How to answer security concerns regarding refugees

How to answer security concerns regarding refugees
Comment: Addressing legitimate security concerns around the resettlement of asylum seekers requires a holistic and long term approach by the government, and bottom-up engagement by citizens, writes Robert Springborg
8 min read
09 Aug, 2016
The security issue hangs like a dark cloud over asylum seekers, writes Springborg [Getty]
On 24 July, two Syrian asylum seekers were involved in separate attacks in Germany, one allegedly killing a Polish woman with a machete, the other blowing himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach. The latter claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group, which identified him as one of their "soldiers".

The security issue hangs like a dark cloud over asylum seekers - not just in Germany, but throughout the world. Because Syrians are particularly numerous refugees and because they come from a country of intense conflict in which IS is headquartered, their case is especially sensitive, serving as bellwether for the acceptance and resettlement of all asylum seekers, but particularly those from the Middle East.

In the past 17 months some 400,000 Syrians have sought asylum in Germany, constituting almost two-fifths of all those seeking asylum there. According to the United Nations, Syria faces the world's greatest human displacement crisis, with almost five million citizens having fled the country and another 6.5 million being internally displaced.

The already high number of Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Germany, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere is thus bound to rise even further. If these people come up against barriers built on intensified fears of security threats, humanitarian and other disasters are virtually inevitable. It is, therefore, absolutely vital that host countries adequately address legitimate security challenges posed by asylum seekers, lest the political backlash render their acceptance impossible.

Like other asylum seekers from war-torn Middle East and North African countries, Syrians pose four distinct security challenges, only one of which can be directly addressed by specialised security and intelligence agencies alone. That threat is of jihadi agents, dispatched and coordinated by terrorist organisations such as IS and al-Qaeda, based primarily in ungoverned spaces east and south of the Mediterranean.

Although these agents are difficult to interdict, as 9/11, 7/7 and many subsequent attacks indicate, effective monitoring and penetration of their organisational networks through electronic and human intelligence is possible and improving, thanks primarily to the CIA, MI5, and other western intelligence services.

The security issue hangs like a dark cloud over asylum seekers

Security threats posed by "lone wolves", a category which frequently overlaps that of outright "terrorist agents", are more difficult to detect and counter. Perpetrators with absolutely no connections to proscribed organisations fall outside the manageable interest of security agencies. Those with only minimal, indirect, or even just post facto, self-proclaimed relations with such groups are also extremely hard to detect and preempt through traditional spycraft methods.

Asylum seekers pose two additional, less immediate threats - potentially of longer duration and posing more substantive challenges to the countries which have hosted them. One is that they resume the internecine struggles that divided the country from which they fled. In the case of Syrians, it is not difficult to imagine that the fault lines which divide the pro- and anti-government forces and further subdivide each of them may cleave refugees into warring factions which resort at least intermittently to violence.

While some of those may have ties back to, say, the Syrian government or to the Free Syrian Army, others who might resort to violence may be independent actors. Security and intelligence agencies focused on links back to Syria would thus have limited capacity to monitor and prevent more or less spontaneous combustion of intra-communal violence.

The final security threat is that which is posed by those asylum seekers who may have woven themselves together into criminal gangs operating on the margins of the host society, typically exploiting links to organised crime from their home region and preying primarily, if not exclusively, upon their own community of asylum seekers or other new citizens of the host country.

In the case of Syria, such organised crime is heavily involved in the trafficking of drugs, especially of those produced in Lebanon, as well as in international car theft and human trafficking, the last line of business of which is connected directly to prostitution rackets operating in host countries.

Intra-communal violence and criminal activity typically are more the domains of police forces than of security/intelligence agencies, although as the post 9/11 Fusion Centers in the United States - which link primarily the Department of Homeland Security and local police forces - suggests, coordination between these law enforcement bodies is increasingly widespread.

Canada is the model exemplar of good practice, based on its long and successful experience with resettlement.

