- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
GROSSROEHRSDORF, Germany – The 17 North African refugees turned up just before Christmas — and Simon Richter felt nothing to cheer.
The electrician and his friends organized a meeting that sent out a message loud and clear: We don't want the foreigners in our midst. Within days, authorities caved to pressure and moved the young men elsewhere.
The episode reflects the increasingly tense mood in the eastern state of Saxony, where anti-immigrant protests have been growing by the week, drawing international attention and fears that xenophobia is on the rise again in German — where the Nazi past has long made such sentiments taboo. The protest movement is expected to get a big boost by last week's terror attacks in Paris.
Last week, about 18,000 people marched through the state capital, Dresden, under the banner of a group calling itself Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA. Bigger numbers are anticipated at the next rally Monday.
Many of the marchers come from rural areas near the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. During the rallies they hold up signs with the names of their towns and villages, and insist they aren't racist — just ordinary people worried about crime — though skinheads and far-right activists are visible among the crowd.
"I think they've got a legitimate cause," said Richter, who has attended several PEGIDA protests himself.
Shortly after the asylum seekers moved into a disused gymnasium that authorities had set aside as temporary accommodation, police and firefighters had to be called to deal with a refugee who had injured himself while drunk and another who set fire to some garbage bags.
"You have a lot of people living close to here, as well as a playground and a school," Richter said. "It was simply the worst place to house refugees in a small community."
The mood in Grossroehrsdorf — population 6,700 — finally turned against the asylum seekers when a 23-year-old local man reported to police that he'd been assaulted by one of the foreigners.
Days later, police announced that the man had lied. But by then authorities had already decided to shut the gym and disperse the refugees across other asylum centers in the region.
The decision was a not just a victory for Richter and his friends. The far-right National Democratic Party, or NPD, also saw a reason to celebrate.
Its local representative, Juergen Koetzing, told The Associated Press that the party supported the protests in Grossroehrsdorf and has helped with logistics behind the scenes during the PEGIDA marches in Dresden.
"We support such events with equipment and the printing of fliers, but the initiative comes from concerned people in the various villages," Koetzing said. It's part of the party's new tactic since narrowly failing to clear the 5 percent threshold in Saxony's regional elections last year.
"Until the next election we're going to be doing what I'll call grassroots policy," said Koetzing, a construction engineer.
As far as PEGIDA is concerned, "we're not going to push to the front," he said. "On the basic thrust here, about foreigners taking over Germany, we're in agreement with PEGIDA." PEGIDA representatives didn't respond to requests for comment.
Protestant pastor Stefan Schwarzenberg, who supports the refugees, said people in Saxony remain affected by decades of communist rule, even 25 years after the end of the dictatorship in East Germany.
"There are people who are still stuck in their old thinking and their old horizon," he said.
Schwarzenberg said the fear of Muslims — a sentiment that has been growing in different parts of Europe — was largely based on ignorance.
"Even though they hardly know any foreigners or have asylum seekers in their towns and villages," he said, "they have this bogeyman, which is the Islamization of the West."
The pastor noted that some parents had threatened to keep their children out of school until the refugees were moved: "It's was a very emotional situation."
Some experts have said that PEGIDA is likely to remain a fixture limited to Saxony. Attempts to organize similar marches in other cities have met with overwhelming counter-protests.
"Especially rural areas in Saxony are known to be ultraconservative," said Michael Luehmann of the Goettingen Institute for Democracy Research. "They are also afraid of strangers — probably because there are almost no foreigners in Saxony."
Martin Strunden, a spokesman for Saxony's Interior Ministry, said the state can cope with its share of asylum seekers — about 12,000 of the 200,000 people who came to Germany seeking shelter from war and persecution last year.
The bigger challenge, he said, lies in reaching out to the local population and reassuring them that their fears are unfounded. In fact, Germany is struggling with a lack of workers to fill jobs — so it needs more immigration, not less, Strunden said.
Saxony has lost 10 percent of its population since 1990 and will lose another 10 percent before it stabilizes, he said. Since 2014, more people have been retiring from the job market than arriving from school, a trend that threatens that will weigh on Europe's biggest economy in the coming decades.
Getting that message across will be difficult in a region where people jealously guard their comfort zones.
"I heard in the news recently that some of the refugees that cross the Mediterranean pay 8,000 euros (nearly $9,500) a head to get here," said Richter. "That's a sum many working people here can't afford to spend on their holiday."
David Rising, Kirsten Grieshaber and Geir Moulson contributed to this report.