Refugees brave downpours to enter Europe

  • 20/10/2015
Tensions have built along the migrant trail (Reuters)
Tensions have built along the migrant trail (Reuters)

Thousands of migrants have defied heavy rain and tightened border controls to cross into the Balkans, as angry protesters massed in Germany's Dresden to mark the anniversary of the xenophobic PEGIDA movement.

An unprecedented number of asylum seekers -- mainly fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan -- are travelling 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 -- diverting the flow west to Slovenia, which in turn has also limited arrivals, along with Croatia.

On Monday thousands of refugees endured hours of chilly rain as they waited at a bottleneck on the Serbia-Croatia frontier, where families 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 2000-3000 stranded migrants in the late afternoon.

Despite such hardships, there has been no let-up in the numbers of people heading to Europe.

Some 4500 people were stuck at a Croatian border post with Slovenia, waiting for the gates to be opened.

Slovenia had said it would limit entries to 2500 a day, but allowed twice the number through on Monday (local time).

More than 600,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year, a dangerous journey that has left more than 3000 dead or missing.

Germany, the EU's biggest economy, is the ultimate goal for many.

It expects to take around one million refugees this year, and Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy has sparked an angry backlash.

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.

"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," PEGIDA co-founder Lutz Bachmann told the crowd, which he estimated at 39,000.

Independent estimates gave a smaller turnout, of around 15,000 to 20,000.

PEGIDA -- short for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" -- had attracted 25,000 people at its gatherings in January before interest began to wane. But it has seen some revival in recent weeks over the record refugee influx.

Merkel has urged citizens to shun "those with hate in their hearts".

Thousands have also attended an anti-PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden, with one protester 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.

Interior minister Thomas De Maiziere said the attack had left him "speechless".

Although the xenophobic 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.