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Good To Know: Are Refugees Terrorists?


A Technical Explanation of Refugees
A Theoretical Explanation of Terrorists
How the Link Has Been Made Between Refugees and Terrorists
So, Are Refugees Terrorists?
Now What?


A Technical Explanation of Refugees

  Officially and legally, a refugee is recognized by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

  Unofficially and informally, a person who has been granted refugee status has been exposed to such hostile conditions that they consider risking their lives and leaving behind everything to embark on a journey through dangerous terrain towards an uncertain outcome in a country they know little about, as the safer option.

Asylum Seeker Refugee
Picture courtesy of Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC)

  Amnesty International and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) will have further information on specific situations refugees are seeking asylum from, should you want to learn more. In addition you can read a more in-depth explanation of asylum seekers and refugees here, along with Australia's treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat.
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A Theoretical Explanation of Terrorism

  An official explanation of 'terrorism' is harder to come by. The attempt to define terrorism within international legal terms has consistently run into complications. The UN have tried but no universal agreement can be reached because each country's definition of terrorism differs. The issue largely gravitates around the use of force. Disagreements arise on determining when it is okay for a country to use military force in the name of national security, when it is okay for a civilian to use force to resist oppressive governments and/or occupation, and when such uses of force are considered terrorist attacks. Is it the just use of force or terrorism? Is it insurgency or terrorism? Is it self-defense or terrorism? As the cliche goes, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

  These disagreements are to do with legal technicalities but technicalities aside there is a general understanding broadly accepted throughout the international community (which you can read more of here and here) that perceives terrorism to be a tactic used to instil fear in its victims, and intended to spread that fear throughout the broader communities its victims are associated with. Terrorism is usually perceived to be politically motivated and executed through acts that infringe on the basic human rights of its victims, which includes, but is not limited to, the infliction of death or bodily harm and the violation of its victim's freedom and liberties. Furthermore, in the absence of a universal legal definition of terrorism the UN have set in place a framework to address it by crafting and collating conventions that criminalize related acts, such as criminalizing the seizure of air crafts or hostage-taking, within the context of international law.

  Much of today's focus on terrorism has become synonymous with the Middle East and extremist fundamentalist groups, however terrorism is not unique to our time nor to the context with which we understand it. The recorded use of 'terror' as a tactic goes as far back as the French Revolution in 1789, and since then such acts have been employed in various countries by various social groups. The penal colonies for example engaged in terrorist tactics, as did the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Ireland and the UK. In fact Northern Ireland today still face the threat of the IRA and what are deemed by the government to be terrorist attacks.
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How the Link Has Been Made Between Refugees and Terrorists

  When considering the definitions above you can see that being a refugee does not imply you are a terrorist. In fact there is little logic in connecting the two. If you are a legitimate refugee then you are desperately trying to escape conflict. Why would you make the arduous journey to a safe haven only to replicate the terror and conflict you are trying to escape? Much of the latest concern that links refugees to terrorism is owed to connections between the two in Europe over the last couple of years.
  Over one million asylum seekers made their way to Europe in 2015 in what became known as Europe's Refugee Crisis. This map, published by the European Union, shows the countries refugees came from, an indication of the numbers of people coming out of those countries, the routes refugees used and the countries they transited through.

Map courtesy of the European Union European Commission

  2015 also saw a record number of terrorist attacks in the European Union, the highest since such records started being kept in 2006. Some of these terrorist attacks were linked to asylum seekers. Two of the terrorists in the attacks on Paris on 13th November 2015 were found to have entered the EU through the refugee route. A number of other reports circulated, including terror suspects believed to have been planted by ISIS into the refugee channels, and various attacks that were carried out in July 2016 in Germany by asylum seekers. In the wake of these reports, a publication released by Pew Research Center indicated a heightened belief across Europe that many refugees were connected with broader terrorist networks, especially since refugee flows into Europe and terrorist attacks on European soil both saw record increases in the same year.
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So, Are Refugees Terrorists?

