Vice-Admiral Glenn Davidson was Ambassador of Canada to Syria from September 2008 until March 2012 , a period which included the beginning of the Arab Spring and Syria’s descent into civil war. He was also Ambassador of Canada to Afghanistan from May 2012 until July 2013.
Is Canada Shaping a New Model for Managing the Refugee Crisis? Reflections from Government, Academia, Community and Civil Society in Canada, alongside the EU perspective
A moderated public roundtable that took place at the University of Alberta on January 20th, 2016.
Mr. Andre Corbould, Deputy Minister, Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, and lead on Alberta’s refugee file, Government of Alberta
Ms. Jennifer Fowler, Director, Multicultural Relations, Community Strategies and Development Branch, City of Edmonton
Mr. Erick Ambtman, Executive Director, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers
Dr. Agnieszka Weinar, Marie Curie Senior Fellow, European University Institute & Carleton University
Mr. Ibrahim Cin, Executive Director, Intercultural Dialogue Institute Edmonton
Dr. Reza Hasmath, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta
Moderator: Dr. Lori Thorlakson, Director, European Union Centre of Excellence, and Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta.
The event was organized by the Kule Institute for Advanced Study, the European Union Centre of Excellence and the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies at the University of Alberta, and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.
Dr. Natalie Kononenko is Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography and Professor of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, and Asad Makhani is an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta. Learn more about Dr. Kononenko’s research here.
The Kule Institute for Advanced Study, the European Union Centre of Excellence, the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies, and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers are pleased to invite you to a moderated public roundtable with panelists from the Alberta Government, the City of Edmonton, the Community and Academia.
Title: Is Canada Shaping a New Model for Managing the Refugee Crisis? Reflections from Government, Community and Civil Society in Canada, alongside the EU perspective
Date: Wednesday, January 20th, 4:00pm
Location: Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (ECHA) L1-190, University of Alberta North Campus
Mr. Andre Corbould, Government of Alberta, Deputy Minister, Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, and lead on Alberta’s refugee file
Ms. Jennifer Fowler, City of Edmonton, Director, Multicultural Relations (Community Strategies and Development Branch)
Mr. Erick Ambtman, Executive Director, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers
Dr. Agnieszka Weinar, Marie Curie Senior Fellow, European University Institute & Carleton University
Mr. Ibrahim Cin, Executive Director, Intercultural Dialogue Institute Edmonton
Dr. Reza Hasmath, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta
Moderator: Dr. Lori Thorlakson, Director, European Union Centre of Excellence, Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta
Become a part of the event! Admission is free and open to the public.
On Dec. 10, newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the first government airlift of 163 privately-sponsored Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Another airlift of 161 refugees arrived in Montreal on Dec. 12, with more government planes scheduled to land in the coming weeks. Their arrival marks the official beginning of the Liberal Party’s campaign pledge to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. Canada expects to welcome 25,000 refugees fleeing the bloody four-year war in Syria by late Feb. 2016.
Canadians are watching closely: the Liberals need to fulfill their election promise to resettle Syrian refugees – a promise that distinguished the party from the NDP and Conservatives in the run up to the Oct. 19 federal election. The Liberals maintain that the party’s commitment to refugees, along with a promise to end Canadian support for US airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, helps return Canada to a once-upon-a-time progressive, internationalist, and humanitarian identity. Speaking at the Paris climate change talks last month, Prime Minister Trudeau announced ‘Canada is back.’ Revised refugee targets and exclusionary refugee admittance practices are already being implemented, however, raising serious doubts about whether the new government will deliver on this promise.
The recently revised refugee resettlement schedule is perhaps unsurprising. The initial campaign promise to take in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by year’s end was ambitious. No doubt, too, the new government was paying attention to the Nov. 18 Angus Reid poll, which reported that a majority of Canadians did not support the refugee resettlement targets (although a recent poll indicates a slim majority of Canadians now support the plan). And in the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Prime Minister Trudeau was met with a vocal opposition, concerned that a mass intake of refugees poses a national security risk. The Trudeau government says it is still committed to the original 25,000 target overall, but now plans to meet this target with a mix of government and privately sponsored refugees by late Feb. 2016. This is a less ambitious plan to be sure – one that challenges the Liberal claim that Canada is indeed back. It is also one that is beginning to look more like the NDP and Conservative pledges made during the election campaign period.
