In small town America, this horrifying story intensified hatred towards refugees. But was it true?
A Syrian refugee at the Hungarian border (Armend Nimani/AFP)
False and misleading narratives have long been a key feature of the debate over the refugee crisis.
This week, a particularly disturbing story from Twin Falls, a small Idaho town, was no exception.
According to online outlets Syrian refugees sexually assaulted a local mentally disabled 5-year-old from the community, before urinating on her. The details of the attack were reported in grim detail, predominantly by blogs with an apparently strong anti-Muslim bias and names like Creeping Sharia.
The story claimed that three Syrian boys between 8 and 13 carried out the attack, which was directed by the oldest boy. They also said that the case had not been pursued by authorities because of a language barrier, and that the boy’s father congratulated him after the attack.
Fact checkers consulted County Prosecutor Grant Loebs on the case. He said the incident had involved children of Middle Eastern, but not Syrian, descent. The police, he said, were pursuing the case, although specific information could not be made available because those involved were minors.
He also clarified that no-one was raped or murdered, although “contact of a sensitive nature allegedly occurred”, and no knife was involved.
In the community where the incident took place, however, the misreporting has fuelled anti-refugee sentiment and stoked already existing tensions. In the wake of the reports, local people called for further investigation into the case.
Commenting on how the incident had been misrepresented, Loebs said he believed it had been seized upon by those who wished to further anti-refugee sentiments.
“I think the community has seen a lot of negativity around the refugee programs,” Zeze Rwasama, who directs the CSI refugee centre in the area, told new website Magic Valley. “Speculations are things that can destroy the entire community.”
News that 300 refugees were to be resettled in Twin Falls, Idaho, fuelled tension and speculation earlier this year, although none have so far been resettled in the town according to local media.
“It breaks my heart when people in the community are divided around issues of resettling refugees,” Rwasama said.