By Kerstin Fisk
Between January and December 2014, the worldwide number of refugees grew by nearly 2.7 million—the second largest single-year surge the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has on record. End-of-year totals haven’t yet been released, but an estimated 839,000 people were newly displaced across international borders in the first six months of 2015, or the equivalent of about 4,600 people per day.
Reports and images of heads of state and average citizens welcoming and assisting the refugees arriving on foot, by train, by boat, and by plane have been encouraging, not to mention incredibly moving. Yet there is a risk that the rise of a “culture of threat” narrative is, in many ways, drowning out the “culture of welcome,” as state leaders and opportunistic candidates prioritize a narrow, state-centric interpretation of this truly global refugee crisis. This characterization of the crisis not only discounts the refugees’ own insecurity—it risks exacerbating it.
Already, we’ve witnessed nationalist and populist politicians portraying refugees as inherent security threats. European Council President Donald Tusk wants to pay the Turkish government to keep Syrian refugees—whom he considers a threat to order—from entering Europe. In Poland, the head of the Law and Justice Party warned that the refugees would bring disease, while the Czech president stated that Muslim refugees would seek to implement Sharia. Hungary’s prime minister, who deems mass migration a terrorism and crime threat, has stated that refugees entering Europe look like “an army.” U.S. politicians like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have made similar charges. The asserted risks and burdens of hosting refugees are likely to multiply as the crisis unfolds.
Existing research in political science likewise focuses on how refugees might threaten their host states. For instance, researchers have theorized how possible “negative externalities” (competition for jobs, the spread of disease, shifts in the “ethnic balance”) stemming from refugee inflows can increase the risk of civil war spreading from the refugees’ country of origin to the host state, while others link the humanitarian aid provided to refugees to a rise in terrorist attacks. The relationship between refugees and the spread of civil war across borders is not clear-cut, however, as a recent study finds that refugees do not significantly impact the rate of civil war events in the areas within countries where they are located. In terms of the “refugee burden,” another recent study of the Sweden case finds that fiscal impacts have not been particularly onerous. Still other research shows that refugees’ long-term effects on host countries’ economies are likely to be positive, while impacts on crime rates and security are likely to be negligible.
By comparison, research on security threats to refugees in sanctuary countries is scant, despite the fact that refugees are oftentimes highly physically insecure. In sub-Saharan Africa, where refugee crises are recurrent and often protracted, brutal attacks on refugees are not uncommon. Refugee populations in Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and South Africa, for instance, have suffered horrendous abuses at the hands of host governments, militant groups, and, sometimes, local populations. Additionally, some of my own recent work looking at sub-Saharan Africa shows evidence of a systematic relationship between where refugees are located within countries and where host government forces and non-state armed groups attack civilians. Locations home to large numbers of self-settled refugees—those refugees who reside outside of formally organized camps—suffered significantly more attacks by host governments and non-state armed actors compared to other locations in the host country, including locations with formal refugee camps.
Now we see a rising tide of anti-refugee violence in Europe. In Germany, attackers have repeatedly set fire to refugee shelters—2015 experienced more than five times the number of such attacks compared to 2014. In Sweden, an estimated 100 masked men (not unlike the “Soldiers of Odin,” an anti-immigrant vigilante group in Finland) recently took to the streets to incite attacks on migrants, including children. “Civilian militias” and police forces in France have reportedly carried out a series of attacks on refugees living in the Calais camp. This violence is taking place amid dangerous, xenophobic rhetoric, including a recent speech in which a member of Germany’s far-right group Pegida lamented the fact that, when it comes to dealing with the refugees, “the concentration camps are unfortunately out of action at the moment.”
Finding comprehensive and long-term refugee protection solutions is all the more crucial considering that the number of refugees able to safely return to their home countries is currently the lowest it’s been in more than 30 years. To enhance refugee protection, states as well as international and non-governmental organizations must increase their efforts to improve the monitoring, investigating, and reporting of violence targeting refugees. National refugee agencies, as well as local activists, should work to counter public misconceptions and misinformation about refugees, as well as xenophobic propaganda that has been shown to accompany attacks, by reminding the public of the horrendous conditions that forced refugees to flee their home countries and by “naming and shaming” politicians who scapegoat refugees for political ends. In addition, more extensive research must be carried out in order to understand the conditions that contribute to refugee security—or lack thereof. It’s undeniable that host governments will continue to grapple with serious questions concerning refugees’ larger impacts on their societies. They nevertheless must work to provide true sanctuary to people who have risked life and limb to find it.
Kerstin Fisk is an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.
[Photo courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov]