Anti-Immigrant Protests Grow as Thousands of Refugees Flood Europe

Germanys move to welcome refugees has ignited a far-right backlash in the form of a street protest group called PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamacization of the West.PlayABC News
WATCH Anti-Immigrant Protests Grow as Refugees Flood Europe

While the debate over whether to accept Muslim refugees continues in the United States, in Europe, where over a million refugees have already been allowed in, tense anti-immigrant protests are quickly spreading.

Conservative political parties are also on the rise from Sweden to Poland to the Czech Republic, partially fueled by the recent terror attacks in Paris. These political leaders fear not only the numbers of refugees, but the Islamic radicals they believe could be hiding among them.

Germany recently registered its one millionth refugee, but the country’s move to welcome them has ignited a far-right backlash in the form of a street protest group called PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamacization of the West.

“It’s not good for our people, not for our culture, not for our life,” said one protester at a recent rally in Dresden, Germany.

PEGIDA started last year and quickly attracted tens of thousands of people to the weekly Monday night rallies, even after a photo of leader Lutz Bachmann apparently masquerading as Hitler surfaced in the local media. Bachmann insists the image was digitally altered to discredit him. In a rare television interview, Bachmann told Nightline he believes Muslim refugees do not belong in Europe.

“This is the culture we have in Europe -- an old Christian, Jewish culture. We don’t have an Islam culture here,” Bachmann said. “Islam is no religion. It’s an ideology. A fascistic ideology.”

PEGIDA’s demonstrations, which draw an estimated 10,000 people, have often been marked by accusations of violence toward the media and pro-refugee protesters. Mohammod, a Libyan refugee attending a counter-protest, said that PEGIDA makes him frightened for his safety.

Like Mohammad, many refugees feel caught in the cross-hairs of this backlash. There have been over 800 anti-refugee assaults and arson attacks in Germany this year alone.

Ali, a 21-year-old refugee from Syria, fled from Turkey to Germany this fall. He and 11 of his young friends traveled 2,000 miles across Europe in a journey that was documented by "Nightline’s" cameras.

He made it, but three months later, the simple life he imagined having in Germany is decidedly more complex. Ali has been temporarily placed by the government in a remote corner of East Germany while he awaits his residency card. He said he mostly spends his time at a hotel that’s been converted into a center for refugees where he’s trying to learn German.

He said he feels like people do not want him there.

“They will think we are terrorists. That’s why they are scared [of] us,” he said. “They must understand why we are coming here because we are not going to take anything from them. We’re going to study and complete our studies.”

Refugees like him, Ali said, are coming to Europe for a chance at a better life, not to cause trouble.

“The people that are coming from Syria, they are running from the war,” he said. “They want peace. They don’t want any problems, they don’t want to hear any shoot guns. They don’t want to hear any bombs coming on their houses.”

But Germany isn’t the only European country up in arms over the refugees. In Sweden, a party made up of youthful, energetic nationalists who want to stop all immigration is surging in popularity.

The Sweden Democrats, a party whose early members were connected to the Neo-Nazi movement, has soared to popularity, thanks in part to its slick ad campaigns. A recent video targeted any refugee attempting the journey to Sweden, showing a bleak reality of crowded refugee centers with the warnings “No Jobs” and “No Welfare."

A spokesperson for the youth wing, Linnea Cortes, insists that the Sweden Democrats are not bigots.

“The biggest mistake in Sweden’s migrant policy has been we’ve received too many on such short time and this has resulted in a segregated country,” Cortes said.

Markus Weichel, a 27-year-old Swedish Parliament member, said Muslims should have places to pray, just not “full scale mosques, like you see in the Middle East.”

To him, mosques are “a symbol of a multicultural society that I don’t want.”

Critics blame the rhetoric of the Sweden Democrats for inspiring violence against refugees and Muslims, including a shocking incident where an assailant wearing a mask and wielding a sword attacked minorities in an elementary school.

As with PEGIDA in Germany, there are anti-refugee street groups in Sweden that pound the pavement, not the halls of Parliament, to get their message out. One such group is called the Nordic Youth, who told "Nightline" they believe that Sweden should stay white.

“We have to show them that people don’t want them here. We want to stop the invasion,” Nordic Youth spokesman Fredrik Hagberg said.

But the refugee influx into Europe has created unprecedented issues, including mass brawls at overcrowded refugee centers.

The question isn’t whether Europe is changing, but whether conflict is now going to be a permanent part of this new world.

“I think the burned-down asylum centers is just the beginning,” Hagberg said. “I definitely believe civil war will be inevitable if something doesn’t change in Sweden.”