Syrian Refugees Are Not the Problem

Building walls and treating asylum seekers like would-be terrorists is the kind of overreaction that the Paris attackers would have wanted.


The world is being reminded in the most brutal way that the Islamic State is not just a regional threat in the Middle East, but a global extremist organization capable of carrying out sophisticated attacks in the heart of Europe. In the wake of the devastating attack on Paris, however, some European and American leaders have linked this crime to the refugee crisis that has engulfed Europe this year — a critical mistake that punishes the victims of the Islamic State’s brutality, and sabotages global efforts to defeat the extremist group.

The global reach of the Islamic State comes as no surprise to those who have followed its development and rise. Through its sophisticated use of social media and propaganda videos, the extremist organization has been able to recruit thousands of disillusioned and marginalized Westerners to its cause, in addition to many others from the Middle East and the broader Muslim world who have joined its ranks. It has made no secret of its aim to strike at Western targets, and its multi-pronged attack on Paris showed it can carry through on its threats.

The outrage generated by the brutality of the Paris attack has predictably led to more bombings in retribution — France has launched dozens of airstrikes on the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa — and renewed calls to close Europe’s borders to asylum seekers. Poland’s minister for European relations and Slovakia’s prime minister even linked the attacks to the refugee crisis before it was reported that a Syrian passport — one that is likely fake, bought on the thriving black market in Turkey — found next to the body of one of the attackers had been registered entering Europe on the Greek island of Leros on Oct. 3, and was later registered moving toward Western Europe through the Western Balkans.

In the United States, the Paris attacks have led to similar calls to end the resettlement of Syrian refugees — even before any significant number of Syrians have been resettled there. Republican presidential candidates have been trying to outdo each other with their calls to shut down any plans to take in Syrian refugees, and some 28 governors have now said they would not accept any in their states. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are expected to push this week for legislation to block President Barack Obama’s resettlement plans for 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.

The link between the Paris attacks and the refugee crisis is tenuous at best, however, and trying to shut the doors of Europe will do far more harm than good.

In reality, the vast majority of those fleeing to Western Europe from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are escaping exactly the same kind of extremist violence that shocked us in Paris, as well as the Islamic State’s previous attacks in Beirut and Ankara. The jihadi organization has murdered far more Syrians and Iraqis than Westerners, and has done so with the utmost brutality — including through beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions, suicide bombings, and throwing people from tall buildings. That terror is now reaching Afghanistan as well, with the first reports of beheadings by the Islamic State last week. In Syria, civilians also face the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad regime’s barrel bombs, while Iraqis face the brutal Shiite death squads, just to mention a few of the many additional horrors in the region.

Over the past months, I have been interviewing hundreds of asylum seekers in the Western Balkans and Greek islands who were fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many have lost family members to the horror of war, and are determined to take their remaining loved ones, especially their children, to the safety of Western Europe. U.S.-led airstrikes, while careful in trying to avoid collateral damage, have also added to the civilian death toll at times. Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been more indiscriminate, causing many more civilian deaths and spurring refugees’ renewed flight from the country.

Hassan Mohammed, a 35-year-old Syrian, broke down in tears when he told me an airstrike had destroyed his home in the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa, killing his wife Nadia, 30, and his daughter Sarah, 8. Holding his 5-year-old daughter Tasneem’s hand as we spoke on the rail tracks that run along the Hungary-Serbia border earlier this year, he told me that his only wish was to take her to a place where she could live in safety, as she was all that remained for him in the world.

While it may turn out that one of the Paris attackers reached Europe by way of the rubber rafts setting out from Turkey to Greece, the fact remains that the vast majority of the identified attackers were European citizens or long-term residents. Of the nine suspects in the attack, five are known to be French citizens and only one is suspected to have disguised himself as a refugee to enter Europe. Of the French citizens, investigators have identified two brothers who lived in the marginalized Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels as allegedly involved in the Paris attack. With thousands of European citizens joining the Islamic State’s ranks in Syria and Iraq, many from impoverished and marginalized neighborhoods, Europe should not allow itself to be distracted by the main problem — how to tackle the social exclusion, alienation, and other complex factors driving radicalization within its own societies.