    In January 2016 the EU Institute for Security Studies released a research publication analyzing the different ways with which terrorists could exploit the channels taken by legitimate refugees. It included the popular belief that terrorists planted themselves amongst the refugees. The report conceded that there were valid concerns regarding the connection between terrorism and the migrant flow but this was only part of the problem. The problem of European citizens carrying out attacks, having travelled to Syria, become radicalized and then journeyed home again, was found to be more prevalent.

  This finding was reflected in a report released by Europol (European Law Enforcement Agency). The report details the trends in terrorism in Europe from 2013 to July 2016. Worth the read if you have the time but in short, while it also connects terrorists involved in the Paris attacks to asylum seekers it finds no evidence of a broader systematic problem reflecting this pattern. Two trends it finds of more concern are, again, the returned terrorist fighters, but also the rise in attacks by their own citizens, driven by right-wing extremism and xenophobic and racist sentiments.

  So while some evidence has linked refugees to terrorism evidence has also linked other social groups to terrorism. While some of the Paris attackers were linked to asylum seeking some of the attackers were also radicalized French nationals. While some convicted terrorists in the EU in 2015 were found to have been from Syria or Afghanistan, nearly two-thirds of terror-related arrestees the same year were citizens of the EU. While Europe saw a rise in terrorist attacks connected to Islamist extremism it also saw a rise in terrorist attacks by homegrown right-wing political extremists. While some asylum seekers who have arrived into Australia have gone on to be linked to terrorism (Man Monis for example, the man responsible for the Lindt Cafe Seige, arrived as a refugee by plane on a business visa), some convicted terrorists have been Australian citizens (see here and here).

  Look at it another way, in 2015 there were 1077 arrests related to terrorism in the EU, a third of which were not EU citizens. That's approximately 360 non-EU citizens arrested for terrorism. We already know that only a handful of these were actually linked to asylum seeking but even if we assume that all 360 were, over a million refugees arrived into Europe in 2015. This means that while 360 may have been linked to terrorism, well over 900,000 refugees weren't. Of course much is yet to be seen, but as it stands and according to evidence, a very small percentage of asylum seekers have proven to be terrorists. To assume they're all terrorists is like assuming all men are violent because some have committed violent crimes, or assuming all teenagers are thieves because a handful have shoplifted. It makes little sense to look at these numbers and assume that refugees are terrorists.
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Now What?

  The EU and  individual countries are aware of these issues and have begun to enforce stricter counter-terrorism measures regarding immigration. Australia is very strict with this, so much so that the Australian government has been criticized for its slow processing of the 12,000 Syrian refugees they agreed to take (Australia made the announcement in late 2015 but by August 2016 had only managed to process a little over 2000 refugees. In the same amount of time Canada was able to process nearly 30,000 refugees). But they are still being processed. And so as they arrive the above facts are worth keeping in mind. The Conversation actually put out a good article relating to this topic, specifically regarding refugees arriving by boat and by plane into Australia. In it they quote former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis saying on Q&A "Both the terrorist attacks and the refugee influx are symptoms of the same problem but one doesn't cause the other."
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  The above links will all take you to further reading on the points they relate to. There is a lot so if you just want a few key pieces of info to verify I'm not making things up you can check out the key resources below. It's important on an issue like this to factor in all the data. You can find evidence that some asylum seekers are linked to terrorism, which makes it easy to draw the assumption that refugees are terrorists, but you can also find evidence that many more asylum seekers are not. If you're unsure that's fine, but ask the questions, do the research, check your perspectives and find some answers. Don't just assume.
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- The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) - Facts about refugees worldwide.

- Pew Research Center: Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs - Interesting report on peoples attitudes towards refugees.

- Europol, European Law Enforcement Agency: TE-SAT 2016 - Report on recent terrorism trends in the EU.

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