A few days before the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) is releasing a new in-depth report examining refugee protection and national security. The paper, titled “How Robust Refugee Protection Policies Can Strengthen Human and National Security,” is part of a special collection of CMS’s Journal on Migration and Human Security on “Rethinking the Global Refugee Protection System.” In this episode, Rachel Reyes, CMS’s Director of Communications speaks with with the paper’s author and CMS’s executive director, Donald Kerwin.
Rachel Reyes: Hi everyone and welcome to CMSOnAir – the podcast on migration, refugee, and population issues brought to you by CMS, the Center for Migration Studies of New York. I am Rachel Reyes, CMS’s Director of Communications. A few days before the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, CMS is releasing a new in-depth report examining refugee protection and national security. The paper, titled “How Robust Refugee Protection Policies Can Strengthen Human and National Security,” is part of a special collection of CMS’s Journal on Migration and Human Security on “Rethinking the Global Refugee Protection System.” In this episode, I talk with the paper’s author, and our very own Executive Director, Donald Kerwin. Thanks Don for joining us on CMSOnAir. Let’s begin our discussion by telling us about the paper.
Donald Kerwin: The short answer is that it makes the case that refugee protection advances national security; that refugees and international migrants, more broadly, can contribute to security by contributing to a state’s economic vitality, its military strength, its diplomatic standing, and its civic values. And it argues that refugee protection and security strategies mostly align and reinforce each other. And I’m talking about strategies like conflict prevention, peacebuilding, reconstruction of failed states, reconciliation, safe return programs, and humanitarian and development assistance; and of course, integration itself is both a refugee protection and a national security imperative. So that’s the short answer. The long answer is [the paper] does this … in great detail by looking at the global refugee crisis and the immense challenges posed by terrorist groups and by individuals that are inspired by terrorist groups.
Rachel Reyes: So have refugees been fairly characterized as potential terrorists?
Donald Kerwin: I mean, no, of course they haven’t. Persons who have fled for their lives shouldn’t be confused or conflated with terrorists, who in many cases are the groups that prompted their flight. Numerous military and intelligence and diplomatic officials and researchers and scholars have pointed out refugees are victims; they are not the perpetrators of terrorism. According to one study, the 11 nations that experienced more than 500 terrorism-related deaths in 2014 produced the highest average number of refugees and internally-displaced people. So basically terrorism causes refugee flows. And it’s clear that the interests of refugees who are actually seeking protection elsewhere aren’t at odds with citizens of potential refugee hosting states, who also want to be safe and secure, but in their home nations.
Rachel Reyes: What is the scope of the global terrorist threat?
Donald Kerwin: Well, I mean, it’s a real threat. So in 2014, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, there were nearly 14,000 terrorist attacks worldwide and they resulted in about 33,000 deaths. Sixty percent of those attacks took place in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria; and 78 percent of the fatalities occurred in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, in 2014, the number of Boko Haram killings exceeded even the number by ISIL. Boko Haram, as you know, declared allegiance to ISIL in early 2015. The killings in western states have been lower between 2000-2014. About 3,700 terrorist killings accounted for about less than 3 percent of the world’s total and a lot of those of course were tied to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The New American Foundation reports that 45 persons were killed in nine jihadist terrorist attacks in the US between 2002-2015; and of course, 50 more persons were tragically killed in the June 2016 terrorist attack at the nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Rachel Reyes: Are terrorists attempting to infiltrate targeted states as refugees? Is this a major source of vulnerability?
Donald Kerwin: I think terrorists are going to try to infiltrate targeted states in whatever ways are available to them, the easier, the better. But according to the US Department of State, only about a dozen of the nearly 785,000 refugees that have been admitted since 9/11 … [have] been arrested or removed from [the] US due to terrorism concerns, which preceded their admission. So, some have become radicalized in the United States, but in terms of people who were terrorists before they came, it’s only about a dozen, or a very small number. I would say that those kinds of statistics are definitely not cause for complacency. Groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda and other groups are committed to inflicting catastrophic damage on their near and far enemies, including the United States. In Europe, the situation is a bit different because there hasn’t been the kind of vetting and screening necessary to detect those terrorists who are posing as refugees. An estimated three dozen terrorists entered Europe, posing as migrants, have been arrested while planning attacks or died during attacks. That’s a significant number. And a very low percentage, for example, of arriving refugees in Germany – that number is around 25 to 30 percent according to some reports – actually possessed passports or travel documents. What aggravates this threat is the fact that ISIL has secured hundreds of thousands of false, stolen, or blank Syrian and Iraqi passports; and German officials who have been able to obtain fingerprints in only a small percentage of the cases of arriving refugees and migrants. So the vetting and the screening haven’t been in place to the extent it needs to be in place in terms of refugees. Really, we are not worried about refugees; we are worried terrorists posing as refugees, potentially coming into Europe.