If one or more of the Paris attackers did disguise themselves as refugees, it might be part of an effort by the Islamic State to orchestrate just the sort of backlash against asylum seekers we have witnessed in the past several days. The group is deeply hostile to the refugees fleeing the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq, portraying them as traitors fleeing the “caliphate” it is trying to promote. Alienating the refugees from Europe, and thus cutting off an avenue for them to leave the caliphate, could be precisely what the terrorists seek to accomplish.

Europe must resist the urge to do what the Islamic State wants. Over the past year, we have watched Europe lose control over the refugee crisis — with EU governments failing to fairly process and humanely host the flow of asylum seekers and migrants. It’s time to fix that.

The answer to the Paris attack is to keep the door open to the people risking their lives to seek the safety of Western Europe. The answer is to put in place a coherent EU policy that enables effective screening of migrants and asylum seekers, and one that offers those who need protection safe and legal alternatives to obtain refuge in Europe. A Human Rights Watch report released on Nov. 16 sets out the steps needed to tackle the crisis.

Replacing the chaos of the current process with coherent and efficient policies could curb the horrific loss of life of people trying to reach Europe. There have already been almost 3,500 deaths so far this year at sea. It could also bring an end to the needless suffering of tens of thousands traveling through the Balkans, many of whom have been sleeping out in the open without shelter and assistance, as winter sets in.

A more coherent set of EU policies and procedures would also allow Europe to focus more attention on identifying potential security threats among those seeking asylum. By driving much of the journey underground and into the hands of brutal smugglers, who are making millions off the plight of desperate asylum seekers, Europe has also lost significant control over who enters and who is refused entry to the EU.

This would deliver a more devastating blow to the Islamic State than any air raid ever could. Showing that Europe is capable of providing a safe haven for Muslims seeking asylum would be a blow to the group’s poisonous narrative. On the other hand, building ever-higher walls and treating every asylum seeker like a would-be terrorist is the kind of overreaction that the Paris attackers would have wanted. Those seeking asylum deserve to be treated with respect for their human rights and dignity, and it is in Europe’s broader security interests to make sure that those rights and that dignity are respected.

Providing safe and legal channels could significantly reduce the number of families putting their lives at risk to reach asylum in Europe, but it won’t stop the irregular flow entirely. The upheaval in much of the Middle East means that others will continue to try to reach Europe through the rubber rafts to Greece, and the even more dangerous sea journey from Libya to Italy.

There are no easy solutions to this crisis. People fleeing war need refuge, and as a matter of law and our common values, part of that responsibility lies with European Union governments. It is a responsibility we cannot avoid, but one that we can manage better. Of course, addressing the needs of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan is of equal importance and may lessen the flow to Europe. Ultimately, the answer to ameliorating the refugee crisis lies in ending the brutality in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; the Paris attacks should refocus our attention on those vital diplomatic efforts as well.

Traumatic attacks like those in Paris or Ankara often lead to calls for forceful action, including those incompatible with our human rights obligations. But before rushing into another ill-advised military conflict, the world should reflect on the consequences of the policies pursued by former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld following the 9/11 attacks. They thrashed the Geneva Conventions and embraced torture in their response. Instead of crushing their opponents, their policies ended in absolute failure, and helped create the security threat we face in the Islamic State.

The struggle to address the Islamic State’s extremism and brutality cannot be just a military one — it needs to be a battle for the hearts and minds of those the group seeks to recruit and influence. That battle can be won only if those who oppose the Islamic State take a different path from its brutality, and meet its glorification of violence with a commitment to human rights, the rule of law, and the democratic values on which our societies are founded. That includes a commitment to offering refuge to those fleeing from the brutality of the Islamic State, and the horrors of the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.


Peter Bouckaert is the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @bouckap. Twitter: @bouckap