The Syrian refugee crisis emerged as a key election issue in early September, about a month after the official election period kicked off on Aug. 2. This came at an auspicious time for the Liberal Party, which was keen to distinguish itself from Mr. Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservatives. In the initial month of the election period, the Conservatives were leading in the polls with a set of increasingly Islamophobic foreign policy and domestic security and citizenship policies. The Liberals needed to stand out during an ugly campaign.
The Conservative government was banking on a fearful electorate to deliver support for new radical citizenship and immigration reforms. The government had already passed controversial legislation in the run up to the election. For example, Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, was introduced shortly after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot dead a Canadian solider at Ottawa’s War Memorial and stormed Parliament Hill in the fall 2014. Zehaf-Bibeau, a troubled Quebec-born man who suffered from mental illness and drug addiction, spouted the kind of violent pro-terrorism extremism that served as a convenient foil for Mr. Harper’s new anti-terrorism legislation.
Mr. Harper referenced the incident when he made the case for Bill C-51, which broadens the powers of Canada’s spy agency the Canadian Security Intelligence Services, provides for preventative arrests by police, and allows government agencies to share personal information about Canadians. Critics charge that the anti-terrorism bill may paint all activists with the terrorism brush, lead to false arrests, and undermine the privacy rights of Canadians. For Mr. Harper, Zehaf-Bibeau’s act confirmed ‘the threat of terrorism and violent jihadism is very real’ and helped set the stage for the introduction of new anti-terrorism legislation.
The Conservatives also passed Bill S-7 Jun. 18, known as the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. The Act, purported to protect women from early and forced marriage, polygamy, and honour killings, passed amidst intense debates about whether women should be permitted to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. Speaking about the controversy over citizenship ceremonies, then Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said in a Vice TV interview published Jun. 10: ‘We’ve done a lot in the past year to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. People take pride in that. They don’t want their co-citizens to be terrorists.’ Here, the association of faith-based symbols and culture with terrorism is shockingly clear.
By the time the election campaign officially kicked off in August, the government was moving quickly to announce additional policies and promises that drew on similar themes. In September, the government ordered the revocation of citizenship of a Jordanian-born Canadian citizen who was convicted of terrorism charges. Notices were sent to a handful of other Canadians informing them that the government planned to revoke their citizenship too. The government also announced plans to develop a ‘barbaric practices’ tip line ostensibly to complement the new barbaric practices act. The tip line would encourage neighbours to report suspected barbaric practices to the police.
But by this stage, the identification of Muslim men and women as threats to Canadian security and values was wearing thin with an electorate increasingly concerned that the government wasn’t doing enough to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. The massive wave of refugees fleeing the four-year Syrian War hit the Canadian election in early September. Canadians were paying attention to the treacherous journey refugees were taking, braving the waters in over-packed life rafts to escape the war. A photograph of a lifeless Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach resort illustrated the human cost of the humanitarian crisis – and Canada’s connection to the Syrian War.
Three-year-old Aylan’s tiny body, dressed in a red t-shirt and laying face down in the surf, was published on the front page of the Globe and Mail on Sept. 3. He drowned in the Aegean Sea on Sept. 2, along with his five-year-old brother Ghalib and mother Rehana. Travelling with his father Abdullah, who survived, their inflatable dinghy capsized as they attempted to reach the Greek island of Kos. Canadians learned that the Kurdi family planned to resettle with family in Port Coquitlam, BC but had given up hope.
Conservatives underestimated Canadians’ reaction to the refugee crisis – emphasizing that Canada must continue military support for US-led airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria to respond to the crisis. The public outrage over the death of Aylan and his family and a new concern for the tens of thousands of refugees risking their lives to escape to war was an opportunity for the NDP and Liberal parties. The NDP promised to take a moderate number of government sponsored refugees – 10,000 – while the Liberals pledged 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by year’s end.
