ROME — Shortly after the first shots rang out in Paris on Friday night, police in Rome moved swiftly to beef up security at the city’s main high-traffic tourist destinations, from the Vatican to the Coliseum.
But they also moved extra security forces to other destinations, like the Baobab Centro, a center for refugees near the Tiburtina train station on the outskirts of the capital. They weren’t worried that some of the refugees might be involved in terror attacks; they were worried that Italians would be the ones attacking the refugees in retaliation for the Paris attacks.
Since the refugee exodus that has driven more than half a million people out of North Africa and the Middle East began last year, there has been a steady drumbeat by many mostly right-wing political parties across Europe that the migrant boats are filled with radical Islamists and jihadi fighters. Recent reports that a Tunisian terrorist who spent seven years in prison in Italy was caught coming in to Italy on a boat in October, or that a temporary refugee passport found at the scene of one of the Paris attacks belonged to a man who had come in to Europe through Greece and traveled along the migrant trail along with hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees do little to help. But neither do headlines like “Islamic Bastards,” which showed up on the cover of the right-wing newspaper Libero on Saturday morning.
It has become a regular practice across Europe to associate terrorist threats with the refugee crisis, despite the fact that most of the refugees are actually escaping the same sort of violence Europeans fear most.
Drive-by shootings and suicide bombers of the kind that shook Paris on Friday night are everyday experiences in many Syrian cities, says Giovanni Pinto, Italy’s director of Immigration and Border control. He worries that events like the Paris attacks will put refugees at risk. “It is increasingly difficult to not just provide basic comforts, but to actually protect them from angry citizens,” he says. “Many Europeans group all Muslims in one category. The problem is exacerbated by terror attacks like the one in Paris.”
That fact hasn’t stopped some countries from making blatant claims that all refugees are terrorists, and it doesn’t stop even centrist news organizations in Europe from running images of migrant boats under headlines about terrorism.
Refugee camps in Italy’s northern regions are under almost constant attack by far-right protesters who have torched prayer rooms and constantly hand out anti-Islam propaganda. In many of the camps, the security fences do more to keep angry citizens out than to keep the migrants and refugees in. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right Northern League, wrote on his Facebook page that all Islamic communities in Italy should be subject to close surveillance, suggesting, “The throat cutters and Islamic terrorists should be eliminated with force!”
Marine Le Pen, a French anti-immigration politician, said, “Whatever the European Union says, it is necessary that France recovers the power over her national borders forever. Without borders there is no protection nor security possible,” she said. “France must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques and expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.”
Those sentiments were echoed across the continent over the weekend. Poland’s newly elected, incoming European Affairs commissioner Konrad Szymanski said Poland would no longer accept refugees and migrants after the Paris attacks. “The attacks mean the necessity of an even deeper revision of the European policy towards the migrant crisis,” he said Saturday. “We’ll accept them if we have security guarantees. This is a key condition, and today a question mark has been put next to it all around Europe.”
In Germany, where most of the recent refugees are heading, security has been increased around refugee camps, which are increasingly targeted by anti-immigration protesters. On Saturday, police drove away a group of angry residents who threatened refugees huddled in the camps along the German-Austrian border.
Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, tried to calm nerves, promising that most migrants and refugees were escaping terrorism, not inciting it. “I’d like to appeal urgently that no one rush to make a connection with the refugee situation,” De Maiziere said on Saturday. “How we deal with the refugee crisis shouldn’t be linked in any way to how we deal with terrorism.”
In the article with the “Islamic Bastards” headline, Libero journalist Franco Bechis insisted that there is no way to know who may be hiding among the refugees. Under European law, all migrants and refugees should be fingerprinted and their details should be logged, though in many cases, the sheer number of arrivals make it logistically impossible to do. The Daily Beast has witnessed refugees arriving without being documented. Bechis insists it isn't done at all. “From January to the end of October a small city of ghosts have landed on our shores,” he wrote. “None of them have a document. None of them have a fingerprint. Nobody gives the Italian authorities a name, a surname, a city of origin. The only thing we know from the people who see them land is that they are mostly Arab and African.”
Still, the anti-immigrant sentiment is growing at about the same pace as the arrival of more migrants and refugees.