Many of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe were previously living in camps and cities across Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. They are now leaving these countries because life there has become increasingly untenable: diminishing aid funds have left refugees with scant resources to buy food and other necessities; opportunities for work, study and accessing basic services are declining, and life has become more dangerous because of tension with the local populations.
But Syrian refugees are not the security threat that they are feared to be.
Refugees have become scapegoats for the deteriorating security climate in Syria’s neighboring countries. Local residents of these refugee-hosting countries, particularly in the border areas, believe that Syrians pose a threat to their security. Host governments tend to share these concerns. As a result, Syrian refugees are often subject to restrictions on their mobility, such as when refugees in Kilis, Turkey were barred from leaving their camp when nearby clashes occurred. In Lebanon, nearly half of Syrians have been subject to some sort of assault, according to a 2015 survey by the University of Saint Joseph. (Mobility restrictions in Turkey for non-Syrian refugees such as Afghans are actually worse than they are for Syrians.) Those who fear that refugees will become militarized or radicalized often point to historical examples, particularly the case of Palestinian militant groups in Jordan and Lebanon. In Lebanon, for example, politicians from the prominent Free Patriotic Movement party regularly cite the Palestinian role in the country’s civil war and argue that the same could happen with Syrians.
However, history also provides examples of refugees having no negative impact on the security of their host countries: neither Iraqi refugees nor Lebanese refugees ever brought conflict to Jordan or Syria. The mere presence of refugees does not in itself create a security threat. Indeed, the vast majority of Syrian refugees today just want to survive without risking deportation.
Refugees who formed militant groups in the past did so with the support of external backers. Preventing the militarization of refugees is thus not only a question of how refugees are treated and monitored, but also depends on the policies of regional powers. Egypt and Syria at separate times backed Palestinian militant groups as part of their efforts against Israel. In the 1990s Pakistan, seeking strategic depth in its rivalry with India, is reported to have sponsored Afghan refugees to form the Taliban.
In order for Syrian refugees to form militant groups, they would likely need an external state backer. And to date, regional powers involved in the Syrian war have chosen not to use refugee-hosting countries as a battleground for any of their strategic goals.
Reports of refugees being recruited to return to Syria to fight are a valid concern, but spillover attacks in Syria’s neighboring countries tend to be carried out by locals, not Syrians. For example, a Turkish militant was behind the Islamic State bombing this July in Suruc, Turkey, and a Lebanese militant was responsible for January’s Al-Nusra Front bombing in Tripoli, Lebanon. Jordan, which hosts at least 630,000 Syrian refugees, has had no such attacks.
The refugee crisis could contribute to instability in Syria’s neighboring countries in other ways, namely if residents of the host communities are not given adequate help to deal with the refugee influx. Because of insufficient funds and planning, the poorest Jordanians are not receiving the help they need to deal with the higher cost of living and lower wages that are linked to the refugee crisis. If people in these relatively underdeveloped areas continue to feel abandoned by their government and the international community, they could resort to behavior that destabilizes the region.
Refugees present a low threat. Operating as though all refugees are a security risk is counterproductive and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Security measures that deny refugees their dignity are more likely to foster extremism and violent tendencies because they increase refugees’ grievances against host governments and contribute to their sense of alienation. A study of Somali refugees in Yemen, for example, found that refugees who were mistreated by their teachers in Yemeni schools were more likely to join al Qaeda. A less securitized approach to the treatment of refugees is more likely to keep the threat of militarization and radicalization at bay.
Without this change in attitude toward Syrians in their host countries in the Middle East or new homes in the West, countries could end up creating precisely the problem they are hoping to avoid.