Rachel Reyes: So, is the world experiencing a refugee protection crisis?
Donald Kerwin: I think the obvious answer to that is yes. It is a refugee protection crisis and the paper uses that language, but we have to careful about how we use that language too. It uses it in a certain way. There has certainly been a colossal, collective failure in preventing- by the international community and by individual states – in preventing and rapidly addressing refugee-producing conditions; like armed conflict, terrorism, breakdowns in the rule of law and others. There also has been an immense crisis in responsibility sharing amongst states, regarding people who have been forcibly displaced. And all that has led them to a human security crisis for refugees and that’s the refugee-protection crisis.
Rachel Reyes: Can you tell me more- what are the causes of this crisis?
Donald Kerwin: The first is the failure of responsibility-sharing and this is what the UN General Secretary is proposing … a compact on responsibility sharing; and that will be discussed on September 19th at the Summit. Developed states too often deny access to protection through policies like border externalization, their own immigration enforcement policies, and onerous procedures and narrow legal interpretations that essentially deny protection to people. The world’s response to the communities that host large numbers of refugees and other forcibly displaced people, and that bear the burden of these humanitarian crises – has been very stingy and really dismal. So, that’s a failure of responsibility sharing.
Second, if you look at it, there’s really a paucity of permanent safe options for refugees – what used to be called ‘durable solutions’. The main one would be people being able to safely and voluntary return home; but only 126,800 refugees were voluntarily repatriated in 2014. That’s the smallest number in 30 years. And in 2015, it was 201,400, who were repatriated; and that’s the third lowest number in 20 years. If you look at the fact there’s 65 million forcibly displaced people and 21 million refugees, 127,000 and 200,000 returning per year is not going to reduce the number, so it’s not sufficient. There’s also only a 134,000 refugee cases that were referred for resettlement in 2015, and only 107,000 actually departed to a third country. Ninety percent of those that were resettled were resettled in US, Canada, and Australia. So, again, it is not a sufficiently large, durable solution given the number of refugees. And as a result of that, the numbers have grown and people who are refugees have been refugees for longer periods of time. So you have 6.7 million refugees who live in protracted situations- that means they have been refugees for more than five years and there’s no end in sight for them.
Probably the best example of a case study is the Syrian crisis. And that’s really a failure of responsibility sharing in a significant way. If you look at that, there are an estimated 13.5 million persons in Syria that need humanitarian aid; 6.5 million are internally displaced; and 4.5 million live in besieged or hard-to-reach regions. Nearly 5 million Syrians have been registered as refugees or are awaiting registration in neighboring states. Turkey hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees; Lebanon, a million; Jordan, 650,000; and Iraq, Egypt and smaller numbers in North Africa. Germany, in 2015, registered 1.1 million first-time asylum seekers and more than a third of them came from Syria. And yet compare that to Amnesty International’s report that the Gulf Cooperation Council states have failed to resettle any Syrian refugees at all between the war’s onset and late 2015. The United States’ pace of resettlement of Syrian refugees has picked up in recent months, but since the beginning of FY 2012 – about the onset of the war – the US has admitted about 13,000 Syrian refugees. That’s about one-fourth of 1 percent of all the Syrian refugees out there. It has also granted political asylum to some several hundred Syrians and has granted temporary protected status to about 5,800 and with maybe another 2,500 that are eligible for it under this latest re-designation, but the numbers are fairly modest.
Rachel Reyes: How does refugee protection contribute to national security?
Donald Kerwin: I think you have to have a broad vision of national security. In fact, it’s a typical military definition of national security to say that it involves protection of a people, a territory, and a way of life, and that definition is from a standard military textbook. And we know that refugee protection and migration policies can positively contribute to the well-being — economic and military well-being — and the diplomacy of a state; and those are sources of power. As David Martin has put it, “in a globalized interconnected world no nation can prosper or even achieve modest economic success without ready contact with the rest of the world. And refugee protection can help states prevail in the battle of ideas, in the contest for support even the affection of the world’s population, which is a source of national security.” So, I think commitment to refugee protection advances security in those ways. It also allows states to distinguish themselves from geopolitical rivals, and to appeal to global public opinion in a very powerful way.
