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Illustration by Michael Austin

A Refuge from Terror?

​“In the old ways of thinking, the plight of the powerless, the plight of refugees, the plight of the marginalized did not matter. They were on the periphery of the world’s concerns. Today, our concern for them is driven not just by conscience, but should also be driven by self-interest. For helping people who have been pushed to the margins of our world is not mere charity, it is a matter of collective security.”

U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement at last year’s United Nations General Assembly defined the refugee crisis, emphasizing the moral obligation of Western countries to take in migrants while at the same time touching on the potential security issues the situation could cause. 

Much has changed in the year since Obama made that remark. In 2015 alone, more than 1 million displaced persons traveled across Africa, Asia, or the Middle East to seek asylum in Europe—more than six times the number in 2014. And although European countries have attempted to keep their borders open while screening refugees for ties to extremist groups, there has been rising concern that terrorists are slipping in along with migrants from the Middle East.

Two of the men suspected of carrying out last November’s stadium and concert hall attacks in Paris entered the country as refugees, and at least two attacks in Germany this summer were tied to men with refugee papers. Due in part to the increasing number of high-profile attacks throughout Europe over the past year, many European citizens believe refugees are a major threat to their country and increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, according to a Pew Research Center report. 

This increased concern over the national security threats refugees might pose has manifested itself in calls for increased scrutiny of asylum seekers. Countries such as Hungary are proposing legislation or holding referendums that seek to stymie the flow of refugees into their borders, and citizens’ concerns about the migrant crisis was one of the leading factors in the Brexit vote that led the United Kingdom  decision to leave the European Union (EU). In Germany, which has one of the most open borders in Europe, politicians and citizens alike are deeply divided about whether allowing unlimited numbers of migrants in is wise. But despite vocal pushback against the open-border policy, organizations such as Human Rights Watch say the European Union isn’t doing enough to help migrants.

In Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2016, the organization acknowledged that extremist groups, such as ISIS, could take advantage of the mass movement of migrants to Europe. However, that’s not reason enough to enact more stringent security measures that could slow down the asylum process or turn away innocent migrants, the organization notes. 

“The last decade showed Europe that counterterrorism measures that violate rights play into the hands of those who attack us,” says Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia division director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s vital for EU government responses to today’s threats to heed those hard-learned lessons.”

EU member states are expected to abide by the Common European Asylum System, which is intended to protect the rights of refugees who seek asylum in member states. However, many member states have not implemented EU standards, causing failures in the asylum system, according to the Open Society Initiative for Europe. Individual member states have taken varied approaches—Germany and France have agreed to take in high numbers of migrants, while Greece, Italy, and Hungary have attempted to block refugee transfers and have increased border controls. 

Making the situation all the more complicated is the Schengen Agreement of 1985, which allows citizens of 26 states to travel across borders without passports. Countries that abide by the agreement—most of mainland Europe—must be careful about how they implement temporary border measures or risk violating the agreement. 

But how much of a national security threat do refugees seeking asylum in Europe pose? Frontex, the EU border agency, released a 72-page risk assessment document in early 2016 detailing what it has seen along Europe’s borders over the past year. The report refers to “irregular migratory flows” as a security weakness—two of the Paris attackers exploited the migration wave to gain entry. 

“The Paris attacks in November 2015 clearly demonstrated that irregular migratory flows could be used by terrorists to enter the EU,” the report states. “With no thorough check or penalties in place for those making false declarations, there is a risk that some persons representing a security threat to the EU may be taking advantage of this situation.”

The report makes the important distinction that the refugees themselves are not entering Europe with malicious intentions, but jihadists may be using the migrant crisis to cross the border with less scrutiny. 

“The staggering number of EU citizens who joined the conflict as jihadists has resulted in a number of returnees opting to use irregular means of traveling,” the report notes. “Islamist extremists will exploit irregular migration flows whenever such movements fit their plans.”

The large-scale influx of migrants has been a new experience for many member states, the report says, and it has been difficult for border authorities to maintain an efficient, thorough level of control along the borders. Border control agencies have not had time to mobilize the resources required to process the arrival of migrants, including equipment for electronic investigations. 

Most people coming to the border have “simple identity documents,” and fraudulent declarations of nationality are rife. EU regulations require that authorities take the fingerprints of any refugee seeking asylum, but “the reality is that fingerprinting of all persons detected crossing the border illegally is not possible or of poor quality, and in any case, is often not transmitted promptly to the Eurodac central database,” the report states. This lack of reliable biometric data is especially troubling because EU investigators rely on the fingerprints for criminal and terrorist investigations. 

Another point of concern for Frontex is what happens to migrants who are caught illegally entering EU countries or whose asylum applications are refused. Although there has been a significant spike in both asylum applications and illegal border crossings, the number of migrants successfully returning to their countries of origin has remained stagnant. This is due, in part, to the ability of migrants to appeal the rejection of their applications for asylum. However, the report notes that the longer an illegal migrant remains in an EU country, the easier it is for them to abscond.

Another report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies investigates possible links between refugees and terrorists. It finds that while extremist organizations, such as ISIS, are not interested in radicalizing the refugees themselves, they do want to keep the flow of migrants moving into Europe.

“The fundamental objective of its terrorism in the West is less to disable strategic targets or kill Westerners per se, than to provoke certain political and social reactions,” according to the report, Refugees Versus Terrorists. “One means of achieving this is to stoke fears about Muslim refugees among European citizens.”

ISIS can achieve the same effect by spreading misinformation about refugees, and it has—while the two men who were involved in the November Paris attacks crossed into Europe through a border overrun with migrants and had refugee papers on them, they were radicalized European citizens. The refugee papers were likely planted on the men to further the rhetoric against refugees within Europe, the report notes.

And although many of the migrants fit the profile of those most susceptible to carrying out lone wolf attacks—young, male Muslims—the report notes that most refugees are fleeing Iraq and Syria due to the same attacks European citizens fear. 

“Some refugees will commit violent and criminal acts in Europe, but for reasons other than terrorism: these are young men, fleeing warzones, with a deep distrust of the state, and encountering new cultural norms for the first time,” the report explains.