On both sides of the Atlantic, last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris have made governments already leery about accepting refugees fleeing the Islamic State in Syria downright opposed to it. Poland’s new government has said it won’t commit to hosting any more asylum seekers, and 23 U.S. governors have announced they’d rather not either — even if state governments don’t have the authority to reject people from any particular country, they could make refugees’ lives so difficult that they’ll wish they hadn’t come.
So would keeping refugees out actually make anybody safer?
It’s a complicated question, and the answers differ from region to region. Few experts deny that it’s possible for terrorists to conceal themselves among large crowds of refugees in some areas — for example, Al-Shabaab has infiltrated the flow of Somalis fleeing conflict into Kenya. But even fewer think that sealing off borders is likely to prevent future attacks, either.
Take the example of the fake Syrian passport that was found near the bodies of one of the attackers who died in the assault on the Bataclan. Records show that it may have come through a checkpoint at the Greek island of Leros, which has been inundated with refugees. The attackers named so far by French authorities are all European nationals, although there remain at least three unidentified suspects.
“In the long term it’s certainly possible that the Islamic State would use these routes. But it’s our assessment at the moment that this is an isolated case,” says Jan Gerhard, an analyst with the global research firm IHS. “Most people who come to Europe actually are fleeing the very same reasons that Western societies are at risk. The much higher risk at the moment is coming from people who are already in the countries in Western Europe.”
Those people are earlier immigrants or even native citizens who come into contact with terrorist propaganda, and either answer calls to launch attacks on their own, or travel abroad for instruction. Hundreds of Europeans have gone to Syria and Iraq to train as jihadis, and don’t have too hard a time coming back to Europe through more conventional means (like getting on a plane).
“It’s important to recognize that we know the terrorists have been able to travel back and forth unimpeded before we had a migration problem of this magnitude,” says Jytte Klausen, a professor and an expert in domestic terrorism at Brandeis University.
By contrast, according to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), a total of nine Syrian refugees have been apprehended on suspicion of being tied to terrorist groups, out of some 4 million that have landed in neighboring countries and Europe.
“They’re not forced to use the migrant routes,” says Veryan Khan, TRAC’s editorial director. “They just have in the past; it’s an option.”
The situation is a little different in the United States, which is farther away and therefore trickier and expensive to get to from the Middle East. Relative to the size of the U.S. population, it also has fewer large, segregated immigrant enclaves where radicalism tends to take root. That makes the United States inherently a little safer than European countries.
“These people are fleeing a conflict, so they’re going to leave. And the question is how do they do it in the safest way.”
— Stanford University professor Katy Long
However, it’s not clear that refusing entry to Syrian refugees would change that. Unlike European countries that have been forced to process refugees very quickly in order to prevent the formation of large border settlements, the United States has a stringent screening system for asylum seekers that can take years to complete, along with much more robust counterterrorism measures generally.
“You have a very effective U.S. resettlement system that over the past several decades has proven very able to reintegrate refugees in a number of different settings, provided they have the resources to do so,” says Katy Long, a professor and expert in migration at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies.
The far greater problem, she says, comes with not resettling refugees — leaving them in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where they’re more vulnerable to radicalization. In addition, closing down formal avenues simply drives refugees underground, where terrorists flourish — and can actually profit by smuggling people across borders. Jihadist groups have already reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from people desperate to leave North Africa.
“It’s just so counterintuitive in terms of dealing with this,” Long says of proposals to reject Syrian refugees. “These people are fleeing a conflict, so they’re going to leave. And the question is how do they do it in the safest way.”
Once refugees do arrive, the challenge becomes housing them in an environment where they have the stability of a community, but aren’t tempted to wall themselves off from the host society. That only tends to engender resentment on both sides, experts say, potentially radicalizing people who initially posed no threat at all.
So far, that hasn’t been a problem in the United States. Out of the approximately 784,000 refugees that the United States has taken in since Sept. 11, 2001, exactly three have been arrested for allegedly planning terrorist activities.