Rachel Reyes: What about refugees themselves? Can they and how do they contribute to national security?
Donald Kerwin: Refugees themselves have historically made extremely important economic, scientific, diplomatic, cultural, and ethical contributions to United States and to other states, to the point that we don’t identify them really as refugees at some point. If you think about prominent US citizens who were refugees, you are talking about people like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Elie Wiesel, Madeleine Albright, Andrew Grove, Sergey Brin, and many others. So they contribute immensely to their host states. According to one study, just in terms of looking at the military angle, non-citizens in the US Armed forces – and there are substantial numbers of them – have lower attrition rates than citizens, they have a track record of, and I am quoting here, superior performance; and they bring linguistic and cultural diversity that supports US counterterror objectives. So they are contributing very significantly to the military strength and the counter fight as well. And refugees and migrants have been a regular source of intelligence and support to law enforcement on counterterror issues.
Rachel Reyes: What are some of the ways that refugees and terrorism are connected?
Donald Kerwin: I would say to that “read the paper” because there’s a long section on the various ways that terrorism and refugees might be connected, and some of the claims made about terrorism and refugees in the public debate and in the academic literature as well. But the clearest connection in the literature is that terrorism creates refugees. So, again, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace and to the renowned terrorist expert, Alex Schmidt, state or political terror, internal conflict, and international conflict are correlated with high rates of terrorism. And of the terrorist attacks resulting in at least one fatality, and again this is the Institute for Economics and Peace, this is their numbers: of the terrorist attacks resulting in at least one fatality between 1989-2014, 92 percent occurred where levels of political terror were high; 55 percent in nations undergoing internal armed conflict; and 33 percent in nations that were involved in an international conflict of some kind. By contrast, terrorist attacks occur at very low rates in states with no political terror, or no conflict. So a clear connection here is that terrorism produces refugees and displaced people.
Rachel Reyes: What are the major migration-related terrorist threats?
Donald Kerwin: I think that the big one that has been identified now is the return of jihadists to Western Europe. So, an estimated 27,000-31,000 persons, depending on various sources, from 86 countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL and other extremists groups. I think about 5,000 of them are from Western Europe and a much smaller number – about 250 – from the US and Australia. But there’s a real concern related to their return. Another challenge is the recruitment and radicalization of so-called homegrown terrorists, which are often citizens or lawful permanent residents- youth are particularly at risk; and they have had some success in refugee communities in radicalizing young people, particularly the Somali community in Minnesota. I think another large threat is the extremist political rhetoric and proposals that undermine national unity by scapegoating Muslims. For example, the ban on the admission of Muslims, or adopting policies that runs afoul to fundamental national values, like proposing taking up waterboarding again in a very significant way; or killing the families of terrorists; or all those terrible proposals that would violate international law and would make us a very unexceptional country. So I think that’s a big threat, too. I guess the point I want to make about this is these major threats aren’t primarily refugee or international migration related at all; although terrorist groups have had some success in radicalizing youth and certain refugee communities and will continue to try to enter targeted states, posing as refugees.
Rachel Reyes: So what about the United States? Is the US refugee resettlement program secure?
Donald Kerwin: I think you have to go back to 9/11 and the aftermath of 9/11 and one of the developments that came out of that was the creation of Department of Homeland Security and also the notion, which the Department of Homeland Security has championed: of multilayered, risk-based approach to security in which, for migrants that are coming into the country, and particularly for refugees, there’s a lot of screening and a high degree of coordination and redundancy in the vetting and the screening. So if one step doesn’t work in detecting somebody that’s a problem, another step will. And the refugee resettlement program is the best example of layered screening and the most secure US admissions program. So you have former DHS Secretaries, Napolitano and Chertoff, arguing that homeland security and refugee protection aren’t mutually exclusive goals, provided that current vetting and screening process remains robust and remains undiluted. I think it’s not just screening and vetting either, and that’s a process that takes a couple of years at this point and involves multiple federal agencies. It’s the priorities of [refugee] admission … the US processing priorities and [the nation’s] commitment to resettle the most vulnerable definitely contribute to the program’s security. In addition, the cases that are referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettlement are highly vulnerable, low-risk persons, including single women with children, torture survivors, and persons with special medical needs. So, you can’t say that [the program] is a 100 percent secure, no program is a 100 percent secure, but it’s an extremely secure and securitized program.
Rachel Reyes: The paper’s policy recommendations fall into several categories. To start, they include strategies that further security and protection. Can you identify a few?
