Reuters International

BERLIN (Reuters) - Thousands of Germans formed human chains against racism in several large cities on Sunday after a surge in hate crimes against foreigners following a record influx of more than a million migrants last year.

Organisers said over 20,000 people joined protests in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig and Bochum while police counted more than 10,000 demonstrators.

The human chains were jointly organised by church groups, trade unions and human rights organisations under the motto "Hand in hand against racism - for human rights and diversity".

Reiner Hoffmann, head of the DGB trade union confederation, said the turnout showed that many Germans still supported the "Willkommenskultur" (welcoming culture) that greeted arriving migrants last year.

He urged the government to not only step up efforts to integrate migrants, but also implement reforms to support low-wage earners. "We must not play them off against each other," Hoffmann warned.

Germany is on the front line of efforts to integrate migrants into Europe after more than a million arrived in the country last year alone, most of them Muslims fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

The influx has increased tensions in Germany, where police registered a record surge in crimes by right-wing radicals last year. Attacks on refugee centres rose more than five-fold.

The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has become a political force over the past year by branding Islam as incompatible with Germany's democratic constitution and calling for a ban on minarets and women's face veils.

Human rights groups say Germany is failing to deal with the surge in hate crimes and signs of what they call "institutional racism" among law enforcement agencies.

(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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