DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - On Monday evenings, 25-year-old Nico Rangel regularly joins a protest against the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA in the eastern German city of Dresden. A few blocks away, his mother usually turns out to support PEGIDA.
The Rangel family illustrates the divisions running through Germany over an influx of asylum seekers that is testing the country’s infrastructure, government, and the patience of some.
Germany expects 800,000 to 1 million migrants to arrive this year, many from war zones in the Middle East. Arguments about how to cope with the newcomers are opening up splits from the highest levels of government downwards.
Nowhere are these greater than in Dresden, eastern Germany’s second biggest city which was once known as the “Florence of the Elbe” for its cultural splendors, then flattened by bombing in World War Two, and now home to PEGIDA.
The movement - which staged its biggest rally in months on its first anniversary two weeks ago - gives a public face to grassroots opposition to the influx of migrants, many of whom are Muslims.
The group, whose organizers Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has called “hard right-wing extremists”, demands an immediate stop to asylum seekers coming into the country and drew up to 25,000 supporters during a protest in January.
“The whole issue mainly is a generational problem,” said Rangel, a logistics worker. “Ours, the young generation, is much more open.”
Studies show his assessment is accurate.
While more than half of all Germans fear the refugee influx, according to a poll by German TV station ARD, a youth study sponsored by the Shell oil company shows that only 29 percent of people aged 12 to 25 are afraid of immigration.
The shifting attitudes between generations reflect the changing face of Germany. Researchers attribute the difference to a change of values and a much higher presence among the younger generation of people with migrant roots.
Germany won the 1990 soccer World Cup with an all-white team. The squad that won in 2014 included Jerome Boateng, son of a Ghanaian immigrant, Sami Khedira, whose father is Tunisian, and Mesut Ozil, grandson of a Turkish “Gastarbeiter”, or guest worker.
While roughly 20 percent of all people counted in the German population have immigrant roots, the figure is 12 percentage points higher among under-20-year-olds.
Anxiety about immigration runs throughout Germany. However, older people in eastern cities such as Dresden grew up under communism, having little contact with foreigners. Whereas millions of Gastarbeiter helped to create West Germany’s post-war economic miracle, relatively few Vietnamese and African workers came to East Germany before the nation’s reunification.
In Dresden, a year of the almost weekly anti-Islam rallies has divided not only families but also circles of friends and work colleagues.
Adopting the symbolism and rhetoric that East Germans used in 1989 to bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the PEGIDA group meets every Monday and chants “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the People”).
But leading German politicians consider PEGIDA - an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West - to be right-wing populists and warn of racist elements.
Unwilling to remain silent, many of Dresden’s younger people regularly take to the streets to organize a counter-PEGIDA rally, which attracted around 14,000 people on the group’s anniversary two weeks ago.
A poll by Dresden’s Technical University among the city’s population shows that young people in the city, as is the case nationally, are more open towards migrants.
Hostility towards asylum seekers was more than twice as high among the older generation of 60 years and above compared with the age group 16 to 35, the poll showed. Young Dresdeners’ sympathies towards asylum seekers were nearly twice as strong as those among their grandparents’ generation.
For Christiane Gloger, Albert Michler and Johannes Scholz, students sharing a flat in Dresden, the decision to house a refugee wasn’t much of a debate.
“It actually all started when I had an argument with a PEGIDA supporter who told me that if I liked the refugees so much, why don’t I put them up in my own home. So we all thought ‘why not?’,” 27-year-old Gloger said.
With the help of online platform “Fluechtlinge willkommen” (refugees welcome), which links asylum seekers to German hosts, Gloger advertised an open room and only a month later Mohammed Helal, a 25-year-old carpenter from Syria, was sitting at the students’ dinner table.
Dresden’s divisions also don’t pass by Helal unnoticed. “When I watch the PEGIDA protests I am simply scared,” he said. “But I live with German roommates who think completely differently and are anti-PEGIDA.”
Helal’s asylum request is being processed and the German state pays his rent. He is attending a nine-month integration class, which experts regard as crucial for the migrants to settle into German life successfully.
Although older people are statistically more critical of the influx, relatives of the three students housing Helal support the idea.
“My family is actually standing behind it. My grandmother turned 87 this year and she said ‘If I were a little fitter, one of them could move in with me’,” Scholz said.
editing by Paul Carrel and David Stamp