Donald Kerwin: I think first states should commit far greater political and diplomatic capital to prevent and to resolve the world’s multiple refugee-producing crises. Without prevention and without early intervention on crises, the population of refugees is unfortunately going to continue to grow. Second, and this is related, they need to prioritize safe and voluntary return, which hasn’t been prioritized; and which is a preferred option for most refugees. Most people want to go home. And that option, voluntary and safe repatriation, has to be brought to scale as a durable solution. I think the UN General Secretary’s idea of a global compact on refugee protection, which would be buttressed by concrete state commitments, deserves support as well, from both the refugee protection and national security perspective. Developed states clearly should offer far more opportunities for orderly and expanded access to their own territories: expanding humanitarian visas, medical channels, student visas, labor visas, work-related visas, and then private resettlement are all important, and all of them should be extended to refugees. And, I think, developed states should obviously be providing far greater support to refugee-hosting communities, and for things like refugee education and job creation – again both for humanitarian and for security reasons. And in terms of the radicalization, it’s clear that refugee integration, particularly the integration of youth, is very, very important. So, youth education, youth employment, and creating socially inclusive policies are antidotes to radicalization and are extremely important. And of course there’s a responsibility on refugees and asylees as well, an extremely important responsibility that should almost go without saying, but they should respect the core rights respecting values and laws of the receiving states. That’s crucially important.
Rachel Reyes: How can we ensure that terrorists, posing as refugees, cannot enter states that they are targeting?
Donald Kerwin: I go back to again the aftermath of 9/11. We are still in that era. And the 9/11 attacks, they were thought to constitute a failure of intelligence gathering and information sharing. So in this post 9/11 era, the United States has sought to secure refugee and migrant flows in a number of ways. One, information and intelligence collection was regarded as extremely important. There wasn’t enough intelligence prior to 9/11 and there has been a huge investment in that, so that’s important. Second, expanded and accurate terrorist and criminal databases that are accessible to people making admissions decisions. Third, taking the information that you have and sharing it within states, between states, and between government agencies as well, which didn’t occur pre 9/11. Being able to identify people, so identity assurance [is another priority]. The US has done that through focusing on the breeder documents, the identity creating documents like birth certificates; and also creation of biometrically enhanced identity documents. The layered screening that I was talking about before – and part of that of course is doing interviews to assess eligibility for admissions and when you do that you can assess people’s credibility as well. Enhanced background checks on migrants who meet terrorists’ profiles. And then I think all of these strategies have to be designed not to scapegoat people but to actually advance national unity, which is extremely important. And terrorists’ tactics evolve, so there has to be a continuous assessment of terrorist threats, tactics, and methods and evolving responses to them. And then finally, applying risk management criteria to assess the effectiveness and the value of these tactics – are these good investments, these tactics? Are they stopping terrorism? Are they catching terrorists? That’s extremely important as well.
So those are the pieces that need to be in place to prevent the infiltration of terrorists that are posing as refugees or normal international migrants. I should say too, the paper makes the point that borders, particularly the US-Mexico border, are important points of exposure and potential vulnerability for terrorists; but borders can’t be the sole or main locus for identifying terrorists or preventing their entry. And I think in the US the level of investment in border and immigration and enforcement policies should also be subjected to risk management principles. Not a single terrorist has been caught trying to cross the US-Mexico border, and yet 87 percent of the border patrol agents are there. So if the concern is a national security concern we are investing huge amounts of money in that border for not a lot of return. And then, I think enforcement agencies … have been given the responsibility in a lot of cases for screening refugees and migrants, both here in the United States and elsewhere, for protection claims. And they don’t do that happily and they don’t do that well, and that responsibility needs to be taken out of their hands. So if you’re going to do enforcement, you have to have refugee protection with it. And we certainly lagged in refugee protection since 9/11.
Rachel Reyes: What steps does the paper propose that the US Congress take to strengthen the US refugee protection system and national security?
Donald Kerwin: The paper lifts up a lot of proposals that have been out there for a period of time, but let me just go through a few. It was the 9/11 Commission that actually proposed that there needed to be a single principal point of oversight and review for homeland security. Not too long ago the National Security Preparedness Group, which is composed of a number of people that were on that 9/11 commission, found that DHS answered to more than 100 committees – congressional committees and subcommittees – and, just looking at 2009-2010 alone, it had to provide more than 3,900 briefings and to testify 285 times between these various committees. That becomes a security risk at some point because you are getting directions from all of these committees, your leadership is pulled in a lot of different directions. James Ziglar, the former INS Commissioner, has made the point: “DHS’s responsibilities are as important as those of the US Intelligence agencies. Yet Congress refuses to manage oversight of DHS with the same seriousness as it does with the intelligence agencies.” So that needs to be fixed — the congressional oversight of DHS.
