers.

Political parties are discussing whether a new immigration law is needed to sort political and "economic refugees", reduce backlogs and better integrate accepted immigrants into the labour market.

A key question is which nations are deemed "safe countries of origin" – meaning their citizens can't get asylum. The list now includes Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia.

Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer wants all Western Balkan states to be declared safe and speed up the deportation of unsuccessful asylum seekers from the region.

Amid the heated debate, the German Institute for Human Rights warned that "we are increasingly hearing statements that recall the early 1990s" – when newly reunified Germany was gripped by a wave of attacks on foreigners.

Freital's Brachtel said what has changed is that "the typical Nazi no longer sports army boots, a shaved head and dark clothes. Now there are many people of whom you wouldn't expect it. That's what makes it all the more dangerous."

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