The Real Refugee Threat

While the Syrian crisis shows no signs of abating, patience with refugees fleeing the conflict is wearing thin in most host countries. Sweden plans to deport up to 80,000 asylum seekers, and Denmark just passed a law allowing authorities to confiscate the valuables of refugees to help defray the cost of their care. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, anti-immigrant feeling in France has intensified. In Germany, one of the most generous asylum-granting nations, anger has mounted following allegations of sexual assault by groups of allegedly North African men in Cologne on New Year's Eve. In the United States, a nation little affected by the refugee crisis, the Republican front-runner has called for a complete ban on Muslim immigrants on grounds of national security. Fear-driven rhetoric and simplistic solutions impede serious consideration of an international problem that is far more extensive, persistent and serious than dealing with the effects of a single crisis.

The Syrian civil war has increased the number of asylum seekers, but the people escaping this one conflict represent a small percentage of those who have fled their homes. They make up less than 8 percent of the world's 60 million refugees and internally displaced people. This staggering number suggests that the current crisis is but a small part of a larger pattern of forced migration that has been going on for decades and will undoubtedly continue for the foreseeable future. Wars, famines and natural disasters cause spikes in the number of migrants, but beneath these blips on the radar lies a far more intractable problem: the gap between the haves and have-nots is increasing. As world population rises and resources decline, more and more people will try to move from poorer to richer areas in search of greater opportunity or merely to survive. Even the most prosperous states, however, have a finite capacity to absorb them.

Forced migration of so many people does pose a threat to international security but not the one that anti-immigrant groups invoke. The risk of terrorists hiding among migrants is small. Some of the Paris terrorists and one of the San Bernardino shooters were already citizens of the country they attacked. Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have had little difficulty moving their operatives across borders or recruiting followers within target countries. Indeed, it is the ill treatment of migrants at their destinations that makes them vulnerable to radicalization, not the fact that they are refugees.

The real danger of migration lies in its destabilizing effect on fragile states and in the violent backlash it provokes. The tiny country of Lebanon has 4.8 million people and 1 million refugees that it can ill afford. The potential for clashes between desperate migrants and over-taxed border guards on the southeastern fringe of Europe is very real. Several states have already put up fences and established checkpoints, and there has been a call to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Physical barriers alone, however, will not stop desperate people with nothing left to lose. If warmer weather and calmer seas bring more waves of refugees, it is not inconceivable that Europe's front line states will use force to stop them entering.

Addressing the problem of forced migration requires mitigating the circumstances that cause people to leave their countries in the first place. The U.S. intervened in Haiti (1994-95) to stop the flow of refugees fleeing the brutal dictatorship of Raoul Cédras into south Florida. Another refugee crisis drew NATO into a war with Serbia over Kosovo. Not every conflict can be solved in this manner, however. When direct intervention is not possible or does not work, the international community needs to develop a comprehensive resettlement program that distributes refugees to as many countries as possible to reduce the impact on any one of them. The ad hoc approach currently being employed clearly does not work.