Today, terrorism and the global refugee crisis are two of the world’s most daunting challenges, seemingly with little end in sight. While the correlation between extremism and the refugee crisis is complex, history indicates that people will rely on desperate measures in desperate times of need; and these actions may, or may not, be aligned with those desired of stable nation states.
With terrorist attacks raging across Europe, refugee-filled boats sinking in the Mediterranean and the Middle East suffocating in the large influx of refugees caused by the six-year-old Syrian crisis, the United States and other world leaders have an opportunity to engage in counter extremism efforts that can simultaneously tackle the refugee crisis at hand. These can be measures that take root in preventing the growth of radicalism, the deepening of sectarian and socio-economic divides in host countries, as well as suppressing the popularity of Jihadist narratives in some of the most economically vulnerable and war-torn regions in the Middle East.
Success will require a combination of long-term and short-term strategies; and no long-term effort will have more positive impact to our security than responding correctly to the refugee crisis under the lens of the fight against terrorism.
The Plight of Refugees
In 2015, the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that each minute, “24 people were forced to flee their home—a number that is four times greater than a decade earlier.” The numbers displaced by war and persecution rose from 59.5 million to 65.3 million worldwide from 2014 to 2015 alone. Syria, under the Presidency of Bashar Al-Assad, leads the way in generating the largest number of refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) in the world—an ongoing conflict that has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War—a catastrophe not only affecting those internally displaced inside Syria and the refugees fleeing their homes, but also the host countries struggling to handle this unforeseen population influx.
According to the UNHCR, there are over 6.5 million internally displaced people (IDP) inside Syria, making it the largest IDP population in the world. This is while half of the country’s 22 million pre-war population is in desperate need of humanitarian support in addition to the five million refugees scattered across the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. According to many non-governmental organizations working on the ground in these host countries, however, the actual tally is much higher than official reports when considering the number of individuals not registered with the agency.
In dealing with the refugee crisis, it is critical to recognize that host countries—involuntarily forced to handle this large influx—are, themselves, bearers of massive infrastructural, economic and political challenges.
Currently, millions of Syrian refugees and IDPs are growing up without access to education or prospects of economic independence and growth. In addition, millions of them are suffering from massive trauma and psychological wounds caused by this ongoing war. Today’s Syrian children make up half of the IDP and refugee population, where 40 percent are under the age of 11. Save The Children recently reported that a large population of Syrians, particularly children, are suffering from “toxic stress” as a result of a prolonged exposure to war; where at least 3 million children under the age of six know nothing but war.
In a region where extremism lives and breathes, this calamity is building up to shape a volatile, depressed and disenfranchised future generation. If this pattern continues, in a few short years, the world will face millions of teenagers and adults who lack adequate education, vocational skills and who suffer from massive psycho-social instability. This will not only affect their own livelihoods, it will impact host countries and their communities at large.
Extremism and Terrorism
In its simplest form—whether nationalistic, religious or ethnic—terrorism is a struggle for legitimacy focused on achieving political ends. While we can measure terrorism by many factors, fatalities is the key metric. In the past 15 years, terrorist related deaths worldwide have increased by a factor of nine from less than 3,000 in 2000 to nearly 30,000 by 2015.
The United States makes up just over four percent of the world’s population, but it has experienced over 10 percent of the world’s deaths to terrorism in the past 15 years. The United States, however, is not alone as last year, Europe—with France and Turkey in the lead—bore the brunt of both homegrown and foreign terrorist attacks. According to the 2016 Global Terrorism Index report, the number of deaths from terrorism dramatically rose in 2015 after a 650 percent increase compared to the year before.
France has seen an uptick in homegrown terrorism from disenfranchised actors in the recent years. Turkey, however, presents a much more complicated scenario; attacks often stem from a variety of actors, including those disenfranchised people-turned-terrorists as a result of the instability in neighboring Syria, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both countries are poignant examples of how radical groups such as ISIL target some of the most vulnerable, disenfranchised and economically challenged migrant youth for recruitment. In most cases, these are young men who are often in search of a defined purpose and a sense of belonging, in addition to an ingrained desire to fulfill their socio-economic, cultural and psychological voids.
Last year, Abed, a 16-year-old boy fled his hometown of Raqqa—ISIL’s stronghold in Syria—and is now living in of the most disenfranchised slums of Beirut in Lebanon. Before their escape, Abed’s right hand was chopped off by ISIL militants. A young team of psycho-social workers in Beirut came across Abed in the Fall of 2016. They welcomed him into their center, where they help Syrian refugees overcome some of the trauma, PTSD and psychological wounds caused by war. Maya Yamout, one of the forensic psycho-social workers at the center, said that the teenage boy suffers from a tremendous amount of PTSD mixed with feelings of shame and guilt. “Abed told us he is not sure if he should live here or go back home and join ISIL; he feels what happened was his fault,” said Yamout.
While suggesting that all vulnerable youth will engage in terrorist activities or that all terrorism stems from disenfranchised environments is not a black and white argument, but addressing the plight of vulnerable youth in the region and the damaging role extremism plays in their outlook is a critical step.
Near-Term, Long-Term Outlook
The longer conflicts such as Syria continue to fester, the greater probability of a rise in further destabilization and extremism, and subsequently, greater security challenges related to terrorism. It is pivotal for the global powers to realize that the stakes are much higher than ever before—on the humanitarian, social-economic and security levels. The world community has an obligation to develop and execute a strategic plan to correct these issues—taking a robust stance to help address the burgeoning refugee problem in parallel to counter terrorism efforts.
Looking at Syria, this unspeakable crisis needs an immediate stop to civilian deaths and bloodshed; development of secure and permanent “provinces” inside Syria; development of safe transit corridors and means of transportation to move refugees from their point of crisis or refugee camp to their permanent “province;” and ultimately, a focus to resolve the root causes of the crisis to prevent and minimize future potential conflicts. In the interim, it is also crucial to support grassroots and non-governmental work on the ground in the Syrian border regions, through bilateral cooperation between the world’s leaders and local governments, particularly in efforts to temporarily-assimilate the refugee population—many of whom want to go back home to Syria.
Looking more broadly, assimilation of refugees in new host communities is critical, requiring education and vocational training. Doing so will also help boost the economic potential and self-worth of many individuals, thus eliminating the prospect of disfranchisement and minimizing the potential for extremist influences taking hold.
If properly implemented, the above recommendations should result in decreased numbers of refugees (as regards Syria), while helping to address many of the underlining factors behind the potential recruitment of vulnerable individuals targeted by extremist groups.
Today, the world stands at a fork in the road. We either move towards peace and stability by addressing the factor conditions that breed extremism and terrorism—while offering a long-term solution to the refugee crisis—or we let these two interrelated challenges spiral out of control. The answer is not more refugee camps or softer worldwide immigration policies. The answer lies in ensuring the peace and stability of the lands from which the refugees originate and the host countries they inhabit, by choice and by circumstance.
Dr. William J. Parker III is the Chief Operating Officer at the EastWest Institute
Tara Kangarlou is an International Journalist and a Visiting Scholar at The EastWest Institute