Now, the Conservatives were not the only party that clung to a troubling script which identified Islam as an ever present threat to national security. For their part, the Liberal Party had also supported the new anti-terrorism act and it remains to be seen what changes they may make to it now that they lead the government. In the run up to the elections, the Liberals and NDP also both focused on the risk of ‘radicalization’ of Canadian Muslim men and boys. As NDP leader Mr. Tom Mulcair said: ‘We should be doing something at home, which is combatting radicalization – something that [Conservative Leader] Stephen Harper has failed to do.’ This script – that Muslim men and boys pose a (potential) threat to Canadian security – is evident in early revisions that Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have made to their own refugee resettlement strategy now that they have won the election.
Like the NDP’s party promise, the Liberals plan to admit just 10,000 Syrian refugees by the New Year. But unlike the NDP, the Liberals will now make up this number with a combination of government-sponsored and private sponsored refugees – suggesting an even more modest target. Troubling still is the new policy will (perhaps initially) exclude many single men. According to Citizenship and Immigration: ‘Canada’s focus will be on identifying vulnerable refugees who are a lower security risk such as women, complete families and persons identified as vulnerable due to membership in the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community.’
Here, it is Syrian (heterosexual) men who threaten Canadian security – gay men and ‘womenandchildren’ (a term coined by Cynthia Enloe to emphasize the way women are constructed as helpless victims in global politics) are especially vulnerable. Of course, this is not true. According to UNHCR, more than 4 million people have fled the Syrian War and there are 7.6 million more displaced persons inside Syria. All Syrians: men and women – whether married, single, widowed, or the like – boys and girls, are at risk in this warzone. This policy may have the further unintended consequence of putting gay Syrian men at risk. As Danny Ramadan, a recent gay Syrian refugee living in Vancouver explains to Metro News, asking men in refugee camps to declare their sexual orientation may put them in danger should their status become known in the camp. The fear of lone (presumed to be) Muslim men, what the press refers to as ‘unaccompanied men,’ works together with the fear of ‘radicalization.’ Here, the idea is that any (presumed to be) Muslim man is at risk of radicalizing and violence – particularly young men.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the rise of far-right ultra-nationalist parties in Europe, and the xenophobic diatribes of popular political figures like Donald Trump in the US, Syrian refugees will continue to face hurdles as they attempt to escape the violence and bloodshed of war. Offering refuge to Syrian people in Canada is but one step in the process of confronting political violence and supporting human dignity and rights. Challenging the script of Islam as dangerous – which fuels xenophobia and war – will require more than a return to an imagined Canadian past, sentimentalized in the proclamation: Canada is back! It will require the political will to interrogate the effects of ‘radicalization’ scares, to reverse policies that discriminate against Syrian men and paint them as threatening, and to fulfill the ambitious and laudatory refugee resettlement promise.
The recent terrorist attacks in Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and France are some of the many attacks connected to ISIL and the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria, which resulted in millions of displaced people and refugees fleeing to protect their families. Unfortunately, 4.5 years have passed by and a solution on how to decrease violations of human rights and enforce security and protect civilians has yet not been fully identified. This article is based on my research and the field work conducted in Iraq during the summer of 2015.
“Once upon a time in the city that never sleeps”
In January 2015, under the academic guidelines of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, and as part of the course called Workshop in Applied Peacebuilding taught by Clinical Professor Thomas Hill, I was assigned to join the World Education Foundation, a non-governmental organization working on a humanitarian project in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The scope of the project was to promote peace through education by creating an inclusive education framework for Syrian refugee youth between the ages of 15-25, Iraqi Internally Displaced Youth (IDPs), and the local communities of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The CEO and Executive Director of the World Education (WE) Foundation, Mr. Marques Anderson, and my NYU graduate colleagues, Karin Attia and Janell Johnson, were the main members of our team in Iraq. Our field researchers were students from the Universities of Duhok and Kurdistan-Hewler, and our main funding partners were the UNDP, the UNHCR, and OpenIdeo, an open innovation platform solving, as quoted, “big challenges for social good”.
