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Last week, as fear of the coronavirus outbreak gripped Europe, a group of German far-right activists saw an opportunity for their latest political stunt.
“Defend our borders,” read the huge banner unfurled by activists from the extremist Identitarian Movement Friday at the base of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, one of Germany’s most famous monuments.
“Whether because of the [coronavirus] or the onslaught of thousands of illegal immigrants,” read a post by the group publicizing the demonstration, “border protection is a legitimate and effective way to protect a population.”
For most of Europe, the coronavirus pandemic represents a time to pull together in the face of a global health emergency. But figures on the continent’s far right have treated the crisis as a prime opportunity to scapegoat refugees and push their arguments for closed borders.
From right-wing extremists in Germany, to nativist politicians in Hungary and Italy, Europe’s far right has attempted to exploit public fears about the outbreak to amplify its campaign against irregular immigration into Europe.
Analysts say the far right is trying to scapegoat refugees for the spread of the virus in Europe — despite evidence so far suggesting that the outbreak has spread through regular cross-border movements and connections, rather than via the flow of asylum seekers across the Mediterranean or through Turkey.
“In Europe, the populist right’s message in the past five years has been to blame everything on illegal immigrants, Muslims, and Brussels, which is supporting them,” said Péter Krekó, director at Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank. “They’re applying that pre-existing narrative on to the current situation.”
“Foreigners brought in the disease”
Hungary’s populist leader Viktor Orbán, one of Europe’s most outspoken opponents of welcoming refugees into the Continent, has led the charge on conflating the pandemic with illegal immigration.
"We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus, there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement," he said Friday.
He and his party have seized on the fact that an early cluster of his country’s 50 infections was found among a group of Iranian students. “It's no coincidence that the virus first showed up among Iranians,” said Orbán. "Our experience is that primarily foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners.”
Earlier this month, his government used the perceived threat of infected migrants from Iran, a COVID-19 hotspot, as a pretext to indefinitely close two transit zones on the Serbian border where migrants can lodge asylum claims. That’s despite the fact, said Krekó, that those who tested positive were students, rather than illegal immigrants.
Government-backed groups have also used the outbreak to launch further attacks on George Soros, the billionaire liberal philanthropist whom Hungarian state propaganda has framed as a globalist bogeyman for his efforts to promote pluralistic values.
“Coronavirus lessons so far: The virus is spreading faster in immigrant countries; this justifies the Hungarian government's migration policy; this shows George Soros's theory of open society has failed completely,” Zoltán Lomnici, a spokesman for the government-backed Civil Alliance Forum posted on Facebook last week.
“They’re trying to make a link: the refugees are bringing the coronavirus”
Meanwhile, in Italy, Matteo Salvini, the populist leader of the opposition Lega party and another of Europe’s loudest voices against immigration, has attempted to use the crisis to justify the “closed ports” policy he championed when he was in government.
Before the epidemic properly took hold in Italy, where the death toll is projected to soon overtake China’s, Salvini tried to paint the flow of migrants from Africa across the Mediterranean as a major infection threat, despite it having no apparent link to the devastating outbreak in Italy.
“Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible,” he said last month. “It is simply insane that the landings continue as if nothing had happened.”
The Identitarians — a far-right movement that is monitored by Germany’s domestic intelligence service as a potential extremist threat — have also used the crisis to stoke fears about refugees, and amplify its calls for closing Europe’s borders.
One of the group’s leaders, Martin Sellner, and other activists have used Telegram to amplify reports on the few of Germany’s 11,300 confirmed cases that involve refugees, and claim that the outbreak ravaging Europe is a result of “open border” policies.
“They’re trying to make a link: the refugees are bringing the coronavirus to Europe, so we have to close the borders,” Kira Ayyadi, a researcher at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a group that monitors far-right extremism, told VICE News.
So far, there have been a handful of cases detected in asylum seeker reception centers across Europe — five in Heidelberg in the state of Baden-Württemberg, one in Suhl, Thuringia, another in Milan, Italy.
“It’s a much smaller [factor] than people coming back from their winter vacations and bringing the coronavirus with them — but you don’t read about those cases in the Telegram channels,” said Ayyadi.
“If you have all the power, you cannot blame anyone else”
Amid the politicking over coronavirus, aid agencies have warned against the stigmatization of refugees, whose harsh living conditions make them vulnerable if they become infected, but who are no more likely to be carriers than any other group.
“Now is a time for solidarity and for compassion,” Laura Kyrke-Smith, UK Executive Director for the International Rescue Committee told VICE News. “No single group is inherently more likely to spread this virus than any other and so we all have to fight it together.”
Analysts say that in attempting to politicize the crisis, European populists are using classic moves from the far-right playbook: seeking to exploit a crisis by playing upon public fears, and scapegoating an external enemy to advance their nativist agenda.
“The far-right tries to channel that fear towards their regular scapegoats,” Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office in Berlin, told VICE News.
But so far, it doesn’t appear to be a winning strategy.
In Italy, Salvini’s attempts to play border politics have faded away as the country has been engulfed by the worst crisis in its modern history, recording hundreds of deaths a day. In Germany, the far-right has been sidelined as the gravity of the emergency has focused the public’s attention on the crisis-management efforts being conducted by leaders in the political mainstream.
“The people who are already ‘in’ [far-right sympathizers] are believing the fake news they’re spreading, but the people on the fence are tuning into ‘normal’ politicians and reading ‘normal’ newspapers,” said Ayyadi.
In Hungary, Orbán finds himself in a different situation: he’s actually in charge, and smearing foreigners or Soros as responsible for the outbreak isn’t going to help address the critical strain on the country’s healthcare system and economy.
“In a crisis, if you have all the power, you cannot blame anyone else,” said Krekó. “You have to focus on closing the airports and closing the schools, rather than closing the borders to illegal immigrants.”
Cover: Twitter/Identitäre Bewegung