Tens of thousands of Europeans have taken part in rallies for or against welcoming refugees. The protests show wide differences within the European populace as to how the current refugee influx is viewed.
Rallies took place in various European capitals on Saturday, with demonstrators airing their views about the huge numbers of refugees currently fleeing to the continent from the Middle East and Africa.
One of the largest marches took place in the British capital, London, where demonstrators protested against the government's refugee policy and urged it to give more assistance to those seeking shelter and protection from conflict and poverty in their home countries.
Marchers waved placards bearing slogans such as "Refugees welcome here," "No human being is illegal," "Open the borders," and "Refugee lives matter."
Britain has agreed to accept 20,000 refugees over five years - far fewer than other major European nations. The country is not participating in a European Union quota system to share out refugees who have already reached Europe, after often perilous boat journeys across the Mediterranean. Instead, it will draw on those who have taken refuge from Syria's civil conflict in United Nations refugee camps in neighboring countries.
It is, however, also the biggest donor of aid to Syrian refugees after the United States.
Germany at the fore
In Germany, a large rally was held in the northern port city of Hamburg, where some 7,500 people gathered on the market place in front of the city hall to voice their support for refugees. A larger rally by leftist protesters, initially called in response to a right-wing demonstration that was banned, was marred by clashes between participants and police, forcing the temporary closure of the city's main railway station.
Germany has so far played a leading role in accepting refugees, taking in 450,000 people. Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has also relaxed asylum rules for Syrians, drawing a mixture of praise and hefty criticism both at home and abroad.
The Danish capital, Copenhagen, was also the scene of a pro-refugee demonstration, which drew some 30,000 people, according to police estimates. Rallies in Stockholm, Helsinki and Lisbon each attracted around 1,000 people who were also in favor of taking in more refugees.
The picture was a different one in at least three central European capitals, where thousands took to the streets to protest against refugees entering the continent.
In the Polish capital, Warsaw, nearly 5,000 people marched through the city, many of them chanting anti-Islamic slogans, according to the AFP news agency.
"Islam will be the death of Europe," one of the placards read.
A Reuters photographer reported seeing a dark-skinned passer-by being beaten by several demonstrators during the rally.
A smaller counter-demonstration in favor of welcoming refugees to the strongly Catholic EU member state attracted some one thousand people.
Slovakia and the Czech Republic also saw anti-refugee rallies in their respective capitals of Bratislava and Prague.
Quota system undermined
Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, along with fellow EU member state Hungary, have all ruled out taking in refugees under a compulsory quota system suggested by the European Commission (EC).
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Friday that more than 430,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year. It said some 2,748 have died or gone missing during the voyage, which is often taken in overfilled and unseaworthy vessels supplied by unscrupulous human smugglers.
The influx has provoked deep rifts within the EU, with Italy, Greece and Hungary struggling to cope with huge numbers of arrivals, and a number of member states opposing the EC's proposed distribution scheme.
tj/rc (AFP, Reuters)