Our project, called WE: SOLVE Labs (Solution-Vortex-Environment), aimed to develop long-term solutions within the labor markets of the cities of Duhok, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The WE: SOLVE Labs focused on male and female youth, both Syrians and Iraqi Kurds. Taking into consideration the cluster areas of education, agriculture, energy, health, security and nutrition, we created a framework of trainings, workshops and social engagement with a duration of 13 weeks to be launched in the third quarter of 2016. These are aimed at refugee and IDP youth through identifying the needs of their own community, and engaging with the local communities to promote social cohesion, collaboration and peace between all actors involved. The key component of the WE: SOLVE Labs is teaching refugees and IDPs the skills they need to help them become more creative and labor-oriented while continuing their studies, so that they can then teach these skills to their own communities by taking initiative and promoting change.
“The Beginning of a Journey”
Throughout the semester, along with Karin, Janell and Marques we were working on the framework in order to have a better perspective and an overall estimate of the budget and the skills required, while getting ready for an unforgettable experience. Since this was my first ever field work experience, it was natural for me to have mixed feelings. On the one hand I was concerned how it would feel to apply all the theories I had been reading in books and academic papers for the past couple of years in New York directly in the field, and being part of an idea that would bring change and help thousands of people. On the other hand, it was also personal; I wondered whether or not I would be able to do field work, despite the academic knowledge and training, and whether or not I would be able to handle the unexpected nature of field work. In June 2015 we arrived in Iraq at our first stop in the city of Erbil. We were fascinated by the beauty of the city and the warm welcome from the Kurdish people. Before arranging our first meeting at the UN Compound, we had the opportunity to walk through the streets and visit the Bazaar with its various spices, Iraqi tea and delicious appetizers. We also visited the Erbil Citadel, the historical city center which has also been added to the UNESCO Heritage List.
“The meetings at the UN Compound and the NGO Regional Offices”
Our first meeting at the UN Compound in Erbil was with Mrs. Nelly Opiyo, the World Food Program’s (WFP) Senior Program Officer. We had the opportunity to discuss data concerning the influx of Syrian refugees and Iraqi IDPs as well as a potential collaboration for the WE: SOLVE Labs. Mrs. Opiyo, along with her team, informed us about some of the procedures they follow such as providing powdered milk rather than fresh milk. Powdered milk lasts longer and is easier to prepare, and there is limited storage in the camps due to lack of electricity and facilities. She also talked about land access in the refugee camps where thousands of families live without proper food and water access. Despite general nutrition monitoring by WFP and contributions from the UNHCR and UNICEF, Mrs. Opiyo added that they focus on children and women and that they also provide vouchers for refugees to buy food at the camp store when needed. Unfortunately, as we found out later on in our journey in Iraq, products at the camp stores cost double the normal price and refugees cannot afford them. In August 2015, the WFP initiated the “Process of Refugee Targeting”, which is responsible for providing additional evidence of Syrian refugees in the region, finding people at the household level living in endangered areas, and enhancing understanding of coping strategies around food consumption. Our conversation with the WFP Program Officer then turned from refugee nutrition to IDPs’ nutrition, and we had the opportunity to discuss the factors which deny IDPs proper nutrition such as their status and the lack of mechanisms and jurisdiction of authority associated with that status. At the UN Compound we also had a meeting with Mr. Paul Schlunke, the Senior Emergency Response Coordinator at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We discussed extensively how the FAO provides water to the camps (three times a week), how they promote agricultural products and initiatives to the families living in them, and how the WE:SOLVE Labs could contribute to the processes of the FAO in the long term.
Our field work in Erbil also included meetings with the Ministry of Education of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and more specifically with the Director of International Relations. We discussed the differences between providing education to Iraqi IDPs and Syrian refugees. Iraqi IDP youth, due to their nationality, are able to attend schools, but it is not the same for Syrian refugee youth. This unfortunately happens for three main reasons: a) the language barrier; courses are being taught in Kurdish, and Arabic-speaking students are not able to comprehend the material, b) the increase of Syrian refugees and the limited number of teachers speaking Arabic, and c) the uncertainty of professional endorsement and successful job-seeking with the certificate that is given to Syrian students following completion of their studies, in case they return to Syria.
