John McCoy: Hope and Hopelessness: Unraveling the Connections Between Refugees and Terrorism

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.

Dr. John McCoy is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta, where he leads courses on terrorism studies, international relations and foreign policy. He recently penned an op-ed for the Edmonton Journal called What makes young people vulnerable to extremism?