The refugee flows from the Middle East, where grassroots radicalisation and arms training are widespread in the war-torn states, hold important security implications for the destination countries of refugees. Europe today is focused on the refugee crisis, with Nato instituting patrols in the Aegean Sea to intercept migrants trying to reach Greece. But in a few years, Europe’s focus could shift to internal-security threats.
Indeed, the director of the US National Intelligence Council, James Clapper, has warned that ISIL is infiltrating groups of refugees escaping from Iraq and Syria to operate in the West. According to Mr Clapper, ISIL terrorists are “taking advantage of the torrent of migrants to insert operatives into that flow”, adding that they are “pretty skilled at phoney passports so they can travel ostensibly as legitimate travellers”.
Germany, the prime destination of many of the refugees, already has some three million Turkish immigrants and citizens with Turkish parents, who in some cases are poorly integrated in German society. But unlike the workers from Turkey that came to Germany from the 1960s to meet the demand for labour in the booming German economy, those arriving today are from countries battered by growing violence.
The refugee influx is just one manifestation of a deeper problem – how interventionist policies of outside powers in recent years have unravelled fragile states.
The net effect of the interventionist policies is the emergence at Europe’s southern doorstep of a growing threat, from Libya as well as ISIL’s stronghold in Syria and Iraq.
Dealing with the threats from these two areas will challenge Europe in the coming years even more than the refugee crisis, in the same way that countries next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan jihadist belt are paying a high price in terms of their security.
The larger lesson of the Paris terror attacks should not be forgotten. Jihad cannot be confined within the borders of a targeted nation, however distant, as exemplified by Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. The role of French and Belgian nationals in the Paris attacks has shown how difficult it is to geographically contain the spread of the jihad virus.
Indeed, internal-security challenges in Europe have been compounded by foreign-policy missteps or misplaced priorities. Take the situation in battle-worn Syria and Iraq: defeating ISIL is a pressing issue on which an international consensus – and coalition – can be built. But the western-led camp first needs to get its act together, including by prioritising ISIL’s eradication over regime change in Damascus.
Even without considering the spectre of ISIL fighters hiding among innocent civilians to reach the West, the flow of refugees poses a security challenge for the countries they enter because they are arriving mostly from violence-scarred lands. Large numbers of men have not only received weapons training but also used them in combat.
More than half of the slightly over one million refugees who arrived in Europe last year were men of fighting age. This year, due to pressure for families to reunify, children and women make up 54 per cent of the new arrivals up to now, according to United Nations data.
Moreover, former combatants in a civil war – just like ground troops returning from a regular war – are prone to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to research, about 30 per cent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD, which is associated with an increased risk of violence.
In this light, addressing the current refugee crisis is no easy task. Building higher fences to secure Fortress Europe cannot be the answer by itself. Refugees will do anything to escape from war and chaos.
No country can accept an unrestrained influx of refugees, because it would get overwhelmed economically, socially and culturally and face major political fallout domestically. The issue is how to control the flow of refugees in a humane way, in accordance with international law, while admitting a limited number of genuine, properly vetted migrants.
However, there is no international policy on refugees. The two instruments of international law – the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol – are scarcely adequate for dealing with the refugee crisis.
For Europe, the Mediterranean holds the key for its security. Yet little attention has been paid in European security policies to shoring up security along the continent’s southern flank. Instead, identity politics in the form of nationalism is back in Europe – a development set to accentuate internal security challenges relating to refugees.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War