Stop Blaming Immigrants for Right-Wing Extremism

On June 2, Walter Lübcke, a German politician who had defended Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of welcoming migrants, was murdered by a right-wing extremist. The incident was one of several such attacks against European politicians who had advocated for generous immigration policies, and one of many more right-wing attacks perpetrated directly against immigrant communities.

In response to the disturbing trend, a number of policymakers in the United States and in Europe have suggested that immigrants, rather than xenophobia or racism, are at the root of extremist violence. Whether immigrants are the perpetrators or the victims of an act of terrorist violence — and regardless of the ideological motivation behind the attack — their presence is portrayed as the primary problem.

While the connection between immigration and Islamist terrorism has been challenged, the assertion that immigrants are also to blame for right-wing extremism is just as dishonest and dangerous. It creates a false narrative of blaming victims for crimes perpetrated against them.

Such rhetoric has been particularly noticeable in Europe in the aftermath of the migrant crisis that peaked in 2015-2016 and resulted in more than 1.8 million migrants arriving in Europe from Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa from 2014 through November of last year. European policymakers too often link immigrants and refugees to crime, even when immigrants are the targets of violence. And as is the case in the United States, these statements may directly feed into security policies that negatively impact immigrant communities, all while failing to adequately address the threat of right-wing extremism.

This phenomenon is one of two key conceptual problems that has resulted in the failure of policymakers to take sufficient measures against right-wing extremists. The first problem is that the security data relied on by those policymakers fails to accurately convey the threat of right-wing extremism, both due to a disproportionate focus on other forms of violence (e.g. Islamist terrorism) and also due to the lack of a universal definition for what constitutes right-wing extremism. The second problem is the pre-existing tendencies of policymakers to interpret right-wing extremism as a symptom of immigration, rather than as a problem to be confronted in and of itself.

The Failure to Correctly Assess the Threat

Despite the clear threat of right-wing extremism, European policymakers have largely failed to give this phenomenon the attention it deserves, largely because of the lack of clear data and assessment of the risk. First, security discussions are generally more focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and “outsider” threats, often underestimating or ignoring threats from groups seen as internal to the EU. Second, there is a lack of consensus regarding how to define right-wing extremism.

Several highly publicized refugee- and immigrant-perpetrated attacks in the aftermath of the migrant crisis helped fuel the nationalist narrative that immigrants pose a security threat to Europe. In spite of the fact that EU security apparatuses have recognized that right-wing terror attacks have increased, much of their reporting has remained focused on “jihadist”  terrorism.

This problem is further exacerbated by the lack of consistent data. While the use of overly-simplified or ill-defined terms (e.g., “terrorism,” “right-wing extremism,” “hate crimes”) is problematic, the lack of consensus as to how to define right-wing extremist violence has made it difficult to assess the risks posed by far-right groups. Such attacks often are not included in terrorism databases. The 2018 report from the EU law enforcement agency Europol, regarded as a key source for terrorism and security data, recorded only one right-wing terror attack across Europe in 2018 as opposed to 24 “jihadist” attacks. This may be because episodes of right-wing violence are often defined as “hate crimes,” or because right-wing attacks remain highly underreported to begin with. Failure to accurately assess right-wing extremism skews the data, helping fuel the inaccurate narrative that “Islamic” extremism accounts for most extremist violence in the EU, and undercounting attacks that actually target immigrants.

Europol and the European Council, the EU’s political body made up of heads of state and government from member countries, rely on these data sets in determining security policy. Data that underestimates the threat of right-wing violence may push security forces to dedicate a disproportionate amount of their resources to the threat of Islamist terrorism, as is the case in the United States.

These resources could be more effectively utilized to address the threat of right-wing extremism. Currently, most of the EU’s security policies implemented since the beginning of the refugee crisis have focused on border control, including “reinforced checks at external borders,” “strengthened cooperation with third countries,” and “the construction of more border fences than anywhere else on the globe.” Better data-gathering, and thus a more accurate assessment of the danger posed by right-wing extremism, would give security policymakers the information needed to more effectively allocate resources and develop policies to better address this real risk.

Immigrants as Scapegoats

But EU policymakers’ acute focus on immigrant populations as a key security threat is not simply the result of bad data. Policy priorities are influenced by broader, simplistic political narratives that frame immigrants as the cause of right-wing extremism.

This rhetoric is not confined to Trump. A range of mainstream politicians, and even academics, have embraced similar views regarding the inevitable connection between immigrants and rising right-wing extremism. Hillary Clinton stated in a November 2018 interview, for example, that “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame.” While endorsing the “generous and compassionate approaches” of some European political leaders toward migrants, she argued that immigration proved fundamental to the election of populist leaders in the U.S. and Europe. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone as far as to claim that immigrants in the United Kingdom must better “integrate” in order to mitigate the growth of “far-right bigotry.”

Such dangerously misguided responses may fuel further restrictions on migration. Political leaders who accept this assumption would, of course, focus more on curbing migration as a solution than on addressing the underlying racism motivating xenophobic violence.

The idea that right-wing violence increases with immigration has some merit, as demonstrated by Richard J. McAlexander in a study analyzing terrorism in Europe from 1990-2004. But this connection should not lead to the conclusion that immigrants are to blame, or that drastically reducing immigration is the solution. As Lorna Finlayson explains, efforts to draw a causal link between immigration and right-wing extremism “get things backwards: they assume that racism against immigrants is caused by excessive multiculturalism, rather than being a continuation of racism already endemic in a society which, moreover, does not serve the interests of the majority of its people.”

Refocusing Security Policy

Policymakers’ underestimation of the extent of right-wing attacks, coupled with a public discourse that operates on the premise that white supremacist ideology is an immutable aspect of Western society, contributes to a narrative in which immigrants are held responsible for the attacks against them. European policymakers, and the larger public, must move past these misconceptions in order to more effectively combat right-wing extremism. Rather than calling for reduced immigration, policymakers ought to fight against the underlying bigotry that gives rise to xenophobic violence and right-wing extremism. Until they do so, immigrants will continue to bear the brunt for EU’s broad failure to take the threat posed by right-wing extremist groups seriously, leaving neither immigrants, nor Europe as a whole, any safer.

IMAGE:  Bishop Martin Hein speaks at the coffin of murdered German politician Walter Lübcke at Lübcke’s memorial service at St. Martin church on June 13, 2019 in Kassel, Germany. Lübcke was found dead, shot in the head at close range, on the terrace of his home on June 2. Investigators have ruled out suicide and are investigating the case as murder. Lübcke, a Christian Democrat (CDU), was outspoken in his pro-immigration views, and one possibility investigators are pursuing is a right-wing motive to the shooting. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Niku Jafarnia

A joint law and public policy student at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School focused on the intersection of refugee rights, armed conflict, and counterterrorism.