For the purpose of understanding the educational advancement of Syrian refugees, we arranged a meeting with the Education Manager of Save the Children, Mr. Mohammad Jamal, and the Project Manager, Mrs. Marco Alfieri. Save the Children, along with UNICEF, are the two main non-state actors actively contributing to the promotion of education among young boys and girls. The Save the Children volunteers and staff facilitate trainings for survival, protection, participation and development in refugee and IDP camps, urban areas and three urban centers. In terms of child protection, they have initiated the Child Residence Program for children under the age of 14 years old and the Youth Residence Program for ages 16-20 years old. We also discussed other issues such as child labor and early marriages in the region, how IDPs’ education still persists as a problem as there are no adequate facilities and IDPs prefer to work rather than go to school, and toilet accessibility in the camps. We also talked about the disadvantage of not speaking the Kurdish language or the local Arabic language, which is different from the one spoken in Syria. This creates an additional barrier to the engagement of refugees in the local communities.
“The Visit to the Refugee Camps of Domiz and Qushtapa”
And the moment had come: only 10 days after our arrival in Iraq, after meetings with universities and NGOs (such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, ACTED, REACH and the Civil Development Organization), we were ready to visit the refugee camps in Erbil and Duhok. Special thanks to Mr. Alfieri from Save the Children, Mr. Alex Munoz, an NYU – University of Duhok consultant working in the field since 2012, and Professors Dr. Wrya Muhammad Ali and Saladdin Ahmed who introduced us to our local mentors: graduate students Roj, Jiyan, Matty and Juma. Due to time constraints we decided to conduct our first workshop in the Domiz Camp in the city of Duhok, and the second training at the Qushtapa refugee camp once we would return to Erbil.
“Theory of Change of WE: SOLVE Labs”
Our main purpose with the trainings and workshops in the refugee camps was not to gather refugees in a room and instruct them through PowerPoint slides, but to teach them the skills required to conduct needs assessments by identifying triggers, factors and problems within refugee camp communities, and then come up with practical solutions that could be useful for their own communities. Our project was designed to change the narrative of what it is to be a refugee; instead of “waiting”, we encourage them to take initiative and build their own future. Eventually, they would teach other members of their camp community. The active involvement of the local mentors helped with the skill training and the exploration of new market and technological aspects, essentially building peace and social cohesion through education. The initial number of refugee participants was 20 in both workshops, including our local mentors.
“The Inner Voice: It is Not about YOU”
The experience in the refugee camps was transformative in every possible way. We had the opportunity to meet and speak with refugees, and for a couple of days to be exposed to their daily life. I certainly consider these people as heroes. They have been through war, murder attempts, and attacks from combatants and extremist groups in the region. Thousands of civilians lost their lives due to bombs or direct attacks. Others have managed to escape and seek asylum in neighboring countries or travelled thousands of miles to live for an uncertain period of time in a refugee camp, a tent, or a “house” made of thin metal layers, where safety and security, nutrition, water accessibility, heat, medical supplies, education and electricity are daily and constant concerns for them as well as their families.
It is ironic how we have our laptops, our phone plans, our warm food and water, a cozy bed, and we complain and want more, while these people have lost almost everything and yet, they have not lost their “hope for a change”. Talking to them and being invited into their homes, I felt the generosity of the Syrian people, their warm hospitality and their desire to live. I felt honored to be invited into their tent and to be offered a warm and aromatic cup of tea, while due to Ramadan they would respectfully abstain from joining me in its pleasure. They introduced us to their family, including a five-month baby called Nadine, a beautiful baby girl. They would recount all the struggles they have been through. Nadine was born in the camp. Their smile reflects the emotional strength that makes them keep hoping for a better future for their children, one that includes learning English and going to school, being healthy and happy, and living the lives their parents had envisioned for them. However, the people in the refugee camps of Domiz and Qushtapa are also undeniably sad as they were forced to leave their country; they may have lost members of their family and communities. They are in pain, a pain displayed in their eyes and tears when remembering these special moments.