Meeting these diverse security challenges is a demanding and expensive task. It requires new methods and organisation and tests the legal and constitutional structures within which the threats are to be combatted.

Moreover, they are unlikely to ever be 100 percent successful. It would thus likely be cheaper, more effective, and impose fewer strains on existing governmental bodies and legal codes if ways of combatting these threats could be found outside or in addition to the normal security/intelligence and police forces.

Fortunately there is a win-win solution, whereby the security threats posed by asylum seekers are minimised while their positive contributions to the host country are maximised. That solution is to be found in the ways and means through which asylum seekers are integrated into host societies.

Asylum seekers who build social relations with their hosts, who meet with success in their vocational lives and who are welcomed into host country institutions, including political bodies, will behave profoundly differently than those who remain isolated, dependent and unsuccessful, locked into a ghetto inhabited only by their fellow refugees. It is the latter, not the former, which will produce "lone wolves", as well as recruits for sectarian and criminal gangs.

There are now sufficient cases of hosting Syrian asylum seekers to compare which ways and means better accomplish this integration function. Canada is the model exemplar of good practice, based on its long and successful experience with resettlement. It has accepted some 27,000 Syrians in the past year, more than the UK, France, the US and Australia combined.

The government has played more of a coordinating than commanding role, as it is civil society organisations that have really hosted Syrian migrants, finding them housing and working to ensure their integration into local communities. There are no large hostels for Syrians in Canada and refugees have been distributed throughout the country.

Civil society organisations have raised money to assist Syrians while demonstrating that they value expressions of Syrian culture in music, art, and so on. As with other migrants, Canadians anticipate that Syrians will make good citizens in their country, and there is no political movement based on anti-migrant sentiment, as there is little - if any - of it.

The common perception by other Australians of these Lebanese post-civil war migrants and their offspring is that they are a burden on the country

Australia is less welcoming than Canada of Syrians, as it has been with previous asylum seekers. Those from the Lebanese civil war, for example, were essentially dumped en masse into the outer suburbs of major cities, particularly Sydney.

The result was not only the highest unemployment rate among Australians, but the rise of sectarian gangs, heavily involved in Australia's drug trade and weapons smuggling. Armed attacks by those gangs on local police have become a feature of life in those suburbs.

The common perception by other Australians of these Lebanese post-civil war migrants and their offspring is that they are a burden on the country, despite the fact that the long-established Lebanese community is well assimilated and comparatively successful.

The government of New South Wales is now caught trying to play catch-up, devoting funds to improving cross-cultural relations in Sydney's western suburbs. Not surprising, Australia, having in 2015 committed to accept 15,000 Syrian asylum seekers over three years, has yet to welcome one thousand. The slow pace probably reflects the government's fear of political backlash.

Germany so far appears to be replicating the Australian more than the Canadian model. Security concerns coupled with normal bureaucratic heavy-handedness have slowed processing of asylum seekers. They typically spend months in temporary accommodation, largely isolated from local communities. The greatest proportion are then shipped off to areas with available housing, primarily in the East, where the prospects for employment are low and the presence of racist, anti-immigration activists the highest in the country.

There is every likelihood that, like Australia resettling Lebanese refugees, Germany will create isolated communities of Syrians in which security problems of the type just noted will be bred.

The chances that a future German government will make a magnanimous gesture to receive hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa will correspondingly diminish, virtually to nothing. The impact on neighbouring European countries' asylum policies will be similar.

Security, in sum, is best provided by an ounce of cure rather than a pound of prevention. It needs to be considered in holistic fashion and over the long term. It is not just the job of government and its security organs and police, but of citizens alike who need to welcome asylum seekers into their communities and come to know them as friends and colleagues.

Security depends upon bottom-up engagement by citizens in the resettlement process, something which governments need to respect and encourage. Otherwise, those governments will be forced to close the door to asylum seekers, generating yet more dangerous security challenges, to say nothing of eroding what little humanitarian sentiment seems to remain in the West.

Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations. 

From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.