There is rising concern in Europe that massive flows of refugees and migrants from Syria may be infiltrated by terrorist groups such as Da’esh. In recent months President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, and Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni have all made public statements about the risk; and unfortunately attention is still being given to the fact that a Syrian passport – albeit a fake – was found by the body of one of the perpetrators of the Bataclan outrage in Paris.
Still, such concerns should not be dismissed outright; after all, multiple media outlets have reported interviews with a number of migrant smugglers who claim to have been approached by representatives of Da’esh. Couple these reports with the uncontrolled nature of current flows to Europe, and it cannot be denied that infiltration by terrorists is plausible. But without evidence, caution is needed to prevent policymakers and others from making public assertions that risk fueling xenophobia or violence.
More to the point, focusing on infiltration misses the point. There are at least five other points at which migration and violent extremism intersect in Europe, all of which are more significant and can have a greater impact on the peace and prosperity of the region.
First, it is important to state that Syrian refugees in Europe are fleeing violent extremism; claims to the opposite, that perhaps they are traveling to Europe to radicalize, recruit and ultimately perpetrate violence are unfounded. Of course distinguishing individual motivations for migration is always a challenge, and it may be that most Syrians are fleeing the environment that has allowed violent extremism to flourish rather than fleeing the direct effects of violent extremism. Either way, it is more accurate to think about violent extremism as a cause rather than a consequence of migration.
Second, there is nevertheless a longer term risk that some Syrian refugees may become radicalized to violent extremist agendas, especially if the refugee crisis in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, (where they are predominately settling) becomes protracted. Radicalization among refugee populations has occurred in other contexts, including in a number of Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Limited research on this suggests that the risk of radicalization is exacerbated where education is poor, work is absent, and freedom of movement restricted. A downstream risk is that radicalized refugees may eventually return to Syria, undermining peace efforts there.
Most analysts agree that in the current context, terrorism in Europe is more likely to be homegrown than imported. A third risk therefore arises around the integration of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have arrived in Europe over the past few years and the future, or lack thereof, that will be afforded to them. If effectively integrated, these new arrivals represent an economic opportunity for Europe. If not, then marginalization and disenfranchisement are likely to push some to radical views and actions.
A fourth risk is that the continuing arrival of migrants and refugees in Europe will generate extreme reactions from host communities and beyond. While many Europeans have responded positively, rationally, and with compassion, equally some have reacted with vitriol and violence. Sadly, many commentators would agree that political rhetoric among certain politicians is fueling this vicious reaction.
Finally, it is possible (and we would argue necessary) to move away from a discourse of risk, and adopt a more positive viewpoint. While the factors that drive individuals to violent extremism are varied and contextual, certainly poverty and political or social exclusion are contributing factors. It may be that through its enormous impacts on local and community development, migration can become part of the solution and help prevent violent extremism.
A number of direct policy recommendations arise. First, more evidence is required on the intersections between migration and violent extremism, to inform policy and public discourse. Second, a more integrated approach to addressing the root causes of migration and refugee flows in Syria and elsewhere should include specific interventions to prevent and counter violent extremism. Third, education, employment opportunities and the freedom of movement should be promoted among refugee populations in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, along with broader approaches to building community engagement and resilience. Fourth, significant attention is required now to providing pathways to integration for Syrian refugees in Europe. And fifth, as a preventive measure, priority should be given to supporting community development initiatives where migrants settle.
With respect to generating solutions, KNOMAD will be hosting a workshop in June and publishing a series of working papers this year, to promote the positive potential of migrants and migration for preventing and countering violent extremism.