As Oscar Wilde once said, “the pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple”. And reflecting on refugees’ experiences is a responsibility of significant importance. I remember when we were collecting data with our local mentors and the refugee participants and they were interviewing their own community, I was proud to see that the majority of the 20 participants we had were girls and they were very enthusiastic about actively participating. One time, a very young girl, maybe less than five years old, approached us because she thought we were doctors. On her shoulder she was holding her baby sibling and in her other hand some medical documents. Her mother was watching us from a short distance of 5-10 feet from her small tent, and to my deep sadness and shock, I noticed she had only one leg and a pair of crutches. I was speechless. It was the first time in my field work in Iraq up to that point that I did not know how to react or what to think. The young girl looked into my eyes and she showed me once again the medical documents and her baby sibling. From the few Arabic words. I had managed to learn by then, I understood that she needed a doctor for the baby. I asked the local mentors to tell the girls we were not doctors but consultants working on an educational project for the camp. I know, I could have thought of anything else but at that point, I had a blank space of thoughts in my mind. And then, the young girl with tears in her eyes looked at me one last time; she smiled, and she said “okay”, and then she left back to her mother. And that was it. It was the kind of decisive moment that helps you decide whether you are able – and mainly if you are willing – to do field work and be engaged in peacebuilding; if you are capable to handle all the emotions and do the best you can, or just quit and go back home. No matter how hard field work can be, especially in conflict zones, you must always remember that “it is not about you” but about the people you are there to help. And in that moment, all the doubts I had prior to my trip evaporated like drops of water on a hot day. I was there to help in any way I could – because that girl deserves a better future. Even if we cannot achieve global peace, we can at least try to create a better environment where supporting basic human needs do not have to be considered as humanitarian assistance. We can promote education for the refugee and IDP youth so they can take the lead in the work that humanitarian workers have been doing all these years in Syria, Iraq and other volatile environments.
For further information on the Domiz Refugee Camp and our project, please visit the OpenIdeo link where we submitted our report for evaluation and received feedback that contributed positively to our second workshop in Qushtapa as well as the future workshops and trainings due to take place within the following months. Once again I would like to say how honored, blessed and fortunate I am to have participated in this project with the WE: SOLVE Labs, which will help thousands of Syrian refugee and Iraqi IDP youth as well as the local communities of the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The trip to Iraq, the interaction with refugees and the field work experience in general made me feel more human. It taught me how to listen more, how to understand and be able to decode cultural components, and to better understand why studying peacebuilding for me was the next step in the direction of peace, co-existence and change for a better future for everyone. It made me appreciate how the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and subsequently in the Mediterranean became part of my graduate thesis at NYU, due to be completed in May 2016.
I would like to thank my WE: Team Karin, Janell and Marques for their contribution throughout our field work in Iraq as well as my professor, Tom Hill, for introducing me to the “world” of peacebuilding and his support throughout my academic years at NYU.
Yannis Bacalis is a graduate of the MSc In Global Affairs of New York University with specialization in Peacebuilding. He is a peacebuilding practitioner as well as a monitoring and evaluation specialist. He is an accredited mediator from the New York Institute of Peace and a long-term consultant for the Hellenic Association of Political Scientists (HAPSc) as the Main Representative at the United Nations in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) under the NGO Consultative Status. He completed his Bachelor studies in International and European Studies with specialization in Political Studies and Diplomacy at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki Greece and is fluent in English, Greek, Spanish and French. His main areas of interest involve refugees and vulnerable populations, women’s rights, development, mediation, conflict resolution, peacebuilding and education.
Writing about terrorism and refugees is difficult. From a personal and normative standpoint and, given my own liberal internationalist inclinations and commitment to multiculturalism, humanitarianism and multilateralism, it is a challenging subject. But in light of the level of controversy, fear and unabashed racism that surrounds the current debate over the admission of Syrian refugees to Canada and other western states it is crucial that academics engage with these fears from a scholarly perspective. I believe that empirical, social-scientific study and a historicist’s perspective is supportive of my own normative biases and the case for “solving” the refugee crisis.
