According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 2018, nearly 69 million people have been displaced globally; a record for the fifth year straight; fleeing war, violence and, persecution. Of these, 16.2 million people were newly displaced last year, which is an average of over 44,000 people per day.
The exodus of such large populations globally has resulted in a refugee crisis affecting millions all over the world. Among the many concerns regarding refugee populations, the chief concern is that of an increase in terrorist activity in host countries. It may be argued that the identity and intention of migrants, entering legally and illegally, can never truly be discerned.
The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) noted that in some instances, terrorist organizations have used migrant and refugee groups to enter the European Union (EU). An example is that of two of the perpetrators of the November 2016 Paris Attack, who had entered the EU through Greece as part of a large group of refugees from Syria.
According to the International Journal of Human Sciences, informants said that the Islamic State (IS) once attacked an immigration office in Iraq and stole around 200,000 unused passports along with materials to make individualized identities. This would mean that IS fighters could use these passports to blend in with migrant crowds and carry out operations in Europe.
Refugees causing and/or creating terrorism is not a new concern. It has been a concern for as long as populations have been displaced. This idea originates from the attitude of people from host countries towards migrants as well as demographic differences in perception of migrants versus refugees.
In Pakistan too, we face concerns regarding Afghan refugees. We’ve been lauded for our acceptance of large numbers of refugees fleeing war in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1970s as well as during the US-Afghan war. By the end of 2001, over four million refugees had migrated to Pakistan, most of whom have returned.
According to the UNHCR, as of February 2017, there were about 1.3 million registered Afghan citizens remaining in Pakistan. Recent policies, political decisions as well as the improved security situation in Afghanistan means that some of these families are going back. According to a factsheet published by the UNHCR in October 2018, around 13,000 registered Afghan refugees repatriated to Afghanistan from March to October 2018.
Over the last few years, concerns have arisen over the intentions of the refugees still residing in the country. The have been connected to acts of violence and terrorism as well as some controversial organizations like the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and the Tehreek e Taliban (TTP) and others connected to violence and terrorism in the country.
The argument for refugees’ hand in deteriorating security situation in host countries is definitely very convincing. However, does that mean that countries should stop accepting refugees altogether? Should they stop helping during a humanitarian crisis? Should we assume that all refugees from war torn countries are bringing their war to us? Or can we find a way to maintain a balance between humanitarianism and national security?
Canada seems to have found some semblance of this balance. The Canadian government has been praised for accepting and resettling large numbers of refugees when many of their western counterparts refused to, in order to preserve their national security. This is owing to their refugee program that allows for refugees to be sponsored by the government as well as private citizens.
Despite having had a terrorist attack, which was initially blamed on a few Syrian refugees who were later cleared of these charges, public perception on refugees in Canada has remained remarkably steady. A 2018-19 survey report published by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), found that a majority of Canadian citizens held positive views of refugees and immigrants and very few see them as a threat to national security. The survey is held biannually on a sample of 2,000 Canadians on their views on immigration and refugees.
In order to balance humanitarianism and national security, we need smarter border-control policies. Instead of the closing borders completely, we need to be able to keep records of who enters and leaves with proper documentation. We also need to understand the vulnerabilities that come with a refugee influx. The first of these is that the physical, mental and financial state of refugees is what makes it easy for them to be provoked into violence and terrorism. So, they should be treated with respect. In addition to food and shelter, host countries must ensure their safety as well.
Another factor to be accounted for is the aid and aid workers. Often in such crisis, non-profit organizations send aid. In the wrong hands, this aid could be used by militant groups. Therefore it is important to protect the aid and ensure that it is used for ethical purposes.
Lastly, instead of alienating refugees, host states should ensure their integration into society. Host states and refugees can collaborate to help authorities identify terrorist groups and recruiters at the camps. They can also engage in activities that can help the public distinguish between terrorists and migrants and create a positive public opinion by raising awareness.
It is next to impossible to truly discern anyone’s intentions. However, the idea that some refugees could be dangerous should not stop us from helping the thousands that are innocent and in need of aid. It is our responsibility as human beings to help our brothers and sisters in need.