The Security Consequences of the Global Refugee Crisis

By Daniel Krcmaric.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo via Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Anyone remember the global refugee crisis? You can be forgiven for letting it slip your mind. The media has certainly focused less attention on the refugee crisis recently, preferring instead to focus on Brexit (probably understandable) and Taylor Swift’s love life (less understandable). Though the refugee crisis has mostly fallen out of the headlines, the underlying reality tragically remains the same: violence and political instability have forced 60 million people to flee their homes. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this is the largest number of refugees and internally displaced persons since World War II.

Discussions of the crisis often make the implicit, and sometimes explicit, suggestion that taking in refugees is risky for the host state’s security.  What does the political science say?

The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, an influential study found that hosting refugees increases the likelihood that a state will experience its own civil conflict. Relatedly, other studies have found a link between hosting refugees and the incidence of both domestic and transnational terrorist attacks. Hence, there is some cause for concern. On the other hand, these studies acknowledge that, despite their alarming statistical results, the vast majority of refugees are nonviolent. Moreover, the political context of a refugee flow matters for the spread of conflict (see also here). Refugees that are former rebels fleeing across a border to avoid defeat in civil war are especially prone to violence. By contrast, typical civilians fleeing the general chaos of civil war are less likely to be involved in violence. Since the current refugee crisis is mostly victimized civilians seeking to escape the horrible conditions of their own countries—the Assad regime’s brutal repression in Syria, ISIS’s atrocities in Syria and Iraq, the collateral damage from NATO and Russian airstrikes, etc.—there are good reasons to hope that today’s refugee crisis may not have such pernicious effects.

Given that there are at least some potential security risks associated with hosting refugees, it is hardly surprising that there have been heated debates about who should host refugees. At least in theory, all 144 states that signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention have a legal obligation to protect refugees. Politics, however, gets in the way. Specifically, identity politics can play a role in two distinct ways.

The first follows a “they’re not like us” logic and focuses on the potential for conflict between refugees and their ethnically/religiously/socially/economically different host communities. Indeed, the fact that many refugees today are fleeing conflicts from the Muslim and Arab world have heightened “us versus them” distinctions in the West. In the United States, for example, the majority of state governors stated they would not allow Syrian refugees in their states for security reasons. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley even implied that bringing Syrian refugees to his state could expose it to a Paris-style terrorist attack. Some countries in Europe have experienced similar nativist movements that portray refugees as invaders. In response, others have pointed out the numbers show such fears are overblown. In 2015, The Economist reported that out of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the US since 9/11, only two have been arrested for terrorist-related activities (and this was for plotting to aid Al-Qaeda in Iraq, not to attack the US directly).

The second way identity can play a role in the spread of conflict occurs when refugees have a transnational kin group in the host country. As some of my research published in Security Studies suggests, refugee flows are relatively more likely to cause conflict in the host state when they alter the ethnic or religious balance of power between local groups. This has important implications for the Syrian crisis because colonizers paid little attention to the distribution of groups on the ground when drawing borders in the Middle East. Consequently, many ethnoreligious groups straddle national borders, making it possible for refugees to disturb local power balances. Hence, the bigger security challenge may be civil war contagion within Syria’s region rather than terrorism in the West.

What’s the take-away? Policymakers should pay careful attention to the ethnic and religious balance of power in potential refugee-receiving states. Presently, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have played the greatest role in hosting Syrian refugees. A country like Lebanon—with its delicate distribution of political power between religious groups—is not an ideal country to host a large influx of refugees. Though policymakers rarely have the ability to channel refugees to specific countries, identifying high-risk and low-risk destinations can help with the allocation of scarce resources during refugee crises. Western democracies could also ease the burden on Syria’s neighbors by taking in a larger number of refugees, although that seems unlikely in the current political climate. Instead, the West will likely try to strike a balance between the somewhat conflicting goals of assisting refugees and securing their own borders.

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