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Migration as a solution to violent extremism

Khalid Koser's picture

In observance of International Migrants’ Day, December 18th

There has been a renewed focus on the intersections between migration and security during 2015, in particular in the context of growing attention on the phenomenon of violent extremism, which is only likely to become more intensive over the next year.

Overwhelmingly media coverage and political rhetoric has been negative, focusing on migration as a potential cause of violent extremism. First, there is a concern that Islamic State may infiltrate the significant asylum and migration flows into Europe. Second, planned refugee resettlement to several European countries has now been stalled because of security concerns, with a new emphasis on preventing radicalization to violent extremist agendas in refugee camps in the Middle East. Third, the growing number of ‘foreign terrorist fighters’ moving to Iraq and Syria has been interpreted as a failure of integration in the countries from which they originate.

All of these concerns are real, and deserve to be taken seriously. But they need to be handled with extreme care. It is important to avoid generalizations: overwhelmingly migrants and their descendants have a positive impact. It is important not to over-react: even where there may be security risks around a handful of migrants, the dividends of migration certainly outweigh the risks. These security risks should not legitimize extraordinary responses which will undermine the migration dividend. It is also important not to further fuel growing xenophobic sentiment through unsubstantiated claims. In addition, focusing only on the possibility that migration may cause violent extremism, ignores the other side of the argument, that often migration is a consequence of violent extremism, and may even become a solution.

Violent extremism is one of the reasons for the explosion in the number of people displaced in the past year. Certainly we know that countries where violent extremism is rife – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali, and Yemen, to name a few – are among the top countries displacing significant numbers of people. A conceptual challenge is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate terrorism from the wider environmental context in which it flourishes as a driver for displacement. Some people, especially religious minorities in the region – including Christians and Yazidis– are fleeing Syria and Iraq because of direct persecution by Islamic State. The limited evidence on displacement caused directly by terrorist groups indicates that often displacement is a deliberate objective, and not merely a consequence. In northern Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram has kidnapped women, forcibly recruited children and men, and besieged entire villages, forcing immediate evacuation.

More positively, it may also be possible to frame migration as a solution to – not just cause or consequence of – violent extremism. First, migrants unequivocally supports poverty reduction and development at the local level. While there is no direct correlation between poverty and radicalization to violent extremism, often it is a contributing factor, and development interventions such as women’s empowerment and building community resilience have been shown to be important ways to prevent violent extremism. Second, migrant entrepreneurs are at the forefront of helping engage the private sector in responding to violent extremism, especially through job creation. Finally, history demonstrates that migration is the most effective way to generate tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. For every failure of integration there are countless successes, manifested through mixed marriages, hybrid arts and cuisine, and cosmopolitan global cities. Far from being a reason to stem migration, the rise of violent extremism should be a reason to promote it.

In early 2016 KNOMAD plans to host an expert workshop examining the linkages between violent extremism, and identifying policy interventions to promote migration as a solution.

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