Opponents of Syrian Refugee Resettlement Seize on the Paris Attacks

Across Europe and in the United States, those opposed to resettling Syrian asylum-seekers say the Paris attacks justify their position.


The deadly attacks in Paris have galvanized European and American opponents of plans to resettle millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, sparking new questions about whether the massacre of at least 129 people in the French capital will bring even more misery to those seeking refuge in the West.

In August, after Germany announced it would accept refugees even if they had not been registered elsewhere in the European Union, leaders from the continent’s far-right argued that relaxing border policies for refugees could allow militants disguised as asylum-seekers to infiltrate European nations and carry out terrorist attacks. French President François Hollande’s unprecedented move to restrict French borders Friday implied there was reason to believe the threat originated outside of France, though on Saturday he said the act may have been planned abroad but “had complicity from the inside, which the investigation will help establish.”

On Saturday, Paris prosecutor François Molins said at least one of the seven terrorists killed Friday was a French citizen born in the southern suburbs of Paris. But several arrests were also made across neighboring Belgium, and, according to Molins, one of the cars linked to the extremists was rented there.

A Syrian passport found next to the corpse of a different attacker showed he had entered the Greek island of Leros on Oct. 3, Nikos Toskas, the Greek deputy citizen protection minister, said in a statement. Initial reports suggest he may have posed as a refugee, the very tactic resettlement opponents on both sides of the Atlantic have warned of.

In the United States, Republicans, including two GOP presidential hopefuls, said the Paris attacks should force President Barack Obama to cancel plans to resettle up to 10,000 of the refugees pouring out of Syria in the United States. Democratic candidates for president, set to debate Saturday night, will now focus on national security and terrorism issues.

The more immediate — and potentially far-reaching — debates are taking place in Europe, however, where the open border idea at the heart of the EU compact has already been under threat from nations building fences to keep migrants and asylum-seekers out.

European Council President Donald Tusk said this week that the entire Schengen agreement is at risk of falling apart.

In France, the far-right National Front party seized on Friday’s attacks to call for the closure of radical mosques and the tightening of border security. “It is vital that France regains control of its borders, once and for all,” the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, said Saturday. “France was made vulnerable. It was subjected to the collapse of its defense capabilities. It must rearm.”

Across Europe, mainstream opponents to EU plans to resettle Syrians also used the attacks to push back against allowing refugees into their countries. In Germany, even allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was already facing internal dissent after inviting 800,000 refugees into the country, said the Paris attack should persuade her to change her policy. Markus Soeder, a top politician in Merkel’s conservative sister party in Bavaria, tweeted this, which translates to: “#ParisAttacks change everything. We cannot allow any illegal and uncontrolled immigration.”

Stanislaw Tillich, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, also called for tighter refugee controls. “We need to know who is here and who passes through our country,” Tillich said, according to the German magazine Focus.

On Friday, Merkel vowed to “fight for [her] vision” on refugees. Speaking on Saturday, the chancellor, dressed in all black, said, “We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror. Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.”

Mujtaba Rahman, head of the Eurasia Group’s European practice, said in a research note circulated Saturday: “The Paris attacks will now add a security dimension that has so far been dormant as another element of concern over Merkel’s liberal refugee policy. Merkel therefore has to manage an increasingly precarious balancing act — between keeping borders open (important as more defensive moves would trigger a domino effect across Central and Eastern Europe that would effectively end Schengen and EU free movement) and limiting the risk of a similar type of event in Germany.”

Konrad Szymanski, the incoming minister in charge of European affairs in Poland’s newly elected conservative government, set to be sworn in Monday, tied Merkel’s policies to the Paris attacks. He said his country would no longer comply with EU demands to take in Syrian refugees.

“Decisions of the European Council that we’ve criticized regarding the resettlement of refugees and immigrants to all EU countries are still the binding law of the EU,” Szymanski wrote in an article posted online, according to the Wall Street Journal. “But faced with the tragic events in Paris, we don’t see political possibilities for its enforcement.”

Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office, told Foreign Policy Saturday the attack is “absolutely groundbreaking.”

“It will add to an already complicated series of debates in Europe, about refugees, about security, about burden-sharing,” Lesser said. “There’s no question that this is going to make these discussions more complicated.”

In September, Hungary drew widespread condemnation, including from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for deploying the military and using water cannons and teargas to disperse desperate asylum-seekers trying to cross the border from Serbia. But right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban played the Schengen card to defend the move, and his administration even claimed an “identified terrorist” was among those arrested as the border crossing descended into chaos that week.

That same month, in an interview with Portuguese Catholic broadcaster Radio Renascença, Pope Francis said it was not far-fetched to suggest the Islamic State could launch attacks inside Europe.

“The truth is that just 400 kilometers from Sicily there is an incredibly cruel terrorist group,” he said. “So there is a danger of infiltration, this is true.”

Recent busts of alleged terrorist cells have added more fuel to that fire. On Nov. 3, Spanish authorities launched in Madrid and Rivas-Vaciamadrid early morning raids, which they said dismantled an Islamic State-linked terrorist cell plotting an attack on the Spanish capital. Spain’s Interior Ministry released a statement after the arrests saying the group, which included at least three Moroccans, was “extremely radicalized” and “perfectly organized.” And in August, three Americans thwarted a potential terrorist attack when they disarmed a Moroccan gunman who tried to open fire on a packed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris.

Late Friday, as the extent of the carnage in France became clear, Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina, fired off a series of tweets blasting Obama’s resettlement plans.

The attacks are already impacting the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Republican presidential candidates said the Paris attacks show the folly of the White House’s policy.

“President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America, it is nothing less than lunacy,” Sen. Ted Cruz said in an interview on Fox News.

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas running well behind front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, also took aim at Obama’s resettlement plans. “We need to have a better process,” Huckabee said on CNN. “We don’t just have open borders like they do in Europe.”

Ahead of Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton, the front-runner, tweeted her condolences to the victims.

Photo credit: Jean-François Monier/Getty Images

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