First the controversial endeavors: defining terrorism and exploring the connections between waves of political violence and a flood of refugees. Here, I define terrorism as a particular method or form of political violence – one that explicitly seeks to have a psychological impact (primarily fear inducement) and/or send a message beyond the immediate target of a terrorist act. This definition draws on the work of Anthony Richards, it is “actor neutral” allowing for the inclusion of state and non-state actors, and it moves beyond the “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” cliché by including violence that we may sometimes approve of (e.g. in pursuit of a “just cause”) [Anthony Richards, “Conceptualizing Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37, no. 3 (2014)]. This is not a definition that will satisfy everyone – that is not achievable. But it does allow us to view terrorism as something that is conceptually distinct.
Now the hard part – connecting the dots between refugees and terrorism. According to Bruce Hoffman, author of the influential book Inside Terrorism, modern international terrorism began on the 22nd of July 1968. On that date, the Palestinian Liberation Organization hijacked an Israeli El Al flight flying from Rome to Tel Aviv. The event brought media attention to the Palestinian cause; it resulted in a prisoner swap and the release of 16 individuals. Four years later, another high profile terrorist attack – the 1972 Munich Olympic tragedy – drew a massive global media response when over 4000 print and radio journalists and 2000 television reporters covered the event: the world was horrified, and that horror was magnified by a globalized media [Bruce Hoffman. Inside Terrorism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)]. Eighteen months after that attack, Yassir Arafat was addressing the UN General Assembly, and by the end of the 1970s the PLO had more formal diplomatic relations with states than Israel had. Terrorism, in a limited strategic sense, worked – it succeeded in bringing attention to the hopelessness, despair and desperation of stateless Palestinians – it had succeeded where years of desperate diplomatic pleas had failed.
In this sense modern international terrorism has its origins in the displacement of the Palestinian people and masses of refugees who found themselves with few options -languishing, homeless, stateless – in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere. Should we be surprised that individuals violently removed from their homes, subjected to violence, locked in a refuge camp and stripped of their futures, their children’s futures and their dignity would, in some cases, turn to violence? Of course, not all refugees will turn to terrorism out of hopelessness, but like any other disempowered people they will sometimes pursue one of the view forms of violence available to them. Today, for the Syrians, the settings are similar, the wars more complex, but their plight is eerily similar. Bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, or hundreds of thousands to Germany, or a million to Europe, is not a solution (I’ll leave that discussion for another space). But allowing refugees into Western states is one way of lessening the impact of these trends by offering hope to the hopeless. And on the perceived security threat posed by refugees arriving in Canada and elsewhere, we need to first recognize that they are fleeing violence – not looking for it – they are seeking a new beginning and an escape from cycles upon cycles of violence and despair. Is it possible that a refugee could commit an act of terrorism? Of course it is, but today, in the era of online radicalization, conceivably anyone can become a terrorist.
The other argument employed by those opposed to admission – that refugees are “bad for the economy” is simply and blatantly false. Immigrants and refugees are good for the economy; this much is a clearly demonstrated social scientific fact that is supported by a large body of data and scholarly research. Refugees work; they pay taxes and build a future for their children who are needed in states with birth rates under that of replacement. The initial costs of settlement are not insignificant but the long-term investment pays dividends.
Today, refugees are an all too familiar part of our zeitgeist – we are living through the greatest wave of refugees since the Second World war because of our collective inability to address failed states, legacies of colonialism and our haphazard use of military intervention in the post-9-11 world. We are living through a period of profound conflict because of geo-political rivalries that are being played out at global and regional levels. Fear and racism directed towards refugees are a sure way of promoting some of the conflicts and ideologies that are undermining our collective security. These narratives embolden the militant Islamists and the equally dangerous and rapidly growing neo-fascists. We need to recognize that today’s “war on terrorism” is not going to be won through an air war, or the kill-and-capture logic of drone strikes – today’s struggle is a war of ideas. Welcoming refugees and promoting lasting solutions to their plight is the only sane path we can take – it is a crucial first step to restoring order in our disordered world. It is morally and practically sound. Thus, when it comes to the “refugee question,” the small security risks of admission are outweighed by what is gained in promoting global peace and order.