By Anne Hammerstad
In September, a photo of the lifeless body of toddler Aylan Kurdi face-down on a Turkish beach changed the way Europeans viewed the refugees arriving at their borders. Hostility turned to a sense of humanitarian duty.
Now another photo risks reversing that tone: that of a tattered (and possibly fake) Syrian passport. Issued in the name of “Ahmad Almohammad,” it was registered in early October at a refugee reception centre on the Greek island of Leros, some 70 kilometres by boat from Bodrum, Turkey, where Aylan’s body had been found. The passport then travelled to Serbia, where its holder applied for asylum. It was finally recovered near the remains of one of the suicide attackers responsible for the deaths of 129 people in Paris on Friday.
The passport was seized upon by many migrant-hostile politicians and commentators in Europe. Some Eastern European governments hinted they might pull out of a European Union deal to resettle Syrian refugees, while Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front party, called for an “immediate halt” to immigration.
Surprisingly, the most vitriolic attack on refugees as would-be terrorists came not from Europe’s right-wing parties, but from prominent Republican politicians in the United States. Several Republican governors and presidential candidates called for a halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, in the name of national security. For presidential candidate Paul Ryan, the fact that the majority of Syrian refugees are “single men coming over, which is not women and children” seemed evidence enough that they must be up to no good.
Meanwhile, investigations have revealed that at least four of the seven attackers killed in Paris were French nationals, with strong links to Belgium. Two remain unidentified, while the nationality of the bomber whose body was found near the Syrian passport is unknown. He may be Syrian, but he may equally be one of the thousands of foreign fighters – French and Belgian citizens among them – who have travelled to Syria to join Islamic State.
Some will argue that it makes no difference whether the passport is fake, and what matters most is that a terrorist possibly used the so-called “migrant trail” to enter EU territory. Hence, the existence of this route – and the people travelling it – is a threat to European security. But this argument ignores the fact that other Paris attackers managed to get from Europe to Syria and back without registering as refugees.
Indeed, the migrant trail makes little sense for someone intent on causing harm. Apart from the physical perils of navigating the Aegean Sea in a dinghy, a would-be terrorist would risk detection at the many border crossings on the journey through Europe.
Why, then, on such flimsy evidence and weak arguments, has the Syrian passport found at Stade de France caused a backlash against refugees? Recent history may give us the answer.
Fourteen years ago, responding to September 11 terror attacks, the then-British Home Secretary, David Blunkett, declared to the House of Commons: “We have a right to say that if people seek to abuse rights of asylum to be able to hide in this country and organise terrorist acts, we must take steps to deal with them.” Governments across the industrialised world clamoured to close down the “asylum loophole” in their already highly-restrictive immigration laws.
The clampdown on asylum after 9/11 had an even looser relationship to facts than the current conflation of Syrian refugees with members of Islamic State. None of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks were asylum seekers or had refugee status. Fifteen were from Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States in the Middle East. All had entered the country legally, although some had overstayed their visas.
The red herring of the “asylum loophole” after 9/11 reflected hostility towards asylum that predates the rise of al Qaeda and Islamic State. This hostility intensified when hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers began to arrive in Europe in the early 1990s. As the backlog of asylum decisions grew, lodging an asylum application became synonymous with receiving a long-term visa.
Fears abounded of “unmanageable” numbers arriving unannounced and threatening economic security and cultural identity. September 11 functioned in that sense as an enabler: By labelling asylum seekers as potential terror threats, politicians could enact draconian measures to deter and detain them – measures that democratic societies would ordinarily shy away from, unless they were justified in the name of national security.
We are seeing a similar reaction today. The fear of terrorism is superimposed on other fears and prejudices: Fears of economic migrants taking jobs and straining the welfare state; fears of Muslim refugees undermining European culture and identity. But since these other fears are murky and vague, and have to compete with Europeans’ strong sense of humanitarian duty to give sanctuary to refugees, the fake Syrian passport is a godsend for those who want to stop the flood of Syrian refugees. Who can quarrel with national security? Who would dare guarantee that no refugee, ever, will perpetrate a terrorist act?
Such guarantees are of course impossible to give. But there is scant, if any, evidence that asylum seekers have arrived in their host country already intent on inflicting harm. A very small number of asylum seekers, or the children of asylum seekers, have become radicalised after arrival. (Although several of those people have made huge headlines, like one of the assailants at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, and the brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing.) There is even less evidence of refugees arriving through resettlement programmes committing terrorist acts.
The collective punishment of Syrian refugees for the crimes of terrorists would play straight into the hands of Islamic State, whose stated aim is to create an “us versus them” animosity between westerners and Muslims, and fertilise the ground for disaffected European youths of immigrant background to be radicalised.
Instead, if we are to learn from both history and the Paris attacks, we should focus our efforts on streamlining and increasing quotas for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. It would help stabilise Syria’s neighbours, who are reeling under the weight of the refugee burden. And it would reduce the chaotic conditions of today’s migrant trail through Europe, which is to nobody’s benefit apart from organised criminals and corrupt police officers.
Helping refugees is a humanitarian duty. To do so well is also in Europe’s security interests.
Dr Anne Hammerstad is an expert on humanitarian politics, displacement and conflict, and the author of the book “The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor: UNHCR, Refugee Protection and Security” (Oxford University Press, 2014).