Second, Congress should also ensure that DHS creates a unified command structure to respond to terrorists’ attacks and other catastrophic events that implicate and cross jurisdictions and agencies. That’s another recommendation of the National Security Preparedness Group, and it’s a good recommendation and it should be taken up.
Third, this is a recommendation from the 1980 Refugee Act; in fact it was a mandate actually written into the law, that’s never happened and that is that Congress should create a presidentially-appointed US Coordinator for Refugee Affairs whose responsibility would be to develop policy; coordinate … the resettlement program; and serve as liaison to foreign governments, to the Congress, to the relevant federal agencies, to state and local governments, I mean basically to the world on the US refugee program. And I have to say, given the high degree of interest in and misinformation related to the refugee program at this point, the time is more than ripe to create this type of position.
And fourth, Congress really needs to pass legislation, get its act together and pass legislation, to prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms and explosives. Right now, people that are on the FBI Terrorist Watchlist can purchase firearms and explosives. And people that sell them have to make a record of that, but they don’t have to actually report that to the FBI. Now we know that there are a lot of people on those watchlists that aren’t terrorists. So this kind of a thing has to be done in conjunction with the ability of people who are incorrectly on that watchlist to challenge that, and to clear their names in an expedited way. So those two pieces are extremely important, but you really can’t have a situation where the US is credible and denying admission to refugees — desperate people — who have been well vetted on security-related grounds … because they are terrorists somehow. Or that’s the accusation. But at the same time allow potential terrorists who are on watchlists to be able to purchase firearms and explosives. That’s just manifestly crazy. But nor, and I want to make this point, nor should people’s right to purchase firearms be denied because they have been mistakenly or incorrectly placed on a terrorist watchlist. This is the kind of thing that there needs to be a bipartisan response and there needs to be a bipartisan bill that passes very quickly; and unfortunately this hasn’t happened in the aftermath of the last few terrorists attacks and it needs to happen.
Fifth, Congress needs to depoliticize its oversight of the US Refugee Protection program. The response to a security breach in a program like this, which is really a hardened, securitized program, it shouldn’t be automatically called for a bar on the admission of desperate people. Instead, that should trigger an exhaustive review of whether the officials rigorously followed all the steps in the vetting and screening process. And if not, that needs to be remedied. And if they did and there are previously unrecognized vulnerabilities have been revealed by a breach that too needs to be immediately remedied. But the thought that every time there is some kind of a breach we have to relook at the security of the refugee program and start denying admission to people. That’s not a good solution.
Rachel Reyes: One last question. Is it possible to make refugee protection a popular cause?
Donald Kerwin: I think that’s a really important question because we all know that extremist political movements have been on the ascent in Europe and also in the United States. And nobody disputes that national defense and public safety represent core responsibilities of sovereign states. Yet it’s also clear that states exist to protect rights, to safeguard the rights of their citizens at home and their citizens abroad; and of non-citizens who are passing through them; and of persons fleeing persecution who appear at their borders; and of refugees and immigrants who settle in their territories. And states even have responsibilities in limited circumstances, for example like genocide under international law, to imperiled persons who are beyond their borders. Sovereignty is a broad concept, and I think that the debate over how to reconcile these broad responsibilities of states, it can’t be a debate between refugee protection and national security anymore. You look and you find a lot of generosity towards refugees in host communities throughout the world — in Germany now, in the states that neighbor Syria, throughout Africa, and even in US communities they are warmly receiving the many Central American children who are driven by violence and terror and you find broad support for refugees. And various surveys, including the survey that Amnesty International just did and the private financial contributions that flow to refugee crises [show great support as well]. So the need is not to extinguish populist politics, but it’s to educate the public on the interconnectedness of refugee protection and security, and it’s to make protection a popular cause, which is possible to do. I’m convinced.
Rachel Reyes: Great. Thank you so much Don for joining and for sharing your research and your work on CMSOnAir.
Donald Kerwin: Thank you, Rachel.
Rachel Reyes: To download Don’s paper, “How Robust Refugee Protection Policies Can Strengthen Human and National Security,” and get more information on CMS projects, publications and events, visit at cmsny.org. CMSOnAir’s theme music is provided by Danny Duberstein and The Music Case.