Why you should care
Even countries far from conflict are feeling the effects of humanitarian crises.
OZY was first to this story, putting you ahead of the curve. View More OZY Originals
Are refugees tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free? Or does something sinister — insurgency, say — there lurk?
The question goes back decades, but in recent months it’s taken on new urgency. Last summer the United Nations refugee agency reported more forcibly displaced people than at any time since World War II — some 51.2 million forced from home by conflict or disaster. Since then the numbers of Syrian refugees and Syrians displaced inside their country has only swelled, and by now has reached 11.4 million. With camps in Jordan and Turkey reaching saturation point, the U.N. and others are pushing a reluctant West to resettle some refugees. The Obama administration announced last fall that it would ramp up its admission of refugees from the Middle East, including thousands from Syria, up from the about 440 the U.S. has accepted until this point — and they’re now just starting to trickle in.
But others are rolling up the welcome mat, and invoking ominous rationales as they do.
“A federally funded jihadi pipeline” would result from a White House plan to resettle thousands of Syrians in the United States, according to Republican congressman Michael McCaul, who issued his warning during a hearing on Capitol Hill in February. Similar claims are all over right-wing blogs and in parts of Europe, too, and before you dismiss them as alarmist rhetoric, consider this: History shows that extremists do recruit from refugee camps and that the camps themselves can destabilize countries.
And yet? There’s little evidence that refugees, once resettled abroad, are a threat. In the U.S., “refugees undergo the most strenuous background checks of any immigrant population,” says J.D. McCrary, executive director of the International Rescue Committee. Other advocates say doing nothing is far worse: Living for years in a displacement camp drains people of hope and prospects for advancement, which makes them more likely targets for radicalization, says Daryl Grisgraber of the nonprofit group Refugees International. Humanitarian action has “the side effect of helping stem radicalization,” she argues.
Most of the camps taking in refugees from the conflict in the Middle East are now full. So those fleeing battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq have ended up dispersed across cities and towns in neighbors like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, says Grisgraber. On a trip to Jordan late last year, she visited one Syrian family who’d landed in the rural Jordan Valley, about an hour from the Syrian border — 17 people in a two-room apartment that “was pretty much a concrete box.” Women had given birth to babies there because it was too far from a hospital. The number of people in a Jordanian household nearby was also about 17 to 20; there was no functioning toilet, and one young boy had gotten arrested for chopping down trees for fuel.
The sheer number of displaced people and the ensuing chaos has created a fertile environment for extremists.
Refugee settlements have always made host communities nervous, of course. And while sometimes the threat is exaggerated, many militants have come out of displaced-person camps, either by choice or by force. “There is certainly evidence in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, of radicalization leading to violence within refugee camps,” Khalid Koser, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent article. In South Sudan, armed groups have kidnapped boys in camps and forced them to fight as child soldiers. McCaul pointed out in a letter to National Security Adviser Susan Rice that some of the Iraqi refugees whom the U.S. admitted last decade had ties to al-Qaida.
But refugees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq aren’t the most likely ISIS recruits: Most are women and children, as McCaul acknowledged in the congressional hearing, and many of them are fleeing from ISIS. Meanwhile, ISIS seems to be focusing its recruitment energy on those further afield, fighters from the Gulf, South Asia or the West who can either join them on the ground or launch lone-wolf attacks elsewhere.
Still, the sheer number of displaced people and the ensuing chaos has created a fertile environment for extremists, from young Syrian men turning to ISIS because dictator Bashar al-Assad ran them from their homes to militant groups like Hezbollah exploiting Lebanese anger about the refugee flow. Add that to the fact that humanitarian groups and local governments simply can’t keep up with the growing need for food, shelter and services, and you can understand why calls for a more sustainable solution — namely, resettlement — are growing. “We believe one-tenth of the Syrian refugees would require resettlement as the adequate solution,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned in a speech to the United Nations Security Council in late February.
The United States plans to welcome a couple thousand Syrian refugees this year, and even more in 2016 — the process is just starting to kick into gear. McCaul, who is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, did not threaten to tie up funding, but he and other powerful Republicans could if they feel like their concerns aren’t being addressed. People like Guterres and Grisgraber, however, say the resettlement plans are a step toward easing, rather than raising, the risks surrounding refugees. “We need to remember,” Guterres counseled in his U.N. speech, “that the primary threat is not from refugees, but to them.”