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Rights group: fearing refugees, Europe curtails freedoms

The refugee crisis has lead to fear-mongering and polarizing rhetoric, Human Rights Watch said. Fear has driven European governments to undermine freedoms, the group said.

European governments have responded to fear from terrorism and an influx of migrants by retrenching from basic values and curtailing freedoms, a leading human rights groups said on Wednesday.

In its annual report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the European Union has failed to develop an effective response to more than one million asylum seekers and migrants fleeing conflict and instead succumbed to a culture of fear and intolerance.

"Fear of what an influx of asylum seekers could mean for their societies led many

governments in Europe and elsewhere to close the gates,"

HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in the report. "Fear of mounting terrorist attacks moved some political leaders to curtail rights and scapegoat refugees or Muslims."

HRW pointed to Europe and the United States where a dangerous polarizing rhetoric has moved from the political fringe into mainstream politics. "Blatant Islamophobia and shameless demonizing of refugees have become the currency of an increasingly assertive politics of intolerance," Roth said.

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This fear-mongering, in turn, creates polarization that terrorist groups like the so-called "Islamic State" seek to exploit, warned Roth.

Blowback from Paris terror attacks

HRW pointed to France as an example where fear from terrorism has led to a deterioration of fundamental rights as the government uses emergency powers in the wake of the attacks in Paris. The state of emergency has given police unprecedented powers to raid homes and place people under house arrest with little judicial oversight.

These "potentially indiscriminate policing techniques" risk exposing blameless young Muslim men to racial profiling, a practice that could backfire, HRW warned.

"That attack intensified the EU's reaction: new wire-razor fences were erected, border restrictions mushroomed, fear-mongering and Islamophobia mounted, and the EU promised Turkey 3 billion euros in aid with the understanding that Turkey would curtail the flow," Roth said.

"These steps reflect the EU's longstanding effort to push responsibility for refugees to others, despite having ratified the conventions to protect refugee rights, and despite Europeans having historically benefited from refugee protection as they fled Nazism and Communism," he added.

EU should expand resettlement

While praising Germany's leadership in responding to the refugee crisis, HRW noted a disturbing

backlash against migrants

following a string of sexual assaults by alleged North Africans on New Year's Eve.

HRW unveiled the report in Turkey, a country that has taken in more than 2 million refugees and is a major transit point for migrants making the dangerous journey to Europe.

HRW accused Europe of ignoring the

deterioration of rights in Turkey

and ongoing military operations against Kurdish militants in the name of preserving Turkey as a partner in handling the migration crisis.

The New York-based rights group called for the EU to develop a more organized refugee and asylum policy, and noted even 1 million refugees would account for only 0.2 percent of the bloc's population.

"The effect of European policy so far has been to leave refugees with little choice but to risk their lives at sea for a chance at asylum," Roth wrote.

"With boats arriving helter skelter at various Greek islands, it is difficult to screen systematically to stop a would-be terrorist from slipping in," he argued. "A safer and more humane alternative would be for the EU to increase refugee resettlement and humanitarian visas from places of first refuge such as Lebanon or Pakistan."

cw/jil (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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